Over 20 years ago, I published a booklet titled Religious Extremism: A Threat to
the Future of the Jewish People, which was translated into many languages and
It dealt with extremist trends in the religious
world, stressing that the greatest danger emanated from messianic nationalism
inspired by rabbis claiming to know precisely what the Almighty desired and
willing to suspend traditional societal behavior to promote their
This was prior to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a crazed
religious assassin but after the “underground,” when religious extremists were
arrested for orchestrating the bombing of Arab activists. It carried a call to
religious Zionists to expunge the extremists from their midst and concentrate on
building bridges with other sectors of Israeli society and strengthening
national Jewish identity without coercion.
Alas, since then, religious
Zionism has been in continuous decline. The haredi political parties have
hijacked the chief rabbinate and rabbinical courts, imposing the most stringent
standards on the nation. Rank-and-file Israelis became enraged by the growing
numbers of haredim evading the draft, as well as by those who became
nonproductive beneficiaries of state welfare because their rabbis discouraged
them from working.
Their excessively strict halachic interpretations also
created crises in areas such as conversion, marriage, divorce and gender
Now, Naftali Bennett, a charismatic young religious Zionist,
has sensationally rejuvenated the national religious party Bayit Yehudi, which
polls predict will become the third largest Knesset party and be well positioned
to displace the haredi parties, reclaim the Religious Affairs Ministry and other
ministries and and launch a national-religious renaissance.
But as I
remarked in my previous column, this could fall apart if far-right trends within
the party are not contained.
MANY TRADITIONAL Likud voters intending to
vote for Bennett will do so on the assumption that they remain within the
national camp and that as an independent right-wing religious party it will
merely reinforce a nationalist government and enable Netanyahu to be in a better
position to withstand American and other global pressures.
Yet if Bayit
Yehudi pursues its stated annexation objectives, it may undermine a moderate
nationalist government and lose an historic opportunity to restore religious
Zionism as the dominant religious force in Israeli society.
concerns are heightened by the fact that 40 percent of the Bayit Yehudi Knesset
list was not elected but appointed by the central committee of Tkuma, a
far-right settler party formerly a faction of Ihud Leumi.
constitution obligates its Knesset members to “accept rabbinical authority that
shall guide the elected representatives according to Torat Israel and who shall
determine the fundamental principles” and explicitly states that “ the Committee
of Rabbis of the Party have the ultimate authority in determining the principal
ideological direction of the Party and the order of its candidates to the
The Tkuma Knesset contingent will therefore be committed to
implementing directives of their three Tkuma rabbis – Kiryat Arba’s Chief Rabbi
Dov Lior, Rabbi Zalman Melamed and Rabbi Chaim Steiner. This is a radical
departure from the approach of traditional religious Zionists who adamantly
refused to defer the determination of political policies to rabbis. It mirrors
the manner in which Shas and United Torah Judaism operate.
rabbi is Rabbi Lior, whose extremist proclamations, such as asserting that the
mass murderer Baruch Goldstein be considered “holier than all the martyrs of the
Holocaust” and that conceiving with non-Jewish sperm causes genealogical
abnormalities, have shocked and alienated all but the most extreme of the
religious right wing.
Following the Gaza disengagement, Rabbi Lior
amended the wording of the prayer for the welfare of the state recited in
synagogues under his control to eliminate a blessing for the
One can assume that Naftali Bennett does not endorse most of
Rabbi Lior’s extremist views. Besides, Rabbi Lior declines to endorse him or
Bayit Yehudi in order not to offend Michael Ben-Ari’s Otzma LeYisrael (Strong Israel), an even
more extreme far-right party.
But that does not detract from the fact
that a substantial number of his Knesset contingent are Tkuma members committed
to implementing their rabbis’ directives.
IN FAIRNESS, Likud-Beytenu also
includes a number of candidates who would be considered far right or extremist,
but there is no suggestion that they would seek to override democratic
In contrast, Rabbi Lior and his followers repudiate majority
rule when it conflicts with what they determine to be the will of the
After the elections, the new government will confront
unprecedented pressures, from the United States, Europe and the broader global
Netanyahu is likely to find this phase even more daunting than
his previous confrontations with President Barack Obama. He will need maximum
maneuverability to maintain the diplomatic balancing act which hitherto enabled
him to stand firm in relation to major issues while displaying flexibility in
secondary areas. He must be able to govern without the threat of veto by
extremists out of synch with the real world.
Despite the recent imprudent
outburst by President Shimon Peres, the reality is that with “peace partners”
like Hamas or the duplicitous PA leaders, few Israelis would today visualize
their government endorsing a Palestinian state.
government coalition dependent on support from a party committed to the formal
repudiation of a two-state solution, and to the annexation of the West Bank,
would be in crisis.
No responsible government could conceivably implement
such policies, which would lead to disastrous international repercussions
including loss of the crucial support of Congress and the American people. It
would also impact on the impending Iranian nuclear crisis.
appreciate that a coalition government based on a weakened Likud-Beytenu,
subject to pressure from a party promoting such policies, could lead to an early
collapse of a nationalist government.
This would be nightmare scenario
for the national camp, which underwent a similar crisis in the past when the
extreme Right disassembled a Center-Right government and paved the way for the
Left to regain power. Under such circumstances, Bayit Yehudi would become as
irrelevant as the failed former Mafdal.
THOSE OF us with traditional
religious Zionist inclinations yearn for Bayit Yehudi to distance itself from
demagogic populist policies and the messianic commitment to retaining land at
any cost. While this alliance may attract support from extremists, Bennett
himself must surely be aware that such policies would incur disastrous
repercussions on Israel’s global status.
Bennett and Bayit Yehudi must
convince us now that as constructive partners in a future government, they will
promote realistic and mainstream national policies, suspend annexation
objectives and vigorously oppose extremist views exemplified by Rabbi Lior,
which have no place in an authentic religious Zionist movement.
Yehudi must not blow this unique opportunity to reform Israeli society, bring an
end to the era of haredi domination, promote Jewish values and enable religious
Zionism to reclaim the central religious role in the state.The writer’s
website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted