Naftalli Bennett and the trials of Religious Zionism

Religious Zionism was never in a position to lead the Zionist enterprise, though it was part of it since 1902

Naftali Bennett and Rafi Peretz – allies in the right-wing party Yamina (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Naftali Bennett and Rafi Peretz – allies in the right-wing party Yamina
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“The old will be renewed and the novel will be sanctified,” wrote Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935) in what would become the motto of religious Zionism.
Now the old is at a loss to seize the new, as religious Zionism’s reinstalled leader, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, targets the secular voters that his illiberal and quarrelsome colleagues are in no position to seize.
Religious Zionism was never in a position to lead the Zionist enterprise, though it was part of it since 1902, when the Mizrachi movement that backed Theodor Herzl was established.
Kook’s statement encapsulated a voluminous theology that defied the ultra-Orthodoxy by embracing the Zionist movement despite the secularism of most of its leaders and followers.
It was a religious revolution, arguably on the scale of Christianity’s Reformation, as it challenged the rabbinical consensus that the Jews’ redemption would be delivered by God rather than by man, and miraculously rather than politically.
Down in the field, this theology inspired religious Zionism’s establishment last century of some 150 villages and kibbutzim, thousands of religious Zionist schools, kindergartens, seminaries and yeshivas, and hundreds of religious councils that to this day build and administer synagogues, cemeteries, and ritual baths throughout the Jewish state.
Politically, however, though it participated in 30 of Israel’s 34 governments so far, more than any other Israeli movement, religious Zionism was never in a position to lead the Jewish state.
Bennett has been out to change this for the past seven years, and a political cockfight he just won may create the impression he has just inched closer to his goal. He hasn’t. He hasn’t, and if anything, his goal has never been more elusive.
Bennett’s strategic inclusiveness generated crisis when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured him to reunite his New Right Party, which fields a mixture of secular and religious candidates, with Bayit Yehudi, the party that is the nominal successor of the historic Mizrachi movement, and which Bennett headed until breaking from it in 2018.
In what inverted Bennett’s wooing of the mainstream public, Bayit Yehudi’s current leader, Education Minister Rafi Peretz, had struck an alliance with Otzma Yehudit, whose followers include Rabbi Meir Kahane’s disciples.
Kahane, assassinated in 1990 by an Egyptian-American in New York, had a platform that was ruled as racist by the Knesset, which barred him from running in 1988, a move that the High Court of Justice then approved, in response to an appeal.
Peretz thought that Otzma’s following, an estimated 90,000 voters, would be an important addition to his faction, and argued that its leader, provocative lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir who regularly represents in court far-right troublemakers and terrorists, has become more moderate.
Bennett dismissed this impression vehemently.
Referring to Ben-Gvir’s priding himself on hanging in his living room the picture of Baruch Goldstein, the physician who in 1994 slew 29 Muslims worshipers in the mosque atop Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs – Bennett said: “Imagine an American congressman hanging in his living room the picture of a man who killed Jews while praying in a synagogue: Does it sound logical?”
Bennett’s attitude did not dissuade Netanyahu from attempting to push all the parties that sprawl to Likud’s Right, including Ben-Gvir’s, into one ticket, hoping to prevent in this way the depletion of far-right votes which might be stranded under the electoral threshold if Ben-Gvir were to run independently.
Netanyahu thus summoned Peretz and Bennett to his office hours before the Central Election Committee’s deadline for the parties’ submissions of their lists of candidates for the March 2 election.
To Netanyahu’s chagrin, Bennett put his foot down, and to Netanyahu’s embarrassment, Peretz surrendered to Bennett, betraying Ben-Gvir with an announcement that he will run without him.
For the 47-year-old Bennett it was an impressive victory, but one that is tactical rather than strategic.
For one thing, the consequent alliance – Yamina – is a hodgepodge of rival factions and personalities. More deeply, Bennett’s religious conduct, social background and strategic aims are very different from those of his colleagues, both Peretz and this formation’s third partner, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the National Union faction.
In his religiosity, Bennett is an entirely different species from his two allies. Peretz, 64, and Smotrich, 39, are products of the nationalist yeshivas that see territorial compromise as a religious sin and at the same time emulate ultra-Orthodoxy’s halachic rigidity. Bennett never attended a yeshiva, has no pretensions to be a Talmudic scholar and does not share his colleagues’ rigid observance.
For instance, Bennett shakes women’s hands and hired a lesbian spokeswoman. His wife does not cover her hair, and he had no compunctions attending a memorial service in Pittsburgh’s non-Orthodox Tree of Life synagogue.
These gaps became glaring the week of his showdown with Peretz, when the latter implied, in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, that homosexuality was unnatural. Smotrich had previously gone even farther than Peretz, organizing a counter-gay parade that compared gays to animals.
Bennett and his colleagues also disagree on issues like women’s military service.
Peretz is opposed to observant women’s enlistment, and even more so to their service alongside men as combat soldiers. Smotrich is even more extreme on this issue, having called on observant men to avoid enlistment as long as the IDF does not cancel its mixed-service programs.
