Politics: No apologies from Bayit Yehudi candidates

A question that has plagued Bayit Yehudi MKs for the past two years: What does being a religious-Zionist mean?

Naftali Bennett in hipster satire‏ (photo credit: screenshot)
Naftali Bennett in hipster satire‏
(photo credit: screenshot)
When registration for Bayit Yehudi’s January 14 primary closed Wednesday and when its membership drive closed last month with 20,000 new members, the party proudly touted its diversity.
More members come from central cities – especially Tel Aviv – or the periphery than from Judea and Samaria, and candidates come from all over the country! Most members are under 34, and many candidates are under 40! Out of 42 candidates, 11 are women – including Anett Haskia, an Arab Zionist with kids in the IDF – and two are Druse! There are also eight Sephardic contenders, by The Jerusalem Post’s count.
Plenty of candidates had little to do with Bayit Yehudi before the party opened the primary to anyone who joins, without a waiting period.
Some moved from other political homes to Bayit Yehudi – like Im Tirzu founder Ronen Shoval, who was affiliated with Yisrael Beytenu; and former Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip chairman Danny Dayan and attorney Yossi Fuchs, both ex-Likudniks.
The party even has a reality TV star, Akiva Shmuely, who fans of Israel’s version of The Amazing Race (“The Race to the Million”) know as Shushi, the nickname by which his wife and partner in the competition call him.
He worked for former Bayit Yehudi leader Daniel Herschkowitz briefly, but was not involved in party politics in the last two years.
If candidates were broken down into archetypes, party leader Naftali Bennett would probably want his list to include faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, his closest ally, and plenty of fresh faces but also loyal old-timers, like Senior Citizens Affairs Minister Uri Orbach.
He’d want someone secular in addition to Shaked, like Shoval or Dayan; a new woman – he seems to favor Peace Now activist-turnedright- winger Anat Roth; an immigrant – US-born Uri Bank has his endorsement; and someone new but loyal, like former IDF chief rabbi Avihai Ronzki, who backed Bennett and Shaked in the last election.
However, the diversity in Bennett’s ideal Bayit Yehudi exists only up to a point.
After all, the party has to rally around something to set it apart from the others.
Those rallying points show, as Bayit Yehudi’s slogan goes, that the candidates have “no apologies” about the party’s core issues.
The candidates hold completely uniform views on a two-state solution – they oppose it; and settlement construction – they favor it. They may have nuanced ideas about what to do in the here and now, but you won’t find anyone supporting territorial concessions.
Actually, you’ll find one person – who has faced broad derision within the party.
When Batya Kahana-Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that works for agunot, broke rank and said such concessions may be necessary, Bayit Yehudi put out an official statement that the party “will never agree to give away parts of the land... Whoever agrees belongs with us; whoever doesn’t should do a rotation with Buji [Labor leader Isaac Herzog].”
The same homogeneity exists when it comes to gay marriage.
A video produced by popular religious-Zionist news site Kippah showed 17 candidates responding to a question about their position on same-sex marriage, with responses ranging from “No such thing” (Yehudit Shilat, Nehemiah Rappel); “I don’t get why we need that” (Moshe Solomon) and “You need a husband and wife in order to bring kids into the world” (Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky); to “I don’t judge people who are so plagued” (Avraham Azoulay) and “We need to help people in distress; this is a difficult situation” (Chagit Moshe).
Once again, Kahan-Dror differed from the rest, saying she is for civil unions for gay couples, granting them the same rights as married couples, but that marriage is between a man and a woman. Im Tirzu’s Shoval gave a similar response.
Of course, both Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On and Hatnua head Tzipi Livni wrote a Facebook post calling the party homophobic and hateful, but the chance that opposing gay marriage or angering Gal-On/Livni will hurt any primary candidate is slim. In fact, it may help them.
Another matter of near-consensus in Bayit Yehudi is support for an immigrant candidate, and the importance of hasbara (public diplomacy).
A senior party source revealed to the Post that internal polling showed hasbara is one of the most important issues to Bayit Yehudi voters – which will help Dayan, currently foreign envoy of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip; Shimon Riklin, a right-wing television and radio pundit; and Bank, the party’s faction secretary and a co-founder of the Israel Allies Foundation, which forms pro-Israel caucuses in parliaments around the world.
The poll also showed that most Bayit Yehudi members think it is important to vote for at least one immigrant.
Immigrants tend to want to vote for someone from their home country or at least, language. Americans have Bank and Fuchs; South Africans have Ze’ev Schwartz, international kollel chain Torah Mitzion founder; Russians have former Makor Rishon political correspondent Sofi Ron-Moria; and Ethiopians have Solomon, a community organizer through the organization he heads, Hineni.
While the party does not have a reserved spot for an immigrant, there are 5,000 English-speakers out of 77,000 members, who could boost Bank – Bennett’s preferred Anglo – Schwartz or Fuchs, and Ron-Moria is thought to have a good chance of taking one of the slots saved for women.
If this all sounds too harmonious for a political party, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of arguing, The biggest debate in Bayit Yehudi is, in a sense, about what it means to be a religious- Zionist – exactly what caused most of the fighting within the faction over the last two years. Don’t forget that this party held the Religious Affairs portfolio, but could not decide who to back for chief rabbi until the last minute.
There is the hardal faction, religious hard-liners like MK Mordechai Yogev and Takana Forum against sexual abuse director Shilat.
To generalize, they think Bayit Yehudi has become too moderate on matters of religion and state and should not have secular people and non-Jews in the party. In this way, they are similar to Tekuma, the party led by Construction Minister Uri Ariel, which has four seats reserved on the Bayit Yehudi list. MK Yoni Chetboun felt so strongly that Bayit Yehudi opposed his hardal views, he left to join up with former Shas leader Eli Yishai and form a new party.
The middle stream of religious-Zionism in Bayit Yehudi believes in moderate reforms of relations between religion and state, essentially hoping to make Judaism more welcoming without giving up on halachic stringency. This group includes Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan; Slomiansky – who also happens to be a rabbi, though he doesn’t mention it often; Deputy Education Minister Avraham Wortzman; and Rabbi Dr.
Doron Danino, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.
Then, there is the more liberal stream – which includes Bank, Rapel, Orbach and Bar-Ilan political science Prof. Asher Cohen. This section of religious-Zionism largely backed David Stav for chief rabbi, and seeks to create a greater marketplace of ideas when it comes to religion and state, while remaining Orthodox.
All this, of course, is inside baseball to anyone who is not familiar with the religious- Zionist community – with which 22 percent of Israeli Jews identify, according to a not-yet-released study by the Israel Democracy Institute. In a nutshell, for anyone who doesn’t know the nuances, the candidates representing each stream oppose a full separation of religion and state as a rule. Some are for looser ties, especially when it comes to marriage and conversion, some want to keep them as is, and some want to tighten them.
Despite the fact that the candidates seem to maintain a high level of homogeneity in their views, the competition is rough.
A Bayit Yehudi spokesman indicated Wednesday night that Bennett would likely use all three spots he is allotted to appoint candidates.
One will go to former Walla News editor-in-chief Yinon Magal, who already appears in campaign videos, and the others have yet to be announced.
Between that and Tekuma’s deal, and considering Bayit Yehudi’s average of 16 seats in last week’s polls, the 42 candidates are competing for eight spots – at least three of which will go to women. Five central committee members are also competing for the 10th slot.
Who fills those spots – hardal, centrist, liberal, secular, Arab or Druse – remains to be seen, but count on them opposing territorial concessions, gay marriage and separation of religion and state.