National religious Jews: Demonized before the war, celebrated today

Until recently, national religious Jews were shunned as militant settlers, but since October 7th one cannot be “militant” enough.

By Michael Selutin | | Topics: Gaza, Hamas
Religious Jews have an additional motivation to fight for their country. Tomer Neuberg/Flash90
Religious Jews have an additional motivation to fight for their country. Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

For many Israelis, and certainly for critics of Israel, the Jewish “settlers” are a thorn in the side, because “experts” around the world agree that these Jews are the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. These militant religious fanatics, who have the audacity to want to live in the biblical heartland, are preventing the creation of a Palestinian state, according to world consensus.

At least among Israeli critics of the religious Zionists, who often look a bit strange with their large, knitted yarmulkes and long sidelocks, this opinion has now largely changed.

Interestingly, some of the communities invaded by terrorists on October 7th belonged to Israel’s extreme left-wing scene. These Israelis did not want to see any fault in the Palestinians, but were full of hatred for their national religious brethren.

Caroline Glick describes in an article how two brothers from the religious town of Otniel saved around a quarter of the residents of Be’eri when Hamas carried out a massacre there. For 14.5 hours, they went from house to house, rescuing families through the windows of their shelters, filling their vehicle, taking them to safety, and repeatedly returning to the kibbutz that had become a battlefield.

On their final journey to Be’eri, after rescuing more than a quarter of the residents, one of the brothers was killed while entering a house.

Be’eri and the surrounding kibbutzim were founded by diehard socialist Zionists. They believed that through hard work, hard struggles and collective agriculture, the Jewish people would free themselves from 2,000 years of exile and powerlessness, build their state and secure their freedom. They sought to build a socialist Jewish state. The Bible had no place in their outlook for the future.

Like the residents of neighboring kibbutzim, the members of Be’eri believed in coexistence with the Palestinian Arabs. They saw the greatest threat to this coexistence in people like the Kalmanzon brothers, who are religious and live in Judea or Samaria.

However, on October 7, these secular Israelis’ world suddenly turned upside down as they were attacked by their beloved Palestinians and rescued by their hated religious countrymen.

 

National religious people in the army

Since the ground operation began in Gaza, 45% of the soldiers killed have come from the religious Zionist community, whose members make up only 10% of the total population. Over 50% of lower-level officers in the army (lieutenant, captain, major) are religious Zionists.

These soldiers and citizens are particularly motivated to fight for their country because the reborn State of Israel has religious significance, and its defense is both a historical privilege and a religious imperative.

Furthermore, members of this camp tend to raise their children according to these values, as evidenced by the high percentage of recruits from religious Zionist schools who choose to enter combat units.

The disproportionate share of religious soldiers killed reflects their disproportionate presence in these units.

The other reason it is interesting to mention the number of fallen religious Zionists is that parts of this community have been demonized over the years as “messianics” and “fascists.”

Israeli soldiers gather before a military operation in the Gaza Strip. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

One of this community’s flagship institutions—the Bnei David Yeshiva—was particularly demonized. Its leader, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein, was literally chased out of Tel Aviv a few weeks before October 7 when protesters shouted at him: “Go away, fascist! Go back to the settlements; You don’t belong here!”

Fifteen Bnei David graduates have died in this war so far.

 

Citizens’ shift to the right

Glick continues: “The carnage of October 7 triggered a radical shift in Israel’s ideological landscape. On the left, the revision was led by the refugees from Be’eri and the other kibbutzim who fell victim to Hamas’s one-day genocide and were rescued by men they had viewed as their greatest enemies.”

Polls conducted since October 7 find that very large percentages of Israelis (44% overall, and 30% from the left) have shifted rightward ideologically. This is particularly evident in the massive drop in the percentage of Israelis who today support the creation of a Palestinian state: just 30%.

The Hamas attack has shown many Israelis that perhaps the demonized settlers were right after all: you cannot make peace with the Palestinians and you must be ready to defend yourself at any time. The so-called “settlers” have lived with this attitude for decades, while the left-wing progressives clung to a false sense of security.

It remains to be seen whether this insight will be expressed in an even more right-wing government by the next election, but what is already certain is that the national religious groups are no longer the scapegoats, but rather the heroes of Israel.