Bennett, by contrast, supports women’s service, is married to a former IDF soldier, and said he is “proud” of the women who serve in the IDF.
Bennett and Peretz do have much in common in terms of their own military service. Peretz, a helicopter pilot and squadron commander who later served as the IDF’s chief rabbi with the rank of Brig.-Gen., represents the post-1973 generation of Orthodox officers who produced the IDF’s first observant generals. Bennett also spent long years as a combat officer, in his case in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.
Smotrich, however, deferred his service for a full decade and then enlisted for a shortened, non-combat military service which he then cut even shorter by obtaining a three-month leave to promote his candidacy to the Knesset.
All this is in addition to Smotrich’s having used his long years in yeshiva to obtain a law degree, in contravention of the law’s intention that those deferring service for religious study will dedicate their entire time to religious study.
Smotrich, in short, represents the part of religious Zionism which is closest to ultra-Orthodoxy, and is therefore even less of a natural partner than Peretz for the liberal and patriotic Bennett.
Even so, Bennett now finds himself once again atop religious Zionism’s reassembled confederation of antagonists. This is not where he had planned to be back when he entered the political fray in 2013.
Bringing with him the commando officer’s aura, the successful self-made hi-tech millionaire’s prestige, and his American childhood’s impeccable English, Bennett breathed new life into religious-Zionist politics, which had been seen as gray, dated and even ossified.
Accompanied by the secular and glamorous Ayelet Shaked, his design was evidently to add diversity, youth, and color to a marginal political party, and gradually reinvent it as a springboard from which to storm the premiership.
It was a design that none of religious Zionism’s previous eight leaders dared entertain. It also transcended religious Zionism’s sociology and theology.
Bennett’s implication, in challenging Peretz’s pact with Kahane’s disciples, was that their mentor’s theology was not just disagreeable to him, but abominable.
Kahane’s theology was that the Jewish state should be purely Jewish, and that its Arabs should be transported to Arab lands, whether voluntarily or forcibly. It was, to be sure, a perversion of religious Zionism’s two founding theologies: that of Rabbi Kook and Mizrachi founder Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915).
Though seen as two links in one chain, the two versions of Zionism were entirely different.
Reines thought that Zionism was a good political plan, but his thinking was purely instrumental. He did not claim the Messiah was around the corner, and much less that Zionism is Redemption’s harbinger or that the Jewish state will carry religious value. In fact, he even backed Herzl’s acceptance of a British offer to settle Jews in Western Africa.
Kook, by contrast, thought Zionism was part of the Divine plan for the Jewish people’s redemption, and that its ultimate state should be Divine.
Moreover, asked how he justified cooperation with Zionism’s secularists, Kook replied that they were like builders building a palace, who while building it roam its interiors noisily, uncleanly, and freely, but once through building it will enter that palace quietly, respectfully, and wearing their best clothes.
The moral was that secularism was but a byproduct of the Jewish people’s return to their land, and that it is part of the turbulence that the Divinely engineered transition from exile to redemption entails.
Back in today’s political fray, Peretz and Smotrich – though devout believers in Kook’s messianic Zionism – in one sense actually represent Reines’s legacy, because they too take observant Zionism’s marginality as a given, and make do with serving their narrow, sectarian constituency.
Electorally, this formula has been abandoned by much of its intended constituency.
Hundreds of thousands of observant Israelis vote for secular parties, thus implying that the combination of Judaism and Zionism no longer needs a political party’s sponsorship.
That is clearly the feeling of the many religious politicians who dot the two main secular parties, like Blue and White’s Chili Troper and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, who was a classmate of Rabbi Peretz’s in Jerusalem’s Netiv Meir high school.
Likud’s religious Zionists are even more prominent, including Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and newly appointed Diaspora Affairs Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is the first religious Zionist woman to become a minister in Israel’s history.
This integration is part of a broader trend, whereby religious Zionists have reached positions that once were unthinkable for observant Israelis, from head of the Shin-Bet, commissioner of Israel Police and president of the Hebrew University to ambassadors in Washington, London and the UN.
Still, no observant politician has ever been in a position to become Israel’s prime minister. That is what Naftali Bennett set out to do, first by reinventing Bayit Yehudi in 2013, and then by leaving it and establishing the New Right in 2018.
The New Right’s subsequent failure to cross the electoral threshold crushed Bennett’s design. His political resurrection following last spring’s premature election did not change this failure, despite his impressive comeback, first as defense minister, and now as head of religious Zionism’s rejoined ticket. Historians will debate whether Bennett’s refusal to accept religious Zionism’s political marginality represented an extension of, or departure from, Rabbi Kook’s theology.
There will be no debating that Bennett’s attempted leap beyond religious Zionism’s confines has failed; for rather than morph into the religious leader of the secular majority, he returned to his original position as a liberal prisoner shackled to his fundamentalist captors’ electoral trap.