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Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Knesset Member’s Plan to Turn Israel Into a Theocracy (I)

Deputy Minister Avi Maoz is establishing a government agency that aims to eradicate Israel’s secular identity. Dozens of recordings, speeches and articles by Maoz and his mentor, Rabbi Zvi Thau, reveal their plan to bring Israel ‘closer to redemption’

Mordy Miller, Haaretz. Jan 19, 2023

This is what Avigdor (Avi) Maoz has been waiting for since he established the Noam party, at the behest of his rabbi, Zvi Yisrael Thau, in July 2019. Noam withdrew from the race for the 22nd Knesset, which was elected that same September, nor did it run in the election for the 23rd Knesset, in March 2020. That changed a year later, and when the “government of change,” led by Naftali Bennett, took office during the term of the 24th Knesset, Noam was part of the opposition.

Now, following the November 1 election, and the convening of a new, fully right-wing government – the real test has arrived. As Maoz has stated, “The relationship between the beit midrash [institution of Torah study] and politics will be measured when we are part of the coalition.” Maoz (who constitutes a one-man Knesset faction, although Noam ran on a joint list with the Religious Zionism party) has been appointed a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office by Benjamin Netanyahu, and he will establish the “authority for identity security.”

Indeed, early on in the history of the Noam party, Maoz declared that his primary goal in politics would be to create a “state authority, like the Nature and Parks Authority, within the framework of a government ministry.” His idea was to call it Magen Ha’am, literally “protector of the people,” but also an acronym of the Hebrew words meaning “headquarters to discover and neutralize ‘alien’ influences on the State of Israel.”

The authority’s name attests to the importance Maoz attributes to it. In his words, “We must protect our people and our state from the infiltration of the alien bodies that arrive from foreign countries, foreign bodies, foreign foundations.” But Maoz doesn’t intend to stop there. “I would be very happy to have sufficient power to be appointed minister of education, to cleanse the entire education system of all foreign influences and to add Judaism, tradition, heritage and Zionism to the education system.”

Suspiciousness and insularity

To understand what drives Maoz, 66, and grasp the scale of the changes he aspires to carry out in Israel, we need to familiarize ourselves with the teachings of his mentor, Rabbi Zvi Thau, a subject I have been studying for more than a decade.

Thau is the president of Har Hamor Yeshiva, in the Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and has been, since its founding, the spiritual leader of the Noam party. Born in Austria in 1938, Thau arrived on his own in Israel in the mid-1950s, after having survived the Holocaust, with his family, in hiding in Holland. Here he quickly became one of the closest students of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the head of Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Kook would become the spiritual mentor of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, established following the Six-Day War.

Thau came to perceive physical reality as deceptive, in contrast to the true reality, which is divine and hidden. In his view, only the chosen few, among them both Zvi Yehuda Kook and his father, Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, could locate the hidden divine dialectic, discern it in the course of history and decipher the intricate map of redemption. Thau’s students see him as a direct and exclusive successor to the Kook lineage, as being able to decipher that map by analyzing that true reality in unparalleled depth.

Toward the end of the 1990s, Thau split from Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, which was then headed by Rabbi Avraham Shapira. He and several other colleagues from Mercaz Harav then established Har Hamor Yeshiva (both of them intended for post-high school-age males), under Thau’s leadership. The catalyst for the dramatic schism was the veteran yeshiva’s agreement to have its students, alongside their Torah studies, also obtain a teaching certificate from an external, Orthodox teachers college. Thau vehemently opposed the humanities and social sciences programs offered at Israel’s schools and universities, arguing that Christianity, and in particular the churches in Europe, were out to taint the holiness of the Jewish people. He saw the willingness to cooperate with an outside teaching institute, however religious it might be, as the desecration of the yeshiva’s sublime avocation: to be the nation’s beating heart.

Since then Thau has continued his metaphysical struggles, discerning the long and impure hand of Christianity in school curricula at every level and every , in key individuals and in various institutions, with which he refuses to cooperate. Har Hamor Yeshiva has a long history of imposing boycotts, which encompass even national-religious rabbis and religious curricula.

