There was a time when wearing a kippa did not automatically suggest you belong to the extreme right wing of Israel's political spectrum. There was a time when being Orthodox did not suggest fanatical opposition to peace with our neighbors. There was a time when the Mizrachi of the late Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon or Josef Burg was a moderate party, a party in alliance with Ben-Gurion and the Labor leaders of this country.
Now Mizrachi, or the National Religious Party, has decided to integrate itself with the most extreme of our right-wing parties, which has the word "transfer" practically nailed to its banner. Zevulun Orlev, the NRP leader, wants to delete transfer from the merger's platform, but that is hardly surprising with elections just four months down the road.
Former leaders of religious Zionism, and in particular its most prominent leader, Rabbi Maimon, had accepted the partition plan that was proposed by the UN Commission in 1947. Haim Moshe Shapira and later Josef Burg both supported the policies of Ben-Gurion and Mapai. Their main objective was to instill maximum religious content into the secular character of the state. Since those days, Mizrachi has moved steadily to the Right, identifying itself increasingly with the messianic ideals first enunciated by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and their offshoot, Gush Emunim. Yet there are still many Orthodox Jews in Israel who have voted for Mizrachi or its successor, the NRP, and consider themselves followers of Rabbi Maimon and Josef Burg. For them, religious Zionism need not necessarily be equivalent to fanatical, messianic Zionism.
ONE OF them, Yitzhak Meir, recently wrote a cri de coeur in Haaretz. Meir is a member of the inner sanctum of one of the NRP's ruling bodies. He served as Israel's ambassador to Switzerland and in other diplomatic posts. "Who gave the leaders of the NRP the right to disinherit me?" he asked.
Meir believes in the old, humanist approach that typified the Mizrachi of yesteryear. He would be willing to make compromises in order to reach a peace accord. There are, I believe, very many religious Jews out there who feel like him, who were staunch supporters of Mizrachi or the NRP, and who have become increasingly uncomfortable with the party's growing extremism. Its joining up with Benny Elon and his policy of transfer is, for them, the last straw. Like Meir, they now find themselves disinherited from their traditional party base.
It could be argued that the NRP is a small party, and that what happens to it has no particular significance to the wider Israeli scene; that what really matters now is the race between Ariel Sharon and Amir Peretz.
This, however, is not the case. Although the majority of Israelis are secular, what happens to the non-haredi Orthodox cannot, should not, be ignored. The growing divide between religious and secular is one of the root causes of the internal weakness of our society. The chasm between religious and secular, and the huge gap between rich and poor, together undermine our inner strength much more than outside threats.
And one of the reasons for this ever-increasing estrangement between the religious and secular sectors of our society is the growing extremism of our religious leaders, their lack of tolerance for the other, secular Jew or Arab. The most blatant evidence of this growing extremism is the desire of the NRP to merge with the transfer-favoring National Union.
LACK OF tolerance usually breeds mutuality. The secular have grown more anti-religious, and the gap between the two is widening. The differences reached a crescendo over disengagement, with opponents of disengagement solidly identified with the religious parties. It was no coincidence that during the war of the ribbons there were hardly any orange ribbons to be seen on the roads on Shabbat.
For many secular Israelis the newly merged NRP will be equated with the violence of the hilltop youth or the settlers of Yitzhar or Hebron who so often take the law into their own hands. This negative image is a far cry indeed from the ideals of the Mizrachi of old, or of the wishes and beliefs of a large number of religious Jews who, like Yitzhak Meir, have now been disinherited.
They, and only they, could act as a bridge between religious and secular, to narrow the gap between the two and lessen the danger that this divide poses to our society. They will not be able to fulfill such functions while embedded within the ultra-nationalist and extremist NRP linked to the National Union.
ISRAEL'S POLITICAL kaleidoscope is being reshaped. Likudniks in droves will be voting for Peretz or Sharon, Shinui voters will be deserting their party en masse, and Shas will lose voters to Peretz and gain votes from Likud. Old allegiances will be abandoned as never before. How will religious Zionists be affected?
At stake is not the success or failure of a political party, but something much more fundamental. NRP voters will be judged by their willingness to embrace anew the humanistic values that once guided them, by their repudiation of leaders who preach fanaticism, and by a renewal of their traditional commitment to bringing religious and secular closer.
They will have to strengthen Michael Melchior's Meimad or choose some other suitable vehicle to express their values, but they must fulfill their duty to do so.
All this may be seen by some as a sideshow to the grand drama that will be played out by Labor, Kadima and Likud. Yet the repercussions for our society can be as big as any that these elections will generate.