Religious-Zionist parties; Outward unity, inner turmoil

Making order of the political chaos in the religious-Zionist sector.

THE ONE uniting factor of practically the entire spectrum of the religious-Zionist world is that it is right-wing on Israel’s security and the conflict with the Palestinians.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE ONE uniting factor of practically the entire spectrum of the religious-Zionist world is that it is right-wing on Israel’s security and the conflict with the Palestinians.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
If one were to describe the world of religious-Zionist politics over the last few days, and Wednesday night in particular, the words “utter chaos” would barely do it justice.
Machiavellian machinations, double-dealing and disavowals are just some of the other ways in which the intrigue within the right-wing religious camp could be expressed.
But those bewildered by the factionalism within religious-Zionist politics should look beyond the political realm and out toward the broad landscape of religious-Zionist society to understand how these divisions have arisen.
Because the truth is that the religious-Zionist community today is diverse, multifaceted and complex, with several divisions, branches and offshoots. And it is this diversity that has given rise to the political factionalism that we have witnessed in recent days and months and, indeed, over the last few years.
Over the last 10 to 20 years, the sector has diverged into roughly three camps: the liberals, the mainstream and the “Hardal,” a Hebrew portmanteau meaning “nationalist ultra-Orthodox,” referring to the hard-line, religious conservatives of the religious-Zionist community.
Although there are no clear numbers, it is thought that the sector breaks down roughly as 15% liberal, 15% religious conservatives, and 70% mainstream.
But there are other divisions, too. The mainstream itself is not monolithic, with some among it inclining liberal, and others inclining conservative.
There is also a generational element, where the middle-aged and baby boomer generations are solidly mainstream, while the more youthful generations span a wide expanse of what is known as the religious-Zionist “spectrum,” from the rabbinically oriented, religiously devout, who are deeply committed to Jewish law, all the way to the “religious-lite,” whose religiosity is much flexible.
Another critical factor is the role of the community’s rabbinic leadership on both personal and societal life, and with the sector’s political representatives.
Dr. Moshe Hellinger, a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University and author of the new book Whereto the State of Israel? (Hebrew), notes two opposing trends: increased rabbinic influence at one end of the community, and a shaking-off of this influence at the other.
Those who are part of the religiously conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community more readily seek rabbinic guidance in their personal lives; and their political representatives, such as Bayit Yehudi leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz, are therefore more inclined to listen to the rabbis on matters of policy and political direction.
Hence the hard-line positions of Bayit Yehudi and National Union on matters of religion and state.
The more moderate elements of the religious-Zionist mainstream and, of course, the community’s liberal wing are far less interested in rabbinic guidance, especially within the political realm.
Indeed, part of Bennett’s desire in establishing New Right was to free himself of this rabbinic influence on social matters and religion and state issues, precisely because the rabbis’ positions run counter to the moderates and liberals he was trying to court.
ALL OF these divisions describe a community that is no longer monolithic as it was in decades past, and this societal diversification largely explains the political divisions that have become ever more apparent.
And so, whereas in the past the National Religious Party was the one, unified political edifice for the religious-Zionist community, today there is New Right, which its leader Naftali Bennett aimed at the moderate and liberal sector; Bayit Yehudi, which is the successor party to the NRP, but has now become a stronghold of conservatives; and the National Union Party, which has long been the representative of the conservative hard-liners.
Then there is the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party, whose ideological roots do not stem from the religious-Zionist community, but for which several tens of thousands of far-right religious-Zionists vote.
Further political divisions have emerged over the last year, including the establishment of the religiously austere, anti-gay Noam Party, representing the religious hard-liners of the Har Hamor religious-Zionist faction.
One small grouping led by prominent hard-liner Rabbi David Hai Hacohen even announced its political backing for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party in the September election.
And coupled with all this is the fact that some 35% of religious Zionists do not even vote for religious-Zionist parties.
According to Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, some 25% of the sector voted Likud, and 10% voted Blue and White.
The one uniting factor of practically the entire spectrum of the religious-Zionist world is that it is right-wing in terms of Israel’s security and its attitude to the conflict with the Palestinians, and therefore Blue and White, which has strongly emphasized its right-wing credentials, is as far away from the right-wing bloc that the overwhelming majority of the community will stray.
IT IS perhaps the religious-Zionist vote for the non-sectoral parties that is the most significant among all of the sector’s political factionalism.
Because the other great societal division is between those of the religious-Zionist community who are more committed to broader Israeli society and those who are still primarily focused on their sectoral identity.
And the former group is now a predominant force in Israeli society at large. Religious Zionists are, like never before, in positions of power and influence in all facets of Israeli life, from the army to the legal system, the general workforce and in the Knesset.
It is this growing desire to take greater responsibility for the state and not to be bound by sectoral identity that inspired Bennett’s decision to break away from the religiously conservative, sectoral old guard in Bayit Yehudi and form New Right, which he always dreamed would unite the Israeli Right of all stripes, not just the religious.
His first attempt, in April, was largely stymied by Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut Party, which deprived New Right of some 120,000 votes of like-minded people who were also attracted to Feiglin’s social and economic liberalism.
Bennett has now got cold feet twice on persevering with his political breakout project, but the basis of his idea is rooted in the potential he sees in the religious-Zionist community to break through its sectoral boundaries.
Hellinger says that, increasingly, religious-Zionist voters worry now about what is best for the right wing in general, and not just their own communal needs.
But he also says that it is too early to tell whether the relevance of specifically sectoral parties in the religious-Zionist world is coming to an end.
One question that has also been left hanging in the wake of Bennett’s decision to reunite with his hard-line religious partners is for whom will the liberal religious Zionists now vote?
Do they turn a blind eye to the religious conservatism of Peretz, Smotrich and the rabbis who back them, and vote Yamina for its right-wing credentials, in the hope that Bennett’s liberalism wins through?
Or do they look at the numerous victories the religious hard-liners scored over Bennett as head of Bayit Yehudi, and vote Blue and White because of its social and religious liberalism, in the hope that Benny Gantz’s party governs on security issues as strongly right-wing as it has campaigned?
The tumultuous events of this past week, and Bennett’s decision to run again with the more sectoral Bayit Yehudi and National Union parties, indicate that the religious-Zionist community is not on the threshold of embracing national and not sectoral politics just yet.
Indeed, the sector at large may never quite reach the point where more of its voters adopt national parties as their political homes.
But one thing is certain. Political unanimity and accord within the religious-Zionist community is dead and buried.