Religious Affairs: Divided they stand - on unity

As Religious-Zionist leaders gathered to forge political untiy, ideological splits ironically crept in.

Druckman 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Druckman 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The specter of early elections has thrown the splintered, embattled religious-Zionist camp into a mad rush to somehow consolidate its ranks and present a unified front. The obsession with forever illusory unity was palpable this week at a conference that brought together hundreds of religious-Zionist leaders and educators. Big names in religious Zionism, such as Rabbi Haim Druckman - the assailed outgoing head of the Conversion Authority - and Rabbi Ya'acov Shapira, head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, called to "unify the ranks." "Consolidating our political strength is absolutely essential right now," said Shapira. "It is our biggest challenge. It is the commandment of the hour." Druckman, meanwhile, declared that religious Zionists have had "such a profound impact on the shaping of Israeli society that we deserve to make an impact politically as well." "What would this country look like without religious Zionism?" he asked. "It would be a spiritual wasteland." Druckman received a standing ovation from the crowd of several hundred who were crammed into the hot Givat Washington Educational Center's basketball stadium for the afternoon festivities that celebrated "60 years of religious Zionism in the Jewish state." His popularity among religious Zionists has skyrocketed in recent months, following a bitter clash with the haredi rabbinical establishment over conversions. Druckman was lambasted by the haredim for allowing his Zionist, nationalistic ideological leanings to taint his conversion policies. Haredi rabbis accused him of purposely adopting flagrant leniencies that sharply deviated from normative Jewish law. These leniencies were designed to make it easier for gentiles who came here under the Law of Return, including those who were not sincere about adhering to an Orthodox lifestyle, to be allowed to marry Israelis born to a Jewish mother - the halachic definition of Jewishness. Druckman, said the haredim, mistakenly believed that compromising Halacha was justified in the name of Zionistic goals, such as fostering a more cohesive Israeli society and preventing intermarriage. The attack, which emphasized the deep ideological divide between religious Zionism and the haredi community, is also symptomatic of religious Zionism's decreasing influence within the Chief Rabbinate. Neither Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, who was placed in office by the haredi rabbinic establishment, nor Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who is strongly deferential to the haredi community, has come out openly in defense of a more lenient conversion policy. The Chief Rabbinate was originally conceived and created by the founding father of religious Zionism, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, to provide rabbinical leadership for the challenges facing a modern Jewish nation. However, it has gradually been taken over by more haredi elements who do not view the creation of a Jewish state as a revolutionary change in Jewish reality that necessitates innovative halachic approaches. Power within the Chief Rabbinate is directly related to political clout, since the religious affairs minister has broad powers in choosing the members of the body that elects the chief rabbis. Municipal politics also has a major influence on the appointment of mayors, city rabbis and heads of religious councils who are members of the election body. The fall in religious-Zionist influence within the rabbinate has been coupled by a parallel rise in haredi power, particularly that of Shas, which cooperates with Ashkenazi haredim against the religious Zionists. Some examples of rising haredi influence within the rabbinate include the recent appointment of 19 rabbinical court judges, the vast majority of whom were connected either to Shas or United Torah Judaism; the decision by the Chief Rabbinate, later overruled by the High Court, to support a stringent version of shmita that boycotted Jewish-grown produce; and the recent conversion controversy, in which a panel of haredi High Rabbinical Court judges cast doubt on the validity of thousands of conversions performed by Druckman. RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS have long lamented their inability to realize their full political potential. Although about 15 percent of the Jewish public attends national-religious schools, only about half of them voted for the two religious-Zionist parties in the Knesset - the National Religious Party and the National Union - which joined forces under a unified list in the last election, gaining just nine seats, less than 8% of the Knesset. Voters who identify with religious Zionism's aims nevertheless choose to scatter their votes among various parties such as Kadima, Likud, Israel Beiteinu and Shas. Yaki Sa'ada, director-general of Givat Washington and one of the organizers of the conference, said that part of reason for religious Zionism's failure politically is its emphasis on full integration into Israeli society. "We educate our children to take an active part in all aspects of Israeli society, from army service to business to academic pursuits," he said. "Why should we be surprised if religious Zionists end up developing independent and diverse political opinions?" In parallel, unlike Shas, the religious-Zionist camp has failed to attract those who do not define themselves as Orthodox, but who are religious traditionalists. The deterioration of religious Zionism's political clout has resulted in major setbacks in several areas. Perhaps the hardest hit has been education. Institutions from grade school through pre-military academies have seen their budgets cut. Religious Zionists barely avoided a deep cut in the budget for National Service, which is an option provided for female high school graduates who do not serve in the IDF for religious reasons. But the prospects for unity do not look good. Although they might agree on the need for solidarity, religious Zionists are split on how to achieve it. No fewer than three new initiatives, all aimed at bringing together the diverse groups within religious Zionism, have been launched in recent months. Each disagrees with the others over the best unity-building strategy. All three seem to think the old NRP cannot represent all the streams within religious Zionism. AHI is the name of an initiative launched by MKs Effi Eitam and Yitzhak Levi, together with Nobel Laureate Robert Yisrael Aumann. AHI is an acronym for the Hebrew words eretz (land), hevra (society) and yahadut (Judaism), and was formerly known as the Tzionut Hadatit (Religious Zionist) Party. It was formed in 2006, following a dispute within the National Religious Party ahead of the disengagement from Gaza. Meanwhile, Rabbi Avraham Brun, former director-general of the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, has created Reshima Ahat (One List). Brun, who admitted that he has invested just $400 so far, said that he has already received support from Rabbi Dov Lior and Baruch Marzel on the Right, to Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Yehuda Gilad on the Left. A third initiative, called Kulanu (All of Us), was launched by political scientist Dr. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University. Cohen is calling for the organization of a governing council that would represent various streams within religious Zionism. This council would then compile a list of candidates who would be ranked in a national primary election. However, the different initiatives are split. AHI's Eitam will have serious difficulties working with NRP chairman Zevulun Orlev, due to interpersonal tensions. Orlev admitted this week that while he is "dialoguing with everyone," he has encountered "very big obstacles" to cooperation. Asked if he could join forces with Eitam, Orlev said, "I am not the one who splintered off. I am not the one who created the split. Everyone knows that we cannot keep up this incessant factionalism. There are 16 religious Zionist MKs who belong to nine different political parties. It's crazy." He was referring to the various tiny factions, such as Moledet and Tekuma, that make up the NU, as well as the many religious-Zionist MKs who are members of centrist parties. Meanwhile, Cohen voiced skepticism regarding Reshima Ahat's attempts to bring together figures from the extreme Right and the Left. "There is no way someone like Marzel will sit in the same party with someone like [MK Michael] Melchior [Labor-Meimad]," he said. "It is not going to happen. People like Marzel and Melchior are too far from the mainstream." Cohen hopes to bring into a new religious-Zionist party charismatic rabbis, such as Yuval Cherlow and Benny Lau, together with female leaders, such as Yaffa Gisser of Bat Ami and Emunah chairwoman Liora Minka, and municipal-level politicians, such as Tirat Carmel Mayor Arye Farjun. However, he said that he has come up against opposition within the National Union to an open primary election which could vote in new faces. Veteran MKs fear it would endanger their chances of reelection. Another point of dispute is the extent to which a new party should open its ranks to the non-religious. Reshima Ahat focuses primarily on the religious, while Eitam has long hoped to create a party that brings together secular and religious. Meanwhile, Orlev and Cohen hope to attract the more traditional, but are not focusing on a secular constituency. Asked if he is optimistic about the chances of achieving unity among religious Zionists before the elections, Orlev replied, "I am realistic. But I have not given up."