Shattered dreams

Naftali Bennett has come short in his attempt to transform modern Orthodoxy’s role from supporting actor to director.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett
WITH ARTILLERY shells raining on the empty streets above him and the IDF awaiting the order to storm Old Jerusalem, the leader of religious Zionism told his fellow ministers in the Knesset’s bomb shelter: “They [the powers] will want to internationalize the Old City and I personally am not opposed to that.”
With the Six Days War’s climax hours away, no one could predict that the approaching cataclysm would, among other things, bury that politically moderate version of Judaism and replace it with the messianic nationalism that has since overtaken religious Zionism.
The voice in the bunker belonged to Haim Moshe Shapira, the stocky, mustachioed, longtime leader of the National Religious Party (NRP), who personified its 30-year alliance with the socialists who built the Jewish state. By the following decade, Shapira’s party would view territorial compromise, let alone in Jerusalem, as blasphemy.
Two generations on, modern Orthodoxy tried to transfigure again, this time from the Zionist enterprise supporting actor to screenwriter of the Jewish state’s present and director of its future. As the new government settles in and this experiment’s pilot, Naftali Bennett, leader of Bayit Yehudi – the metamorphosed NRP – licks his electoral wounds, it is clear that his original flight has nosedived. Shapira’s era was a celebration of political moderation, religious pragmatism and social humility.
In an inversion of Bennett’s militancy during last year’s fighting in Gaza, Shapira opposed the June 67 preemptive strike. Instead, he forced the creation of Israel’s first-ever broad government. It was part of a vision that saw modern Orthodoxy as a national bridge ‒ between religion and state, between socialism and Judaism, and between right and left.
an NRP that focused on casting the Jewish state in a Jewish image and on serving its constituency. This meant passing laws that kept IDF kitchens kosher, buses, trains and airplanes idle on Shabbat, and matrimony a rabbinical affair while religious bureaucrats built synagogues, cemeteries and ritual baths, and state-paid rabbis blanketed the country.
Military and foreign policy were to be the business of the ruling party, in this thinking. When the NRP cared about them, it was as a moderating force; for instance, when Shapira backed the 1957 retreat from Sinai, saying the modesty such a move entailed would be good for the Jewish state.
In return for its loyalty, Labor allowed modern Orthodoxy to look after its constituency by building an elaborate school system, by creating its own university, Bar-Ilan; its own bank, Mizrahi; its own construction company, Mishav; and its own kibbutzim and moshavim.
It was an era of mutual respect when the secular elite was sure of its political prominence and the religious minority did not dream of replacing it. Religious board members abounded in the second-tier ministries that religious Zionism commanded, but they could not be found in the Treasury, Defense, Education, or Foreign Affairs ministries. An observant general, pilot, or naval commando was unheard of.
This ecosystem was jolted between the wars of 1967 and 1973. The former made many rabbis interpret the victory as vindication of the messiah’s approach and as an instruction to settle the newly conquered lands.
The latter made them read the secular elite’s perplexity as a sign to replace Zionism’s avant-garde. That is how the West Bank settlement movement ended up led by religious Zionists, and how the number of observant IDF officers, commandos and pilots multiplied.
It was a psychic transition, one captured in novelist Haim Beer’s epic “The Time of Trimming,” in which an IDF chaplain who functions as an unassuming beadle is unseated by another, who by 1967 emerges as a messianic crusader. “National-religious education’s graduates,” author Amos Oz wrote of that era, “abandoned their traditional roles as kosher supervisors in the train’s cafeteria and rushed to the locomotive to grab its steering wheel.”
Still, the wheel remained elusive even after modern Orthodox Israelis flocked to the territorial frontier and crowded the military forefront. Yes, seven years after Shapira’s death his successors slammed open the locomotive’s door and installed the right-wing Likud’s Menachem Begin in its driver’s seat.
wheel remained in other people’s hands, and the religious Zionists returned to their familiar position – behind the driver. Most memorably, Begin ignored their demand not to abandon Sinai’s settlements for peace with Egypt.
Back then, religious Zionism shunned national leadership’s opportunity even when it beckoned, as party leader Yosef Burg did in 1979 when he turned down Begin’s offer to become foreign minister following Moshe Dayan’s resignation.
The way religious Zionism read the political landscape at the time, the Interior Ministry was more important than the Foreign Ministry because it believed dealing with mayors, synagogues, cemeteries, and ritual baths was more important than dealing with embassies, consulates, 10 Downing St. and the State Department.
Two years ago, all this changed. Bennett was a product of religious Zionism’s second era, a phase he set out to end and replace with a third era. To him, the equality that followed the original era of religious Zionism’s marginality was to be followed by a new era – one of prominence.
A major in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit and a self-made hi-tech millionaire, the son of San Franciscan immigrants never experienced the invisible ceilings under which the original religious Zionists lived.
