Religious Zionism: A View from the United Kingdom

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Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.

Michael J. Harris

Being Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox (overlapping but not identical concepts) is my core identity.

What does being a Religious Zionist mean currently in daily life? As for so many Jews worldwide, both religious and secular, a huge shadow of worry and concern hangs over everything, every day. Though not (yet) living in Israel, this is accentuated even more by my having a son in Tzahal and a brother and other family in Israel – again, like so many others.

Obviously, being a Religious Zionist in these days means supporting Israel as much and in as many helpful ways as possible. It also means combining total identification with Israel and deep anguish at the loss of life and intense suffering on our side with genuine compassion for those innocent Palestinians who have been injured or have died. The responsibility for their suffering is entirely that of Hamas, but real concern extending beyond Am Yisrael is essential for anyone aspiring to live Torah values.

Faced with the global rise in anti-Semitism since the terrible events of Shemini Atzeret, I believe that the single most important message for Jews both within the Religious Zionist community and beyond is: Stand tall! Israel’s cause is fully just and our military action is entirely necessary, indeed morally obligatory, and would be undertaken by any other responsible country in the world. It has become clearer than ever since October 7th that there is deep hatred in much of the Diaspora for Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael which will never be blunted, whatever Israel or Jews do or do not do. There are also those who are not anti-Semites but who have a moral blind spot regarding Israel, making their support conditional on Israel avoiding civilian casualties in war to an extent that is demanded of no other country – effectively demanding that Israel just “turn the other cheek.” We should engage with non-Jews who are decent, fair-minded, and genuinely supportive, and not be deflected or discouraged by those who are not.

Let me add some detail on the rise in anti-Semitism from my perspective in the UK. It is clearer than ever that there is much virulent anti-Semitism just beneath the surface, which does not take much coaxing to openly emerge. This is so despite the large number (perhaps a silent majority) of decent and pro-Semitic non-Jews in this country. “Ve-hayu hayekha telu’im lekha mi-neged,” as the tokheihah warns about Diaspora existence: we are radically at the mercy of political, social and other developments beyond our control. Every time Israel is involved in military action, anti-Semitic incidents spike in the UK. We are (justifiably) extremely anxious when a Jeremy Corbyn looks likely to gain high government office, reassured when a Rishi Sunak visits Israel – and totally powerless to control or even get off the jolting rollercoaster. Antisemitic incidents in the UK more than quadrupled in the four days from October 7th-10th, 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. The situation has deteriorated further since then. The Community Security Trust (CST) recorded an increase in anti-Jewish hate acts in the UK of 534% between October 7th and December 13th, 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. While some congregants have told me of surprising and welcome empathy from work colleagues, others have expressed deep discomfort about the atmosphere in their offices. In mid-November, an anonymous student at Oxford University published an article in the Guardian newspaper describing the hatred and intimidation faced by Jewish students. 

In terms of interfaith activity, relations with Muslim and Arab communities are certainly more difficult now, at least in my experience here in London. This is a great pity, given the considerable theological and axiological common ground between the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Since October 7th, I have received a small number of empathetic messages from Church clergy in my locality but none from Muslim religious leaders, not even from local mosques with which we have previously had positive engagement. One wants to maintain and develop relationships, but it takes two to tango. And one needs Muslim dialogue partners who are prepared to understand that love for, and commitment to, Medinat Yisrael is a key religious value for us, not something that can be disregarded in favor of an exclusive focus on more comfortable and less controversial topics. Identifying commonalities is important, especially in light of the many shared concerns and challenges faced by Muslim and Diaspora Jewish communities – but never at the cost of our proud and utterly non-negotiable Religious Zionism.  

Finally, returning to the internal Jewish world: I believe that our community should place more emphasis on aliyah. I would have answered this question similarly before October 7th. Aliyah has only taken on even greater urgency and importance since then. It is not simply a question of attempting to flee anti-Semitism (though I sense more talk of this in the community). Much more importantly, the most authentic and intensive way in which we can live our Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy is to make aliyah, taking the precious opportunity to maximize the meaning of our lives by participating directly in the ongoing miracle that is Medinat Yisrael.

Michael J. Harris is rabbi of The Hampstead Synagogue, London and Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies. He is the author of Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (2003), Faith without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (2016) and, with Daniel Rynhold, Nietzsche, Soloveitchik and Contemporary Jewish Philosophy (2018). He co-edited Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (2012) and has published articles and reviews in scholarly journals.