Contemptuous of all media, Rabbi Thau has never given an interview, not even to ultra-Orthodox journalists. Similarly, Avi Maoz, notwithstanding the fact that he held several senior public positions, gave his first press interview only last year. (Since then he has granted multiple interviews, mainly to right-wing media outlets; he declined to be interviewed for this article.) Accordingly, doing research about Thau’s circle – which continues to be characterized by an its own internal jargon and coded language, and suspiciousness of “the outside” – draws primarily on materials from within. They have reached me, and continue to do so, by a variety of means. The materials include notes of personal conversations with Thau, summations of internal lessons, recordings of lessons, videos, pictures and letters. They are supplemented by books and pamphlets authored by Thau, which are sold in limited editions and in some cases carry such disclaimers as “internal printing” or “uncorrected proof.”

The principal goal of Avi Maoz’s doctrine is the political realization of Rabbi Thau’s thought. To begin with, his ideas are laid out in dozens of hours of political speeches that Maoz delivered to party activists and in in-depth conversations he held with lawyer and social activist Tamir Dortal (who hosts a podcast titled “On Meaning”) and with Gali Bat-Horin (the pseudonym of Dalit Laub Souter), one of the founders of the Café Shapira Forum for formerly left-wing intellectuals.

In addition, there are, as noted, dozens of recent interviews, the vast majority with right-wing or Haredi media (including Giluy Da’at, Olam Katan, Channel 14 and the newspaper Makor Rishon); written messages from Maoz to activists and in opinion columns in party pamphlets; and, finally, recordings in Maoz’s voice that I obtained, containing valuable materials about his worldview and his political plans. These recordings were distributed to members of the WhatsApp group “Q&A in Noam with MK Avi Maoz,” which was set up in September 2022 and invited the public to join and to pose questions to Maoz, though only 300 people acceded to the call.

Denying politics

Maoz was born Avigdor Fischheimer, to a religious-Zionist family in Haifa’s Kiryat Shaul neighborhood, on July 6, 1956. He was a counselor in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and following his army service in the Nahal Brigade’s airborne unit, he became one of the founders of Migdal Oz, a settlement in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem (hence his adopted name, Maoz).

It was in Migdal Oz that he met his wife, Galit, with whom he has fathered 10 children. Currently Maoz lives in the City of David, in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood abutting the Old City of Jerusalem; in the past he was active in the settler organizations Elad (City of David Foundation) and Ateret Kohanim (a Jerusalem “land reclamation” association). Of himself he has attested that he worked “to Judaize the Galilee, to Judaize the Negev, many settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”

He studied in Mercaz Harav Yeshiva for more than a decade (1980-1991), where he became close to Rabbi Thau. During that same period, he was active in the movement to free the Jews of the Soviet Union, and was intensely involved in the effort to have Natan Sharansky released from imprisonment. During that period he first met Benjamin Netanyahu, who was at the time Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and who left a deep impression on him. He has been loyal to Netanyahu ever since. Following the recent election, Maoz announced his intention to join Netanyahu’s government even if his requests for a position were not met – while scorning the “tailoring of ministerial portfolios.”

At the beginning of the 2000s, under the governments of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Maoz served as director general of the Interior Ministry, and afterward held the same post in the Housing and Construction Ministry, in both cases under Sharansky as minister. Of these years he commented in one of the recordings, “One can read about what I did regarding settlement in the report written by Talia Sasson [a special legal adviser to the government on illegal outposts and law enforcement vis-à-vis Israelis in the West Bank] 17 years ago, and God be blessed, fortunate I was to be caught in this matter and even to be questioned by the police.” (In a speech in the Knesset he stated that he had been interrogated for two days under caution by the National Fraud Investigation Unit, but added that “the interrogation was political and the interrogators had no idea what they were asking. I explained to them what the question was.”)

Thau vehemently opposed the humanities and social sciences programs offered at Israel’s schools and universities, arguing that Christianity, and in particular the churches in Europe, were out to taint the holiness of the Jewish people.

Following his political activity, Maoz taught at Har Hamor Yeshiva, before returning to the political arena in recent years in concert with Zvi Thau, this time as the founder of the Noam party.

