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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A call to unify the ranks went out Tuesday at a conference celebrating 60 years of religious Zionism in the State of Israel.
But under the thin veneer of rhetoric, dissent, internal bickering and competing political programs continue to sow division as prospects for early elections appear more likely.
Major-league religious Zionist leaders such as Rabbi Haim Druckman, chairman of the Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and Rabbi Ya'acov Shapira, head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, called during a conference at the Givat Washington Educational Center to unite the religious Zionist constituency under one political party.
The conference was held at one of the movement's largest and oldest educational complexes, which gained its name from the Jewish community in Washington DC that donated the money for its founding in 1949.
"Religious Zionism has earned the right to take over the political leadership of the Land of Israel," said Druckman before a crowd of several hundred educators, rabbis and political activists.
"We, more than any other segment of Israeli society, have internalized a strong feeling of national responsibility in education, military service, settlements and social activism. We have a right to be proud of our achievements."
Shapira said that the need for unification was "the single most pressing challenge facing religious Zionism."
Religious Zionists have long lamented their inability to convert their relative size in the population into political clout. Some 15 percent of the Israeli Jewish public attends the national religious school system, however, religious Zionist parties represent less than 9% in the Knesset.
Voters who identify with religious Zionism's aims nevertheless vote for parties such as Kadima, Likud and Shas.
Before the previous elections, the National Religious Party and the National Union joined forces after much negotiation and quarreling. Nevertheless, the visible difficulties and interpersonal tensions the parties had in working together dampened the feeling of unity, said several participants in Tuesday's conference.
NU and NRP managed to garner just nine seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Despite the calls for unification at Givat Washington, there were tangible signs that religious Zionism once again ran the risk of failing to tap into its electoral potential.
One of the most blatant signs was the fact that the only politicians who attended the conference were members of the NRP.
Members of the National Union party and the religious Zionist members of Kadima such as Otniel Schneller did not attend.
One of the organizers of the conference told The Jerusalem Post that he had invited MKs from other parties, but due to internal bickering with the NRP MKs, they ended up not showing.
Another sign of disunity was the fact that no fewer than three separate political initiatives aimed at uniting religious Zionist voters have been launched in recent months.
ACHI is the name of a new list created by MKs Effi Eitam and Rabbi Yitzhak Levy (NU/NRP).
Meanwhile, Rabbi Avraham Brun, former director-general of the Union of Hesder Yeshivot has launched Reshima Echat [One List].
According to Brun, who attended the conference, he has the support of diverse rabbinical figures on the political Right and Left.
"Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has given us his support and so has Rabbi Dov Lior," said Brun.
"Rabbi Yehuda Gilad is with us and so is Baruch Marzel."
In parallel a third initiative, called "Kulanu," was created by Dr. Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. Cohen, who presented his idea at one of the workshops that took place early in the day at the conference, is calling to organize a governing council that would represent the various streams of religious Zionism.
This council would then compile a list of 50 candidates that would be ranked in a national primary election among religious Zionists.
According to Yaki Sa'ada, director-general of Givat Washington's Educational Center, the political infighting and lack of unity have dealt a serious blow to religious Zionism's education system.
"When the NRP was in the coalition we received NIS 250 per student monthly for teaching Jewish studies," said Sa'ada. "Now we receive just NIS 70 a month.
"It is a shame that because of infighting and egos our educational institutions are suffering."
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