Middle Israel: The gospel according to Naftali Bennett

Indeed, political secession almost always fail, and Bennett’s will be no exception.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked address the media, November 19, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked address the media, November 19, 2018
‘We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” an electrifying Teddy Roosevelt told 2,000 adoring delegates at the Chicago Coliseum, who believed they were joining a political bulldozer’s grand return to relevance, to power and to destiny.
That was in August 1912, shortly after Roosevelt, whose two-term presidency had ended in 1908, decided to split the Republican Party and run against his successor, William Howard Taft.
Roosevelt’s promises, including social welfare legislation and the voting right for women, were exciting, but when the election was over those 2,000 fans learned the impulsive soloist they followed won a mere eight states as opposed to Woodrow Wilson’s 40.
Roosevelt’s Progressive Party did win more than Roosevelt’s former secretary of war Taft, a Pyrrhic victory after which the latter joked that no one was ever elected former president with a larger majority.
Roosevelt’s precedent comes to mind following Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s demolition of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party he led for six years, in order to plant on its debris a new home, the New Right, a name that ironically echoes the New Nationalism platform with which Roosevelt seceded, ran, and lost.
Indeed, political secession almost always fail, and Bennett’s will be no exception.
SECESSION FAILED grandly for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose resignation from the Zionist Executive in 1923, and from the Zionist Organization in 1935, sidelined him until his death in 1940, and marginalized his followers for another 37 years, despite the “new” that Jabotinsky – like Bennett and Roosevelt – attached to his new outfit, the New Zionist Organization.
Secession also failed for Jabotinsky’s nemesis, David Ben-Gurion, after he stunned his loyalists in a meeting in his home in Tel Aviv in June 1965 when he said: “I have decided to secede from the party,” in that case Labor’s precursor, Mapai.
Expectations ran high that Ben-Gurion would debilitate the party he had built and personified until coming to hate it in the wake of his skirmishes with its bosses Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Pinchas Sapir.
Yet Ben-Gurion’s new party, Rafi, garnered a mere 10 Knesset seats as opposed to Mapai’s 45, and was left to languish in the opposition as Eshkol easily formed without it a broad coalition of 73 lawmakers.
Yes, secession did work for Ariel Sharon when he left the Likud to establish Kadima, but Bennett is not Sharon, and the duo he forms with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is not even a pale shadow of the political juggernaut Sharon formed with Shimon Peres, who followed Sharon to Kadima 40 years after following Ben-Gurion to Rafi.
Bennett’s resume has no equivalents of building Israel’s military industries, plotting its nuclear program, or defeating hyperinflation, as Peres’s did, and Shaked, with all due respect to her imprint on the judiciary, did not shape history the way Sharon did when he helped turn the tides of the Yom Kippur War and of last decade’s war on Palestinian terrorism.
Now, because it is expressly seeking to replace rather than orbit the Likud, the New Right is very possibly maneuvering itself into the next Knesset’s backbenches, because whoever leads the Likud will see in Bennett and Shaked enemies, and prefer over them a centrist alternative like Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid.
Yet the shame about this secession lies not in its prospects of success, dim though they are, but in its causes – both the ones that did drive it and the ones that unfortunately did not.
LIKE PREVIOUS failed secessionists, Bennett is driven by personal ambition, the urge to be defense minister; but unlike them, he brings no novel idea, something like Ben-Gurion’s electoral-reform demand, Roosevelt’s federal income tax vow, or Jabotinsky’s evacuation plan of 1.5 million Polish Jews.
To say, as Bennett did while announcing his move, “we are against a Palestinian state, against releasing terrorists, and for the State of Israel” is like saying “we are for nice weather.”
Similarly, saying “my wife’s family is secular but we are one family,” as Bennett did that evening, or “we believed in taking the hard way, but we believe in the right thing,” as Shaked did, is like offering voters a group hug.
It could have been different.
Bennett could have said the truth about his departure, which is that he couldn’t stand the narrow-minded and chauvinistic rabbis who climbed his back; that he felt they were using him politically; and that he rejected them religiously.
That is evidently the truth about Bennett’s own observance. Discussing openly its religious substance and social meaning would have been epiphanic.
Bennett could have said:
“The historic National Religious Party did marvelous things, building observant schools, consolidating the Sabbath as a national value, and making observance possible in the IDF. However, observance in this country is no longer threatened. That’s why so many observant Israelis vote for secular parties. 
“That’s what I have to say about Orthodoxy’s politics. But I am here today to speak for the non-Orthodoxy that most Israelis effectively espouse, seeking God and upholding tradition in any of the Torah’s 70 faces.
“The non-Orthodoxy from which my family hailed is not my enemy. When I entered Pittsburgh’s wounded Tree of Life Synagogue, I didn’t feel what the rabbis of Bayit Yehudi would have felt there; I felt at home.
“When I enter a minyan where men and women pray together, I don’t feel they are deviating from Judaism; I feel they are practicing it.
“And when I face a soldier whose mother isn’t Jewish, but speaks Hebrew, graduated Israeli schools, sacrifices to defend the Jewish state and says he feels Jewish – I feel not in the company of a stranger; I feel in the company of a fellow Jew.
“That is why I am launching a new party, one that will represent traditionalism, fight for Jewish pluralism, and be called the Israeli Home.”