As NRP folds to create united front, signs of dissent emerge

Orlev says party returning to its original political line with new framework that focuses on education and Jewish identity.

orlev smiles 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
orlev smiles 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
More than 1,000 crocheted kippa-wearing members of the National Religious Party voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday evening to disband the 52-year-old party and create a new right-wing list in its stead. Although the vote effectively erased a symbol of religious Zionism from the political map, the atmosphere was festive in the auditorium at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. "The NRP is returning to its original political line with a new framework and agenda that puts education and Jewish identity at the forefront," said NRP chairman Zevulun Orlev, who led the move. "Creation of a new list will revitalize the party and reinstate the political power it enjoyed in the NRP's heyday." A public council of about 40 members will be created and tasked with choosing the new list's candidates for the 18th Knesset. The council will be chaired by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror. Rabbis on the council will include Bnei Akiva Yeshivot Rabbi Haim Druckman, Elon Moreh Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Tzohar NGO and Kibbutz Lavi Rabbi Yehuda Gilad. Hebron-Kiryat Arba Rabbi Dov Lior was also mentioned as a possible member. However, Lior has not confirmed his participation. The rabbis represent a broad range of opinions and leadership styles, from the more liberal Cherlow, Gilad and Druckman to the more religiously right-wing Levanon, who belongs to the haredi-nationalist (hardal) camp. Several women are council members, including Prof. Yafa Zilbershatz, vice dean of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Law, and Sarah Eliash, who runs an elite girls' high school in Kedumim. The council includes at least two Sephardim who represent development towns: Rabbi David Turgeman of Dimona and Miro Dayan of Beit She'an. The goal of the council is to straddle the chasms that have plagued the NRP over the years. Religious Zionists are split on class, ethnicity, political ideology, and theology. Each of these divisive issues has created fault lines that have widened over the years, undermining the religious Zionist party's electoral strength. Despite the attempt to secure unity, there are already signs of dissent. On Sunday, the Council of Rabbis of the Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip called to create a special rabbinical council that would guide the new party on major political issues dealing with "the Land of Israel and the people of Israel." The rabbis also called on the new party to do away with its plans to ensure that at least two women and two non-Orthodox candidates would be in the top 10 spots on its Knesset candidates list. Orlev said in response that there was already a public council that included rabbis and other figures who would help lead the new party. Orlev represents a large contingent of religious Zionists who believe that rabbinic opinion (Da'at Torah) should not have disproportionate sway over political decisions. Rabbi David Stav, a spokesman for the moderate rabbinic organization Tzohar, agreed that rabbis should not be involved in politics more than anyone else. "Inevitably rabbis are manipulated by politicians or are simply not informed on the issues," said Stav. "There is no Da'at Torah on political issues." In contrast, the Council of Rabbis of the Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, headed by Lior, is of the opinion that rabbis should have the final say on major political decisions. The council issued a declaration that praised the move to create a united list "in the spirit of the Torah that has the goal of bringing Jews closer to Judaism and to love of the Land of Israel." It also called to create an alliance with haredi parties that would present a Knesset list that "leads the public in the light of the Torah." According to Immanuel Shiloh, editor-in-chief of Be'sheva - a weekly that caters to a religious Zionist readership - the Council of Rabbis' call will not necessarily lead to a rift. "It could be that Rabbi Lior and other spiritual leaders think it is disparaging to the Torah for rabbis to sit on the same public council with businessmen, university professors and social activists," he said. "But that does not mean the rabbis will wage a war against the new party." Shiloh said the influence of Council of Rabbis would depend on who was chosen to lead the new party. According to Tuesday's decision, a primary will be held that will be open to anyone who identifies with the principles of the new party, is not a member of another party, and pays a symbolic fee. Three men are vying for the chairmanship: Orlev, National Union chairman Uri Ariel and former NRP deputy minister Yigal Bibi. If Ariel won, the Council of Rabbis would likely have more of a say in the party's decision-making, Shiloh said. The NRP, which had traditionally received between 10 and 12 Knesset seats, suffered a sudden fall in electoral strength in 1981. First, the NRP was ravaged by TAMI, a party that catered to the interests of Jews from Muslim countries and was headed by a Aharon Abuhatzeira, an NRP defector. Later Shas, which was created in 1984, took away NRP's Sephardi vote. At the same time, the Gush Emunim movement, which was created after the Six Day War, gave birth to several right-wing parties such as Moledet, Tekuma and Morasha. Many of them splintered from the NRP and appealed to its more hawkish voters. Also, NRP lost its left-wing constituency to Meimad. Meanwhile, many NRP voters, who are ardent Zionists and have integrated fully into secular Israeli society, began questioning the need for a narrow-interest political party. A significant proportion of the party's traditional voters began voting for larger parties such as Likud and Kadima, and to a certain extent for Labor.