In the IDF where he served there were religious generals, in the business sector where he built and sold a software developer for $145 million there were observant CEOs, and in the Hebrew University where he earned his law degree, observant professors, deans and executives abounded. And, so, when he decided to enter politics, serving the community from which he hailed seemed to him both an anachronism and a waste of political energy.
Having earned political experience as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff and then as director of the Judea and Samaria Settlements Council, Bennett set out to storm religious Zionism.
Before he could start, however, he had to fix one flaw none of modern Orthodoxy’s previous seven leaders carried ‒ he was a member of another party. Not only was he not a member of the modern Orthodox party he resolved to lead, he was a member of a secular party – Likud. It was a sign of things to come.
Having joined Bayit Yehudi, Bennett and his close friend, the late Uri Orbach, persuaded its leaders to hold a primary election. Such a move, they said, would open the party to broader circles, and bring its minuscule following, three Knesset seats at the time, closer to the 12 at which it peaked several times until 1977.
The election was held in 2012, the first such democratization in a movement that harked back to 1902, when the Mizrachi was established in Vilnius. Startled by the arrival of a young, charismatic officer and entrepreneur, the party elected as its leader a man whom most of its members had not known.
Owing nothing to its norms and pressure groups, Bennett steered what once was the National Religious Party in an exciting new direction: more national, less religious.
Having never attended a post-high school yeshiva, and having experimented with secularism during his military service, Bennett is very different religiously from the rabbis of the sprawling empire of yeshivas and seminaries over which he suddenly presided. He would be tested, all understood, by his delivery.
quick and swift. The party that entered the 2013 election with three seats emerged from it with 12. Bennett was now not only religious Zionism’s unrivaled leader, he was a contender for the leadership of the entire right. That pretension was reflected in the eclectic makeup of the parliamentary faction he now led, which included a war hero, a media celebrity, a retired colonel, a fallen secular colonel’s religious widow and a secular electronic engineer seen on Google, on the beach in a bikini. Whatever all this was, it was not the historic NRP. It was something else. So was its leader.
Bennett opened his ministerial career by striking an alliance with Yesh Atid’s ultra-secularist Yair Lapid, forcing Netanyahu to keep the ultra-Orthodox parties outside his cabinet. Then, during the fighting in Gaza, Bennett attacked Netanyahu from the right. And, throughout it all, he never showed much passion for the kind of purely religious issues that once were religious Zionism’s raison d’être. Even so, Bennett was rising in the polls meteorically, attracting voters from beyond the observant population, at one point garnering a theoretical 16 Knesset seats.
That made Netanyahu see his former aide as a strategic threat. Then, Bennett’s repeated vows to demand the defense portfolio, a goal that his background did not justify and his constituency did not seek, further raised questions concerning his aims and tactics.
Yet, Bennett’s biggest fiasco was his attempted insertion of soccer legend Eli Ohana into his Knesset list. An athlete whose career involved the public desecration of the Sabbath, this move was too much for Bayit Yehudi’s rabbis who responded to the move so vehemently that three days after its birth Ohana announced his political career’s end.
Bennett now began losing political altitude, having been exposed in the eyes of many as shallow and frivolous for the substance of his move and his failure to understand what it had to mean to the rabbis it provoked.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu aggressively wooed all right-wingers to return home due to Labor’s rising threat. It worked. Bennett’s previous electoral success was trimmed by a third and his imaginary 16 seats were cut by half. Bennett failed to elevate religious Zionism to a position of national leadership, and was now suspected as having used it as a springboard toward a bid for Likud’s leadership.
STILL, BENNETT initially remained unreconstructed, demanding the Foreign Ministry. Now the pattern repeated itself: Just like the old NRP emerged from the woodwork to undo his recruitment of a soccer star, now it forced Bennett to abandon his Foreign Ministry dream and replace it with the Education Ministry ‒ an old NRP quest, but one for which Bennett had shown no personal passion. Now, Bennett is headed there despite himself, after having angered many of his party’s old guard by losing the Religious Affairs Ministry to Shas.
In all these respects, Bennett’s experiment increasingly seems like a series of gimmicks that ended in failure ‒ a Likud Trojan Horse in the midst of religious Zionism, one whose wooden legs collapsed thunderously when it came time to gallop ahead. Still, in one respect, Bennett’s revolution remains afoot.
The secular woman he inserted into the previous Knesset, Ayelet Shaked, who came out first in the party’s second primaries, will be the new government’s Justice Minister. The very snatching of this outpost is a major achievement for religious Zionism, which in Shapira’s days could only obtain the chairmanship of the Knesset Law Committee. Then again, the old NRP used the Law Committee to further religious legislation.
Shaked and Bennett want to preside over the legal system not out of concern for Jewish law, but in order to weaken the judiciary.
There is a Talmudic tale about Sanhedrin [supreme tribunal] president Simon ben-Shetah who resisted a royal attempt to overpower the judiciary. In deciding to lead the assault on the Supreme Court, Bennett might have just forgotten about ben-Shetah, of whom he surely learned in his religious high school. Shaked, however, doubtfully ever heard of him.