The Religious Revolution of the 1970s: The Case of Israel

The Religious Revolution of the 1970s: The Case of Israel September 26, 2016

I have been posting about the aggressive revival of religious politics during the mid-1970s, and suggested parallels between events in the United States and many other nations around the world in the very same years. Specifically, I offered a model for what was happening at this time, and which had led to discontent being expressed in those particular religious forms. I particularly stressed the after-effects of the 1973-75 economic crisis.

The nation of Israel offers important analogies to US conditions that go beyond a mere coincidence of dates. I don’t want to offer too detailed an account here, given Michael Walzer’s major 2015 study of The Paradox of Liberation, but that religious reassertion was very marked, and at so many points, it fits well into the model I offered. (I won’t check off the individual points in that model here, but do please consult that list).

The election of May 1977 marked a “revolution,” HaMahapakh, as Menachem Begin became Prime Minister as head of a Likud-dominated coalition. This was a startling transformation for a country long dominated by largely secular elites, who tended to dismiss and even despise religious activism. By the 1970s, though, the poorer Mizrahi (Sephardic) population became ever more important, partly because of sharply higher fertility rates and larger family sizes, and they defined their grievances in religious terms.

But immediate political events provided the detonator for transformation. Again, the 1973 war proved decisive in discrediting the older political order. Although Western media celebrated Israeli victory in the war, Israelis themselves recognized it as near-fatal catastrophe, which pointed to major failings of intelligence and planning. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan resigned shortly afterwards, and a delicate coalition took power. Meanwhile, the oil crisis threatened grave inflation, and economic crisis.

The oil shock also persuaded the Americans to seek more balance in their negotiating effort, provoking one of the most tense points in US-Israeli relations. In March 1977, Jimmy Carter framed the Palestinian issue as a human rights problem, suggesting a clear tilt to the Arab side in the conflict. He even espoused the notion of a “right to a homeland.” As in so many other nations, corruption scandals contributed to general disgust and disenchantment. Battered further by a new Arab domestic insurgency, the confidence and reputation of the Israeli government was in tatters by 1976. That opened the door to a government led by a man who in the early 1970s was generally viewed as unacceptably extreme, intolerant and hawkish, very much like Ronald Reagan in the contemporary United States.

Meanwhile, the shock of the war stirred a more determined Right wing commitment to absolute unity, and the resistance of concessions at all costs. Likud itself was formed to fight the immediate post-war election in December 1973, and appealed strongly to blue-collar voters of Mizrahi background. There was also intense activity on the far Right. It was just four months after the war’s end, for instance, that the potent settler movement Gush Emunim was formed, committed to widespread settlement over the whole land claimed for Israel. Like the settlers, Likud referred to the occupied West Bank by the ancient names of Judea and Samaria, claiming total Israeli sovereignty. By 1977, Likud was offering an intoxicating blend of anti-elite messages, condemning traditional elites as corrupt puppets of foreign governments, who wished to dismember and betray the land. At once, the old elites betrayed God’s law, and public security. As in the contemporary US, the conservatives were demanding an explicit recognition of the divine role for a holy nation.

Apart from general parallels to the US experience, there were also direct linkages. Besides the famous evangelical revival then in progress, the US also experienced a reassertion of Jewish identity with the Baal teshuva [Master of repentance] movement and the growth of Orthodoxy among the young. Partly, this reflected Jewish pride following the Six Day War of 1967, followed by activism on the part of Soviet Jews in following years. In the 1970s, the movement also became committed to the expansion of settlements in Israel and the occupied territories (more on that topic shortly). Also during the 1970s, concerns about US military weakness drove many Jewish thinkers to found the neo-conservative movement, and thus to more hardline positions in face of the Soviet Union, and international terrorism.

Hardline religious factions in Israel drew heavily on US-born Jewish supporters, and Likud reached out directly to US conservatives. They found a highly sympathetic hearing among evangelicals and Pentecostals, who gave the Jewish return to Israel a central place in their own End Times narrative. The growing Christian Religious Right constituency in the US became passionately ultra-Zionist, potentially weakening the power base of any US president who sought a more balanced position. For Christian Zionists, as for Jewish hardliners, the arguments over land and peace were increasingly framed in terms that were religious, scriptural and apocalyptic.

At several points, then, we see analogies between that Israeli experience and the US model sketched earlier. The main analogy is the reassertion of conservative and fundamentalist religious views at the expense of a secular-minded elite ruined by its association with failed policies.

According to the conservative vision, a new elite led a restored nation, pledged to God. In Israel, as in the United States.


Some major sources include: Colin Shindler, Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Theocratic Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Gadi Taub, The Settlers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Avi Shilon, Menachem Begin (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2012); Yaakov Ariel, An Unusual Relationship (New York: NYU Press, 2013).

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