Over the years, Thau had espoused a state-oriented, anti-political line. Whereas many of his rabbinical colleagues were occupied establishing settlements in the territories, participating in high-profile demonstrations and even running for political office, Thau averred that genuine influence is achieved by intellectuals – that is, himself and his students – through ideas that trickle down to the masses and in turn prompt action. As long as the nation has not yet been persuaded by the “right” ideas, he believed, it is pointless to stage demonstrations and carry out struggles, as they are liable to cause more harm than good.

Instead, one should cultivate students who will engage in Torah study that is guided by the teachings of Rabbis Avraham Yitzhak and Zvi Yehuda Kook and will familiarize themselves with the deceptive and convoluted path that redemption can sometimes take. Reality will be changed by a change in the national consciousness, Thau believed, and not by political activity (he would often emphasize: “The whole world rests on consciousness”).

It may be difficult today to believe that Thau used to speak in these terms, but this is what he said in the early ‘90s: “We are not politicians. Our strength lies, all told, in our words, and as educators and people of Torah who believe in emunat iteinu [the faith of our time; also the title of 13 volumes of talks by Rabbi Thau], it is incumbent upon us to add more and more light and belief. If we succeed in elevating slightly the spirit of our people, we will have done a great thing.”

On another occasion, he reprimanded someone who asked whether it would not be preferable for rule of the state to be in the hands of the rabbis. “Is it because [the rabbis] learned a great deal of Torah for years that they know how to manage the army and the economy, politics and society? And do they also know how to fix pipes or heal the sick?” Rabbis, he admonished, “should not intervene in what is not their task.”

New enemy

For years, Thau instructed his students not to disrespect the country’s prime ministers – in his view, they had been chosen by God’s will to lead the Jewish people during the period of the redemption (which began with the advent of the Zionist movement). Rigid religious attitudes and a meticulous map of redemption, of which Thau was the exclusive exegetist, were taught in the batei midrash through a singular internal language.

Thau’s students were required to engage in years-long intensive learning at the post-secondary level, and were trained in how to connect with the national holiness and the collective “soul” that resides within the Jewish people. They were taught to identify and guard against the influence of the Christian forces of impurity and their representatives in our midst – in academia, the media, the education system and the judiciary.

Most Israelis, however, knew nothing about Thau and his circle. Any encounters with them occurred mainly in military service, to which the rabbi attributed supreme value as a manifestation of national resilience and as a major component of the redemption. Avoiding struggles that would draw publicity, and shunning political involvement, Thau maintained a cautious and respectful discourse with regard to the country’s leaders, and to the extent that the wider public was aware of them, he succeeded in creating a positive impression of himself and his milieu.

The turning point for Thau’s followers arrived in 2006. Following the 2005 withdrawal from Gush Katif – the bloc of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip – the insularity of their religious studies transformed into external action in the form of going into the streets bearing signs and establishing organizations to spread their messages, distributing informative pamphlets and, finally, founding Noam.

Thau had come to the conclusion that it was time to enter the political arena and to bring about profound changes in the country’s character. The political turn stemmed from his metaphysical theory of redemption. In line with the teachings of both of the Rabbis Kook, Thau believed that redemption had completed its first stage, whose essence was the formation of the national body. This phase, as material as it was essential, had been led by the secular Zionists. Superficially, it appeared to be fraught with heresy; however, a deep analysis revealed that Zionism had arisen by virtue of a supreme divine plan. In the second and final stage of redemption, the stage of holiness, a soul, namely religion, is injected into the body (the state). In this stage, it was anticipated that secular Jews would recognize that they too had a connection to the collective Jewish soul. This is what had driven them unknowingly to initiate the Zionist project, and endeavor to connect the soul to the body in the form of a union of religion and state.

Between the stages, Thau explained, there is to be a period of transition, during which the values of nationalism and its manifestations, which underlay the material stage, crumble. That period, which had its beginnings after the 1967 Six-Day War, is identified with post-Zionism and with its contempt for the grand ideologies. The vacuum of values that was formed during this period was supposed to be filled by a searing religious passion that would provide a spiritual alternative, and pave the way for the coveted union between religion and state. As Maoz told a Noam party meeting in January 2020, “During the past 30 years, it can be said almost without question that Israel’s citizens have become more traditional, more religious, more Haredi, a development that should have intensified the power of the country’s Jewish character.”

