Shake-up in religious Zionism

Will Bayit Yehudi give in to the old order or keep its promise to start something new?

Zionist rally 521 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Zionist rally 521
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Something new is happening in religious Zionism. Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) – the successor to the National Religious Party – fulfilled its election promise in brilliant style.
There are few similar examples of parties renewing themselves while making profound changes in virtually every significant area. For the first time in its history the party held primaries; it elected a young leader; the overwhelming majority of its elected Knesset Members are new faces; it succeeded in merging with the breakaway Tekumah; it included a secular woman on its Knesset list; a quarter of its newly elected Knesset faction are women; it replaced its predominantly religious agenda with wider national messages relevant to all segments of society; it won the support of thousands of non-religious voters; and above all, it replicated the National Religious Party’s best-ever electoral showing, the 12 seats it won in 1977.
But the political resurgence of religious Zionism goes beyond the Bayit Yehudi.
For the first time in years, the number of national religious Zionists in the Knesset is larger than the number of ultra- Orthodox Haredim. Besides the 11 in the Bayit Yehudi (not counting the secular Ayelet Shaked), there are another nine scattered among the Likud, Yesh Atid and Hatnua. This spread guarantees continuous friction among the religious Zionists, partly because of political interests like the desire to stand out by sharpening differences, and partly because it reflects profound ideological disagreements.
The internal cultural-religious divide in the religious Zionist camp between national religious Haredim (hardalim) and modern-Orthodox Jews and everything in between touches on a wide spectrum of issues in dispute among religious Zionists.
The representatives of religious Zionism in Yesh Atid, Rabbi Shai Peron and Dr. Aliza Lavie, as well as Elazar Stern in Hatnua, will pose repeated challenges to the Bayit Yehudi. They know that some of the positions they advocate will get widespread support from Bayit Yehudi voters and from a large number of Bayit Yehudi Knesset Members. Bayit Yehudi will have to maneuver skillfully among its own members some of whom tend towards modern Orthodoxy and others towards nationalist ultra-Orthodoxy.
An early example of this friction emerged during the recent conference of religious Zionist rabbis and the discourse that developed in its wake. The conference raised a storm of controversy over two issues, which need to be separated: national religious attitudes to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi camp, including the question of the Haredi draft; and the degree of involvement of national religious rabbis in the politics of Bayit Yehudi.
The Haredim quickly grasped that something new was afoot. More than the fear of ultra-secular Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (that they are used to), they were concerned at what seemed to be an emerging partnership between Yesh Atid and the Bayit Yehudi, especially between the leaders, Lapid and Bennett. Their growing distress at this development led to a process the like of which has not been seen in these parts for years – if ever: Haredi leaders actually approached religious Zionist rabbis hoping to influence Bayit Yehudi through them.
In this context, it is important to point out that religious Zionist rabbis are normally held in contempt by the ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist Haredim. This frequently elicits crudely dismissive language in the Haredi press. In a play on words calculated to embarrass the religious Zionist camp, nationalist Haredim, “hardalim,” are referred to as “dalim” (lightweights).
When names of religious Zionist rabbis are mentioned, the title rabbi is dropped.
Their books are nowhere to be found in Haredi yeshivas, since they presumably have nothing to add to the Haredi Torah world. Not to mention the fact that during the election campaign, Bayit Yehudi was denigrated as “a home of gentiles.”
After years of disdain, insult and humiliation, one might have expected that religious Zionist rabbis would not have been in a hurry to respond to the Haredi overtures. But some of them did so with unsurprising alacrity. They even rushed to convene a rabbinical conference to pass the message on to Bayit Yehudi.
Clearly, their hasty jumping to attention reflected feelings of inferiority and insecurity towards Haredi rabbis. If this sense of inferiority was to a large extent submerged, by quickly calling their conference the religious Zionist rabbis brought it out into the open, even if they don’t admit it. Indeed, it was fascinating to see religious Zionist rabbis going to battle to defend what they called “the Haredi Torah world.”
But it is doubtful whether the question of the Haredi draft really touches on the serious Torah world. At the heart of the political debate are Haredim who simply use the Torah world as a pretext for draft-dodging.
They argue that those who want to study Torah should not be interfered with, and only those who don’t want to study should be drafted. That boils down to code for anyone who registers in a yeshiva gets an automatic exemption.
But there is a big difference between being registered in a yeshiva and really studying Torah. The religious Zionist rabbis are certainly aware of the fact that Naftali Bennett did not mean to harm yeshiva students who genuinely study Torah.
In his references to the issue, he specifically targeted those who abuse the ideal of Torah study to dodge the draft. However, the rabbis’ conference placed them closer to the Haredi world and its rabbis than to the vast majority of religious Zionists, certainly Bayit Yehudi voters, on the crucial equality of service issue.
This raised a second related question on the religious Zionist rabbis’ status and their involvement in politics. Most outspoken was Rabbi Zephaniah Drori of Kiryat Shmona. In referring to Bayit Yehudi, he said, “They know very well that we [the rabbis] must support them, and that without our support there won’t be [national religious] politics. Therefore, they will have to listen to us. Under no circumstances can any one of them conclude agreements on his own.”
He went on to make a political assessment somewhere between a warning and a threat to Bennett that “if he decides on those issues on his own, without taking the Torah view into account, it will spell the end of his political career.” It is reasonable to suppose that some of the rabbis were uncomfortable with Drori’s radical position and that some of them even disagree. But there can be no doubt that Drori reflects the views of a good number of religious Zionist rabbis.
What this amounts to is a clear-cut rabbinical position in favor of the same relationship between rabbis and political leaders as in the Haredi parties. This modus operandi, which is expressed in the notion of “Torah opinion,” sees the political leadership as totally subordinate in its decision-making and actions to the religious leadership.
What this goes to show is that not only is there something new beginning, but the old order is still alive and well and doing its best to contain the new. It is difficult to imagine anything further from the election messages of Bayit Yehudi than the attempt to impose on the party political subordination to rabbis, Haredi style. There is no need for a poll to determine with absolute certainty that the vast majority of Bayit Yehudi voters, both the religious and secular, oppose this tooth and nail.
This discourse clearly reflects the stormy waters religious Zionism is likely to enter in the new Knesset. The increase in the number of religious Zionist deputies ensures that all the well-known differences will surface – this time it was over attitudes towards Haredim, their sharing of the defense burden, and the standing of rabbis vis-à-vis the political parties.
Next, the question of elections to the Chief Rabbinate is due to come up. Bayit Yehudi and especially Naftali Bennett will face repeated challenges of this kind.They will be tested time and again over whether they are giving in to the old order or keeping their promise to start something new. Prof. Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, is an expert on the national religious movement.