Bayit Yehudi is over - Does their public need a party anymore?

Following the disastrous two-year leadership of Rafi Peretz, Bayit Yehudi has completely collapsed.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the head of Bayit Yehudi (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the head of Bayit Yehudi
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Last Thursday night at midnight, a key political entity in the State of Israel that has in one form or another played a role in every Knesset since 1956 was eliminated from the national political map.
The Bayit Yehudi Party, the successor to the National Religious Party, failed to unite with another political faction and, due to disastrous polling numbers, decided not to run in the upcoming elections.
The political heir of the NRP – whose leaders, such as Haim-Moshe Shapira, Yosef Burg and Zvulun Hammer, made lasting contributions to the Jewish state and which has represented the religious-Zionist community for decades – will now not be represented in the next Knesset.
How did this venerable and fixture of Israeli politics fall so low?
In truth, developments leading to this outcome have been long in the making.
The old National Religious Party always faithfully served its constituents by focusing on religious issues; preserving the status quo on religion and state, including personal-status issues; and guaranteeing the viability of the religious-Zionist school system and yeshivas.
In the last two decades it also focused heavily on advancing the cause of the settlements, which religious Zionists pioneered. But its sphere of influence and the aspirations of its leaders remained focused on these narrow sectarian issues.
By 2009, the Bayit Yehudi Party, which was formed out of a merger of the NRP and the smaller Moledet Party, could secure only three seats in the Knesset, while its more conservative and right-wing partner National Union took four seats.
At the same time, more and more voters from the religious-Zionist community have voted for nonsectarian parties, almost exclusively on the Right. During the elections last year, some 35% of the sector are said to have voted for the Likud or Blue and White, according to one estimate.
In addition, religious-Zionist politicians are prominent in nonsectarian parties, including Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud), Ze’ev Elkin (New Hope and formerly of Likud), Pnina Tamano-Shata (Blue and White) and Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid).
In 2012, Naftali Bennett took control of Bayit Yehudi and was able to dramatically increase its appeal with a broader, less-sectarian message and the goal of addressing national issues besides just those affecting the religious-Zionist community.
He struggled for years against the old NRP establishment, especially with its rabbis, who had often been consulted by the religious-Zionist politicians on critical issues but whose influence he resisted. Bennett finally quit the party he had reshaped to form New Right in 2018.
Bennett expressly set up his new party as a union of religious and secular Israelis and embraced the more-liberal form of religious-Zionism that characterizes his own lifestyle and beliefs.
But his New Right Party dramatically, albeit very narrowly, failed to pass the electoral threshold. Bennett, while education minister, and his political ally Ayelet Shaked, while justice minister, crashed out of the Knesset.
At the same time, the rump of Bayit Yehudi and National Union united together and were able to garner five seats.
Following the disastrous two-year leadership of Rafi Peretz, Bayit Yehudi has completely collapsed.
In its wake, two parties remain. One is Bennett’s Yamina Party, which is essentially a reversion to his New Right initiative, combining moderate religious-Zionist figures together with nonreligious candidates and promising to address broad national issues.
The second is the union of the National Union Party, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, together with the anti-gay, religious-Zionist extremists of the Noam Party and the ultranationalist, Kahanist extremists of Otzma Yehudit Party.
Bayit Yehudi’s appalling polling figures put it in an awful negotiating position. After it rejected Smotrich’s attempt to take control of the entire party and its institutions in negotiations ahead of Thursday’s deadline, it dropped out of the elections altogether and endorsed Bennett’s Yamina.
To some extent, Bayit Yehudi has been squeezed out of the electoral map due to the divergence experienced for many years between the religious-Zionist mainstream and its conservative wing.
Perhaps 15% to 20% of the community belongs to this wing, which is more hard-line on matters of religion and state and more radical when it comes to the settlements and policies toward the Palestinians.
The more religiously conservative and politically radical elements in the community have gravitated toward Smotrich and his new political alliance since he is focused more narrowly on sectarian issues of the Jewish, and critically Orthodox, character of the state and the settlements.
The interminable infighting in Bayit Yehudi and the ineffective and divisive leadership of Peretz hollowed out the party and left it prostrate ahead of the upcoming election.
But the demise of Bayit Yehudi does not necessarily indicate that sectarian politics and concerns for the religious-Zionist public are irrelevant or without political consequence.
The Yamina alliance of New Right, Bayit Yehudi and National Union in last March’s elections garnered 240,000 votes.
And when Bennett ran his New Right Party in 2019 when trying to become an alternative to the Likud, albeit with a religious-Zionist flavor, he failed spectacularly.
Significantly, New Right stalwart MK Matan Kahana has said he wants to be religious services minister, an old religious-Zionist fief that has for a long time been in the hands of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
Kahana has emphasized the importance of a religious-Zionist vision for the country’s Jewish character, albeit a moderate one. This focus indicates the appreciation he and Bennett have for the ongoing political power of the sectarian concerns of the religious-Zionist community.
This community has without doubt evolved politically over the decades, and a large, influential and successful portion of it no longer believes it needs to be taken care of by a sectarian party.
This is even a natural development for a community based on an ideology that has always lauded the state and its value to the Jewish people and espoused the importance of contributing to its success on all levels.
But the reality is that large parts of the sector are still invested in the specific needs of the community and its unique values, and ignoring it is electorally perilous, as Bennett found out.
Although the National Religious Party and its formal successor, Bayit Yehudi, have been wiped out politically, the spirit of the political institution continues on.