His first great misstep: The humbling of Naftali Bennett

The derailed recruitment of a soccer legend to Bayit Yehudi’s Knesset list exposes its charismatic leader to challenges for which he is unprepared.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS)
Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Enraged by the roaring mob’s cheers for his favorite gladiator’s opponent, a frustrated Caligula is said to have shouted at the stands: “I wish you all had one neck!” Naftali Bennett, unlike Caligula, is sane – but this week he too found himself, for the first time in his meteoric career, surrounded by a jeering multitude that now chased away from the arena the man Bennett thought they would adore.
The man – soccer legend Eli Ohana – is actually more familiar with arenas than all of Bennett’s lawmakers put together, but from the viewpoint of his new party’s historic leadership and electorate, his are the wrong arenas.
Ohana is not the first athlete to flirt with politics.
Pele, the soccer virtuoso who led his country to three World Cups, served as Brazil’s minister of sports; bodybuilding actor Arnold Schwarzenegger governed California; and basketball forward Bill Bradley was a three-time senator for New Jersey.
However, unlike supporters of Pele and Schwarzenegger, the people expected to vote for Ohana were neither Brazilian soccer worshipers nor Californian sunbathers, but rabbis, settlers, feminists, teachers and professionals whose shared appreciation for observance, spirituality and scholarship is pretty much the opposite of what happens in Israeli soccer stadiums.
The backlash was fierce and broad.
“This is the equivalent of sticking an arrow in the eyes of our national home’s loyalists,” Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, who heads a think tank that works to reconcile observance with technology, wrote to Bennett.
The soccer star’s emergence in the midst of religious Zionism’s ballot would chase away thousands of “sane and reasonable” people, predicted Rosen.
Bennett inserted Ohana as part of his prerogative to handpick several unelected candidates to checker the list of elected candidates that the party’s recent primary produced. Bennett’s recruits, who included actress and former MTV presenter Eden Harel, who turned down his offer; and former Peace Now activist Dr. Anat Roth, who was inserted at the expense of Yehudit Shilat, a pioneer of Orthodox feminism, were also controversial. Ohana’s enlistment, however, dwarfed them all.
Bennett’s Facebook page was swamped with declarations of disappointment, alarm and scorn. “Is this Bayit Yehudi or Kadima?” wrote one person, alluding to the list cobbled together by Ehud Olmert following Ariel Sharon’s departure. “This is embarrassing,” wrote another. “Worthy leaders did not make it in the primary, and in their place you are putting in a gimmick?” One would hope, wrote a third surfer, that this would not prove to be an own goal.
The onslaught reportedly reverberated in a stormy meeting of Bennett’s 12-member Knesset faction, where he was attacked by all of his colleagues – who echoed rank-and-file statements about Ohana being “an empty man” who does not espouse the party’s values and aims.
Even party whip Ayelet Shaked, Bennett’s confidante and his original secular transplant in the party, opposed Ohana’s recruitment; not to mention MK Zvulun Kalfa, who announced his resignation from Bayit Yehudi, explaining he was offended as a descendant of the Middle Eastern immigrations this initiative was meant to impress.
And so, with several hours to the deadline for candidates/ lists submission, and less than 48 hours after announcement of his candidacy, Ohana canceled it, explaining he had not anticipated the public storm it triggered.
Ohana now returns, unscathed, to his familiar roles as sportscaster and coach. Bennett, however, returns to his roles as minister, party leader and aspiring prime minister, scarred, injured and followed by the political equivalent of soccer’s yellow card.
Ohana would indeed have been odd by any yardstick – culturally, politically and socially – in the crowd where he would have landed, had Bennett had it his way.
The man who was once seen by millions of viewers making an obscene gesture at a referee who penalized him in a World Cup qualifier, was on his way to a Knesset faction once led by intellectuals like Dr. Yosef Burg, a Leipzig University philosopher who spoke more than a dozen languages, and Dr. Yitzhak Rafael, a laureate of the Bialik Prize for Judaic Scholarship.
Sports was not an anathema to these religious scholars, who saw physical activity as part of what national liberation requires. They were even fine with spectator sports, and in fact nurtured a small organization, Elitzur, whose several-dozen basketball and volleyball clubs provided a venue for observant athletes to avoid playing on Shabbat.
Even so, the stadium is arguably a vestige of ancient paganism, and the modern athlete’s popular celebration smacks of idolatry. This attitude is of course debatable, but among observant Jews it is common; and among Orthodox rabbis, it is often instinctive – even if actively challenging spectator sports is not on their agenda.
