Candidly Speaking: Religious Zionism at the crossroads
There is much to welcome from Bayit Yehudi, but Religious Zionists do not necessarily adhere to the hard right wing of the Israeli political mainstream.
Habayit Hayehudi votes in primaries. Photo: Lahav Harkov
As a lifelong Religious Zionist, I was saddened observing the ongoing collapse
of the movement which had made a unique and valuable contribution to the welfare
of the nation, upholding enlightened Jewish values, striving for unity and
So when the national-religious Bayit Yehudi (Jewish
Home) party was resurrected and polls predicted it might become the
third-largest party in the Knesset, should I not enthusiastically greet such a
phenomenon? The answer is yes, but.
It is an incredible tribute to the
leadership qualities of charismatic 40-year-old Naftali Bennett that he assumed
control of a moribund Bayit Yehudi and infused it overnight with a new lease on
life. Bennett graduated from the elite IDF Sayeret Matkal commando unit and in
his early thirties sold his start-up company for $145 million. He subsequently
became bureau chief of staff to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, resigning two
years later after falling out with him and then assuming leadership of the
settler’s council (Yesha) until he was elected head of Bayit Yehudi.
a slate including many young newcomers, he launched an extraordinary campaign
which, according to a recent poll, skyrocketed the party to possibly gaining 15
seats – an incredible achievement. The bulk of his supporters are under 40 and
many are non-observant.
In a recent television interview, Bennett
remarked that as a soldier he would not obey orders to evacuate settlers from
their homes. Netanyahu pounced on this and Bennett qualified his initial
statement. But the extraordinary exposure he achieved only strengthened his
Even non-observant Israelis would welcome a strong Zionist
religious party which would pressure the government to appoint Zionist rabbis to
state religious institutions and review conversion, marriage and divorce and
other areas which have been under the excessively stringent and inflexible
control of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
The party will also demand that
haredi schools introduce a secular core curriculum to provide skills to their
students enabling them to join the workforce and cease subsidizing those who
refuse to earn a livelihood.
Bayit Yehudi will also receive enthusiastic
support for endorsing efforts to oblige haredim to ultimately undergo military
or national service.
On the positive side, it will also seek to promote
Jewish values in a non-coercive manner, demand greater Jewish content in the
secular school system and ease tensions between religious and secular
So what are the negatives? Religious Zionists do not
necessarily adhere to the hard right wing of the Israeli political
While sharing a passionate love for Eretz Yisrael, they were
traditionally renowned for being moderate and centrist. However, in 1967 many
adopted a “messianic” approach to retaining the Land of Israel, leading to
criticism that their excessive focus on the “land” resulted in neglecting the
“soul” of the people – Jewish education and Jewish identity.
today many religious Zionists reside in settlements and comprise a substantial
proportion of what would be described as the political far Right.
increasing number of MKs wearing knitted kipot present throughout most of the
political mainstream, especially within the moderate national camp, demonstrates
that many Religious Zionists do not support the far Right.
years, as Israelis became increasingly aware of the intransigence and duplicity
of the Palestinians which made a mockery of attempts at peace negotiations, the
nation has dramatically moved politically toward the nationalist
Yet numerous Israelis supporting the center-right position were
concerned that the Likud primaries resulted in the election of more candidates
from the extreme Right, while those considered more liberal were rejected. These
concerns were exacerbated when Likud consummated an electoral unity ticket with
Yisrael Beytenu, which will undoubtedly further strengthen the right
Bayit Yehudi policies will intensify this trend. One of Bennett’s
main criticisms of Netanyahu is that he is too “soft.” He will demand that the
government act tougher toward the Palestinians. It is true that there were
occasions when Netanyahu could have responded more harshly to provocations.
However, by calling on the government to repudiate the two-state policy and
immediately annex Area C, Bayit Yehudi represents the other extreme.
views are of course legitimate and Bennett has the gift of expressing himself
far more eloquently than any other hard-right-wing spokesman. But politics is
the art of the possible. Today, virtually all Israelis recognize that with the
current Palestinian leadership, which would never provide the minimum security
safeguards we require, and with Hamas breathing down our necks, it would be
insane to endorse a Palestinian state.
But Israelis are also opposed to
absorbing and ruling over millions of Palestinians. Thus a formal repudiation of
a two-state policy or the annexation of territories would be opposed by most
Israelis. It would also cause us incalculable global damage and more
importantly, probably terminate our relationship with the United
Some right-wing radicals refer contemptuously to our alliance
with the US, with whom we share common values and democratic
There is irresponsible chatter about displaying “strength”
and “going it alone.” Would Naftali Bennett tell the US, “This is our business.
Please butt out”? Notwithstanding our extraordinary capabilities, it is
primitive naiveté to dismiss the crucial importance of the support of a
superpower to ensuring our technological military superiority in a
For example, we lacked the financial
resources to have independently manufactured the Iron Dome missile defense
In the absence of US diplomatic support, the Islamic Conference
nations and their rogue state allies could impose sanctions and effectively
choke us, with most European countries spectating – at best.
the US, to whom do critics suggest we turn? To Russia? To China? It is therefore
imperative to retain the support of the American people and Congress. But that
does not oblige us to become a vassal of the United States. There will
undoubtedly be matters of national importance that will require us to resist
pressure and stand firm. The current issue concerning housing construction to
create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim is an example.
But we should act with greater practical vigor and employ more subtle tactics,
avoiding needlessly provocative proclamations.
We must develop long-term
strategies and minimize tensions with Western countries on issues that are not
crucial to our security. Our ability to achieve this balance may heavily
influence the outcome of the Iranian nuclear peril – Israel’s greatest
existential threat since its creation.
My hope is that after the
elections Netanyahu will create a broad national government in which Bayit
Yehudi will become be an important and responsible partner.
Bayit Yehudi makes inordinate political demands or behaves in a demagogic manner
in order to attract extremist voters, it will be sidelined as yet another
ineffective extreme right-wing opposition group. In the course of time, like
other transitory parties, its support will evaporate.
It would also lose
an historic opportunity to displace Shas and the haredi parties as the
custodians of religion and ensure that the government strengthens Religious
Zionist institutions, guaranteeing the retention of Jewish values. In lieu of
being regarded as an extreme right-wing party, it should concentrate on becoming
an influential national religious force, having a major impact on the future of
the nation and the Jewish people.
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