Naftali Bennett represents one of the most successful of the new generation of
Israeli politicians to have emerged from the recent Knesset elections. The
charismatic 41-year-old religious Zionist has rejuvenated the moribund Bayit
Yehudi party, which was on the verge of extinction.
from the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal commando unit and in his 30s was a co-founder
of a start-up company which was eventually sold for $145 million. He
subsequently served as bureau chief of staff to Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu, and after personal differences with him was appointed directorgeneral
of the Council of Settlements of Judea and Samaria (Yesha). Less than a year
after resigning that post, he was elected head of Bayit Yehudi.
led an extraordinary election campaign which succeeded in winning votes from
large numbers of young people, many of whom were not religiously observant but
gravitated toward him because they considered him “cool” and forward
During the election campaign, I publicly noted that by merging
with Tekuma, the hard-line settler’s party, Bayit Yehudi absorbed a number of
extremist religious nationalists who by their excessive zeal for retaining the
land of Israel had neglected the soul of the people – Jewish education and
Jewish identity. This had contributed in no small measure towards the decline of
the religious Zionist political stream.
The inclusion of Tekuma also
further strengthened the growing “hardal” influence of those within the party
who endorse the haredi approach of more stringent interpretation of Jewish law –
in contrast to the more worldly and moderate approach of traditional religious
These issues have now come to the forefront and Bennett’s
response is likely to determine the direction and fate of Bayit
Four of the 12 Bayit Yehudi Knesset members – Uri Ariel, Eli
Ben-Dahan, Zvulun Kalfa and Orit Struck are representatives appointed by the
Tekuma rabbinical council. The most prominent rabbi on the council is Dov Lior,
Kiryat Arba’s chief rabbi, who is notorious for suggesting that the mass
murderer Baruch Goldstein be considered “holier than all the martyrs of the
Since the Gaza disengagement, Rabbi Lior instructed
synagogues under his authority to eliminate the prayer for the government and he
also made absurd racist statements such as alleging that conception with
non-Jewish sperm would cause genetic abnormalities.
In contrast to the
traditional policy of religious Zionists who have always separated the
jurisdiction of rabbis from political affairs, the Tekuma constitution requires
its Knesset members to “accept rabbinical authority that shall guide the elected
representatives according to Torat Israel.” It states explicitly that “the
committee of rabbis of the party has the ultimate authority in determining the
principal ideological direction of the party and the order of its candidates to
The Tekuma Knesset contingent is therefore obliged to
implement the directives of their rabbis, whose political and religious approach
is a far cry from the moderate approach promoted by Bennett.
confronted with these issues during the course of the election campaign, Bennett
dismissed the problem and reassured voters that after the elections, Tekuma MKs
would integrate with the party.
In fact, Bennett emphasized his pledge
that Bayit Yehudi was committed to charting a totally new course, reinvigorating
religious Zionism and restoring it to its former premier position in the Israeli
He undertook to wrest power from the haredim and
create a new climate in which religion would flourish throughout the land by
example rather than by coercion.
He undertook to promote a Zionist Chief
Rabbinate and to inaugurate procedures to overview and reform the problematic
handling of marriage, divorce and conversion, which had been hijacked by the
haredim, who lacked compassion and sought to impose the harshest interpretations
of Jewish law on the entire nation.
Bennett also pledged that he would
support legislation obliging haredim to contribute toward some form of military
or national service. Above all, he committed himself to ensure that they become
productive elements in the Israeli workplace and no longer choose to remain
dependent on state welfare throughout their lives because of a conscious
decision to learn full time.
However, the Tekuma rabbinical leadership
has now issued a formal letter to its MKs demanding that they reject any effort
to impose penalties on schools which refuse to include core curriculum subjects
like math or English into their programs – a crucial component of any attempt to
provide skills to haredi students to enable them to earn a livelihood.
their letter, the Tekuma rabbis state explicitly that “it is unthinkable that we
would be partners to the demands to harm the budgets of these Torah
institutions, whether they are Zionists or haredi elementary schools, high
schools or yeshivot.”
The Tekuma rabbis also called on their Knesset
representatives to oppose steps to broaden the committee determining the
election of the Chief Rabbi and which would benefit a candidate like Rabbi David
Stav, who is strongly supported by the majority of religious
Although unsuccessful, they succeeded to pressure Bayit Yehudi
to oppose the logical requirement that a candidate for Chief Rabbi must be
qualified as a religious court judge (dayan) which would have narrowed the field
of candidates and benefited Rabbi Stav.
The haredim and other hardliners
bitterly oppose Rabbi Stav for being too “liberal,” despite the fact that he is
totally committed to halacha, a graduate of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav and a
co-founder and chairman of Tzohar, the rabbinical organization which has had a
dramatic positive impact in terms of outreach and providing religious ceremonial
facilities to non-observant Israelis.
It is commonly accepted in centrist
religious Zionist circles that Rabbi Stav symbolizes everything they stand for
and that he has the capacity to reconnect the Chief Rabbinate with Israeli
society. His failure hitherto to obtain the formal endorsement of either Bennett
or Bayit Yehudi is solely due to pressures and threats from the Tekuma elements
within the party.
Naftali Bennett must now stand up and deliver. He is
facing a crossroads at which he will determine whether the electoral success of
Bayit Yehudi was a transitory phenomenon or is poised to achieve a genuine
revolution in the religious life of the state.
Should he be unable or
decline to confront the Tekuma hardliners in his party, it will create enormous
disillusion among his natural supporters, who are likely to defect from him in
droves. Beyond that, he will be accused, justly, of undermining the efforts to
weaken the stranglehold of the anti-Zionist haredi parties, including Shas,
which has now become the first Israeli political party to be headed by convicted
Bennett will also be condemned for standing on the sidelines
and failing to denounce and oppose the extremist views exemplified by Rabbi
Lior, which should have no place in any authentic religious Zionist
Above all he will have lost an historic opportunity to achieve
a national religious renaissance by reasserting religious Zionism’s rightful
role as the dominant force in Israeli religious life. Were he to succeed, Bayit
Yehudi would uphold enlightened Jewish values, strengthen Jewish identity by
example rather than by coercion and achieve national unity by promoting
tolerance and easing tensions between religious and nonobservant
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