Moreover, observant voters are generally opposed to Israeli soccer’s systematic desecration of Shabbat, in which Ohana was a central participant. “How can we be represented by a man who desecrated Shabbat publicly?” asked some of Bennett’s critics, citing a famous Talmudic phrase characterizing a Jew gone astray.
The question therefore is how Bennett failed to see all this in advance, and the answer is twofold: On the one hand, he does not always look where some of his electorate’s microscopes snoop, and on the other hand, they do not look where his telescope points.
Politics is not new to Ohana. The handsome, eloquent and opinionated scorer’s backing of Ariel Sharon during the disengagement was priceless for the newly founded Kadima. “As far as I am concerned, all settlements can be evacuated,” he said a decade ago, in a statement that Bennett’s ultra-hawkish electorate never forgot.
Yet to that, Bennett had the good answer that Ohana had changed his mind in the wake of what happened in Gaza following the retreat, and he was now opposed to all withdrawals.
Recalling religious Zionism’s isolation those days, when its efforts to sweep the rest of the country to its cause failed colossally, Bennett now said: “We need to reach new audiences.” That is a statement religious Zionism has always liked to make, but never managed to realize. Instead, it nurtured its own settlements and institutions – where its members enjoyed each other’s warmth, but others felt they were outsiders.
This sectarianism unfolded on three fronts: residence, observance and affluence.
On the residential side, religious Zionists increasingly lived in settlements beyond the Green Line, or in big cities alongside others like them. Religiously, this population followed rabbis whose idea of pluralism was to listen to others until they too become religious Zionists like them.
And socially, the party’s following has been mainly middle class ever since the rise of Shas in 1984, and its precursor Tami in 1981.
It was this social homogeneity that Bennett hoped to change through the figure of Ohana, a self-made man born to penniless Moroccan immigrants who ran a kiosk in a Jerusalem office building while raising their nine children in a shack in then-downtrodden Kiryat Hayovel.
Ohana, said Bennett while defending his candidate’s secularism, goes to synagogue, says Kiddush and respects tradition. “There are thousands like him and they too should feel at home in our party,” he said, alluding to the broad proletarian electorate for which his party has seemed too educated, Orthodox and rich.
THE OHANA FIASCO is Bennett’s first political mistake, following a meteoric career in which the commando-turned-millionaire rose in less than a decade from an aide to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to his would-be successor as leader of the Israeli Right.
The 43-year-old Bennett’s failure to see in advance how Ohana’s recruitment would be received is more than a momentary misjudgment.
It exposes a background and game plan that will sooner or later make Bennett the target of the rabbis whose support he has grown to disparage.
Bennett is different from his party’s traditional leadership. He did not study in a yeshiva, and for several years was not observant.
His wife, Gilat, was raised secular and does not cover her hair, and Bennett shakes women’s hands and while posing for photos with young female fans, could innocently put his arms around their shoulders – the way secular politicians habitually do, but religious politicians never do.
Beyond these external oddities, Bennett is not a Judaic scholar. The rabbis who feel they should tell religious Zionism’s leaders what to do see in him a spiritual lightweight, little more than an electoral instrument.
Paradoxically, that is pretty much the way Bennett sees the rabbis, only while they still see in him an electoral asset, he now sees in them an electoral liability. In his road map, what was founded as an Orthodox party that focused on passing religious legislation, and as such needed its rabbis as spiritual guides, should now morph into a pan-Israeli party with a much broader and more diverse following – with a revamped agenda where religion is less a matter of legislation and dogma, and more a personal and amorphous preference.
As long as this meant bringing on board more women, sprinkling the faction with the occasional secularist and even pandering to the Left – the party’s hardcore were prepared to acquiesce with Bennett’s revolution.
Ohana’s recruitment was an entirely different thing: It redefined Bennett as a threat to the old guard’s idea of Israel’s public sphere, and their place within it.
To stand his ground, Bennett would have to debate the rabbis not only electorally, as he has; but also theologically, which he hasn’t and also never will – because in substance he is a salesman, not a theologian.
That is why Bennett is now left to retrieve the ball he has kicked into his own net, while the old guard basks in the success of its counteroffensive – highlighted by Rabbi Rosen’s comparison of Bennett’s granting a Knesset seat to Ohana with Caligula’s granting a senate seat to his horse.