The Peril of Messianic Zionism

  • Middle East Policy

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Moshe Alamaro

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector exhibits contempt for the Zionist movement, former service member declares. 

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties, key constituents in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, will have a greater say than ever in politics and state affairs.1 Their influence is evident in the government’s plan to annex large portions of the West Bank, a violation of international law that likely will obliterate any chance for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.2 In addition, the ultra-nationalist movement has been increasing its violence against Palestinian civilians.3 

The ultra-Orthodox sector exhibits utter hostility and contempt for the state and for the Zionist movement despite its being a recipient of generous government funding and stipends for yeshiva Torah students and an exemption from military service.4 

With the increase of religiosity and the radicalization of the messianic Zionist settlement movement, the secular and liberal camp in Israel continues its steady retreat. Secular Israelis like me, who have been increasingly marginalized in state affairs, are dismayed by the increasingly stifling grip of extreme religiosity on Israeli culture and politics.

The recent protests by secular liberals opposed to the government’s proposed overhaul to curtail the power of the Supreme Court is due to resentment that has been brewing for decades.6 Israel’s rabbinical court system imposes rules for both religious and secular Israelis that resemble Sharia law. For example, a widow must marry her dead husband’s brother or, to be free from this obligation, participate in a ceremony where she throws a shoe at him and spits in front of him.7  

The present state of affairs presents a sharp contrast to the secularism that prevailed from before the founding of the state of Israel into its first decades. My secular friends feel that this trend will lead to far-reaching consequences for the character and future of the state—in fact for the entire Zionist project.  

It is worthwhile to examine the insights of the 18th-century French writer Constantin-François de Chassebœuf Volney, who analyzed the influence of extreme religiosity on the course of civilizations, and consider the possible impact of the ultra-Messianic trends on the future of Israel and Zionism. 

In 1780, Volney traveled to Egypt and Syria. He saw in the Levant, then under the Ottoman yoke, extreme backwardness and misery. Volney wrote of staring in disbelief at the glorious ruins of the Egyptian, Persian, and classical Greek and Roman civilizations, wondering how these flourishing civilizations could have declined into such a pathetic state.8  

The author vividly described his sudden insight: Extreme monotheistic religiosity was the cause. Indeed, it took a few hundred years, according to Volney, for Christianity to take total cultural, spiritual, and political control of Europe, which then sank into a stifling, thousand-year Dark Ages. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which were both marked by secularism and a relaxed religiosity, returned European civilization to its past glory, he argued.9 Similarly, early Islamic and Arab cultures were remarkably advanced in mathematical, scientific, medical, and artistic knowledge. But Middle Eastern states are still dealing with the dire consequences of extreme Islamism. 

Historical analogies, of course, are never perfect. However, it is possible to claim that the peak of Judaic culture came in the 19th and 20th centuries, only after Jewish Orthodoxy had eased its grip, enabling giant figures in science and the arts—all secular—to emerge.10 

The pinnacle of this secular trend was the emergence of Zionism, the revival of Hebrew as a living language, and the founding of Israel. The major figures and founders of Zionism and Israel were secular, albeit inspired by their religious background, with a negligible contribution from the most religious.11 

The brunt of the military and economic hardship prior to, during, and after the foundation of Israel was borne by the secular element that built the kibbutzim, drained the swamps, made the desert bloom, fought the Nazis alongside the British Army, and developed a flourishing high-tech sector.12    

Following Volney’s observations, I fear that extreme messianic Jewish religiosity will result in a decline of the Zionist project, just as extreme Christianity and Islam played their devastating roles in the decline of other civilizations. 

My generation feels betrayed by the turn of events. We fought for an enlightened and not for a backward state. The secular segment in Israel, which is still the most vibrant, is indeed in despair.13 We hope that the United States and world Jewry will pressure Israel to change course and reverse this trend. 


Moshe Alamaro, an Israeli American atmospheric scientist and aero/mechanical engineer, worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1996 to 2021; he is now retired. He served in the Israel Defense Forces for four and a half years and fought in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. 



  1. Alon Ben-Meir, “Israel’s Fractured Democracy and its Repercussions,” Australian Institute of International Affairs,; Jeremy Sharon, “Understanding the ominous rise of Israel’s most notorious ultra-nationalist,” The Times of Israel, August 4, 2022,

  1. Reham Owda, “How Israeli Settlements Impede the Two-State Solution,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 7, 2017,

  1. Bethan McKernan, “‘Never like this before’: settler violence in West Bank escalates,” The Guardian, February 27, 2023,; B’Tselem, “Settler Violence = State Violence,” n.d.,  

  1. The Times of Israel, “Likud, religious allies said to agree on near-doubling stipends for yeshiva students,” November 11, 2022,; Sue Surkes, “Group of ultra-Orthodox Jews marks Independence Day by burning Israeli flag,” The Times of Israel, May 3, 2017,

  1. David Sheen, “Israel’s racial purists: United in fear of Jews who love non-Jews,” Middle East Eye, July 5, 2018,

  1. Kim Hjelmgaard, Maureen Groppe, Caren Bohan, and Holly Rosenkrantz, “Unrest in Israel temporarily derails PM Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. Here’s what we know,” USA Today, March 27, 2023,

  1. Israel Harel, “Little-known ceremony prevents widow from re-marrying for 10 years,” The Jerusalem Post, September 3, 2014,

  1. C.F. Volney, The Ruins, or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: and the Law of Nature, 1791, 1793,

  1. Mitchell Beazley, From the Dark Ages to the Renaissance: 700 – 1599 AD, August 28, 2006,

  1. Reinhard Rürup, “A Success Story and its Limits. Jewish Social History in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries,”

  1. M. Shahid Alam, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). 

  1. Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (New York: Twelve, 2009),

  1. The Times of Israel, “Unicorn CEO says he will leave Israel, stop paying taxes to protest legal overhaul,” February 1, 2023,

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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