However, Thau maintained, not only had the desired progress toward the union of religion and state not begun, in fact a drastic regression had occurred; the thrust of redemption had been stymied, with results that might prove to be unbearable. According to Maoz, this is “quite an odd process, one which it’s hard not to term a mystery,” within the framework of which “the State of Israel is losing its Jewish character.” This regression was associated with redemption’s great and bitter enemy, whose impurity was total and against which the war too must be total: postmodernity and the “progressive” agenda.

That enemy, the progeny of the Western world, was eroding the Judaism of the State of Israel through particularly ruinous agents of change, among them left-wing organizations, Reform and Conservative groups and academia – and all of it with the encouragement of the media.

No time for narratives

Thau’s explanation for the mortal blow to Israel’s Jewish identity was that impurity sensed its coming perdition, and was making supreme counter-efforts to preserve itself. The destruction wrought by postmodernity is akin to that of a raging fire, with no direction and no goal, void of ideology or values. The surge of impurity, a moment that generates panic regarding the trajectory of the well-planned redemption, led Rabbi Thau to declare that an emergency was at hand. A recurrent theme in his and his students’ speeches and writings is that something has happened in recent years, and that the people of Israel are on the brink of a spiritual catastrophe.

The disaster is described in terms of fire, war and perdition. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a student and friend of Rabbi Thau and a member of the Noam party, wrote, “When the house is burning, you need to cry out at the top of your lungs, ‘Help!’ – a bomb is ticking, a train is hurtling to cause the loss of what is human [among us], such as by destroying the normal, healthy family. This fire is spreading from the West, from the kingdom of chaos, the kingdom of nullity, the kingdom of the internet, the kingdom of the annulment of all values. There is no difference between one nation and another. No difference between a man and a woman. Those who maintain that a family consists of a man, a woman and a child will immediately be accused of homophobia and of being primitive.”

Herein lies the supreme fear harbored by Thau’s camp in the face of postmodernity: If the binary distinctions that were perceived as fundamental, natural and primary become blurred, it follows that the distinction between Jew and non-Jew will also become blurred. Once the uniqueness of the Jew is called into question, doubt will arise about the necessity of the State of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and it will become “a state of all its citizens.”

As Maoz put it: “Postmodernity and the world progressive movement aim to blur identities. Personal [identity], followed by family identity, followed by national identity, and after that they will arrive also at our Jewish national identity. Our children are being educated to blur identities, doubt is being instilled in the hearts of our children. And doubt when they grow up: What is our right to the Land? Do we have a right to the Land? Who said the Jewish narrative is correct? Maybe the Palestinian narrative too? This is being introduced into the education systems.”

Family = mom and dad

At first, Thau believed that the Haredi parties would block what he identified as constitutional erosion caused by the forces of impurity. Accordingly, and to the astonishment of rabbis from the religious-Zionist movement, Thau voted for Shas in 2006 and afterward also for United Torah Judaism. However, his hopes were dashed, as he had the feeling that these Haredi parties were focusing their efforts exclusively on their constituencies.

Avi Maoz

Subsequently, toward the end of 2014, ahead of the election to the 20th Knesset, Yoni Chetboun, a serving MK from the Bayit Hayehudi party, and a Har Hamor graduate, joined the Yahad party of former Shas leader Eli Yishai, as Thau’s personal representative. As the election loomed, Thau took part in a political rally for the first time in his life, albeit without addressing the crowd, and signed a letter of support for the party. A perusal of the letter reveals the great difficulty he experienced in publicly entering the political arena. Alongside other rabbis, Thau asserted, “In an extraordinary step this time, I am calling on you to vote together with us for the only party that is working [on a basis of] unity for the sake of nation, Torah and Land.” However, Yahad did not cross the electoral threshold, the unification effort failed.

It was difficult, initially, for Thau to find his political path. He used harsh words to attack Naftali Bennett, who headed Habayit Hayehudi from 2013. He viewed Bennett as an agent of postmodernity, because of his political partnership with a secular woman (Ayelet Shaked) and his ties with Reform Judaism organizations, and because of his support for the “Western Wall compromise” regarding prayer areas at the Kotel for non-Orthodox groups.