At the local level

The party that ran for the elections as NU-NRP is struggling to find its place as the new Habayit Hayehudi is formed.

disengagement prayer rally 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
disengagement prayer rally 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Following the decision to unite the National Religious Party and the National Union into one party called Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), some interesting changes are also taking place on the city council. On municipal election day, the merger had not yet occurred, but the general feeling among its constituency was that it was certainly going to happen, as it did indeed a few days later. As on the national level, one of the reasons behind this decision in the framework of the Jerusalem municipal elections was the frustrating results of the 2003 municipal elections, as well as the loss of seats in the Knesset due to the same split in several parties on the national level. "Because we were split into so many small groups, we lost thousands of votes," says deputy mayor Shmuel Shkedi, who will be replaced by the new leader of the religious Zionists in the city, David Hadari, as soon as a coalition is formed. "We lost at least one seat, perhaps more, and we didn't want it to happen again this time," explains Hadari, Shkedi's protégé since the 2003 elections. The National Religious Party refused to endorse mayor-elect Nir Barkat publicly, afraid that a Porush victory would bar them from a future coalition. This despite the fact that many prominent religious Zionist figures, such as Rabbi Rafael Feuerstein and Rabbi Shai Porat, associated with the Tzohar NGO, on a private level did join Barkat and openly called to support him. Yet despite a very aggressive campaign (at a total cost of NIS 2.8 million), the results are not exactly what the religious Zionist community expected, to put it mildly. Instead of the four seats the NRP held on the outgoing city council, Habayit Hayehudi will have only three, one of them held by Yair Gabbay, a fierce opponent of the merger, who might even become problematic after his near-defection to the Likud almost reduced the party to two seats. Concerned that the outcome would be disastrous for the religious Zionist constituency, Hadari decided to appeal to a rabbinic court, demanding that Gabbay renounce his plans to leave the party and pledge full allegiance to his constituency. "I have been elected to the city council as a representative of the NRP," says Gabbay, who for the now has pledged not to leave the party. "It's not my fault that it has decided to cease to exist. People don't really understand what is happening. They ask me, for example, when we will be holding meetings of the local branch. I tell them, 'There is no more meeting, no branch, no activity - it's over. There is no NRP anymore.' People are having a hard time grasping that." In a twist of irony, Gabbay says that he sees the religious Zionist future in the city - as well as on the national level - as "bright and brilliant." Asked to describe the reality he foresees, he is quick to reply, "The party is now in the hands of a man who has succeeded in disguising a colossal failure as a great victory [Hadari]. We have no other choice but to wait for the national elections [to see if the new party succeeds]. There we will witness how about 80 percent of our constituency will vote for the Likud and the other 20% maybe for [Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman - and what will be left of the historical NRP, of its achievements like in education? We will become totally irrelevant, and I believe we have seen it first on the city council." Needless to say, Hadari and Shkedi see it totally differently. "The best thing that could happen to the city and to the religious Zionist community is David Hadari leading the party on the city council," says Shkedi. "We are the only ones who can offer a wide range of solutions to the needs of this population in terms of education, which is the most important issue on their agenda. As for the more 'national' issues (such as increasing the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem), we don't need anyone's support or help - it is clear that we are dedicated to these issues and we have proven it in the past." But the main agenda of the religious Zionists on the city council - as well as the main issue on the national level of the new party - is education. Although according to Shkedi's repeated declarations that his term as deputy mayor in charge of the education portfolio has done only good to the religious Zionist education system, there are several indications that the situation is far from satisfactory. One problem is that there is no state-religious junior high school. Nevertheless, says Shkedi, "We have been taking care of the whole spectrum of religious Zionist education. My door was always open for all of them - from the hardalniks [more "haredi" religious Zionists] of Talmud Torah Moriah in the Old City to the needs of the Hartman High School, where we recently opened a new junior high and high school for girls, in the spirit of the Shalom Hartman Institute. In our hands, Zionist education - secular and religious alike - get answers. We have done a lot for the informal education network, including youth movements, and improved the budgets. But there is still a lot to do, and it can only be achieved through participation in the coalition." Regarding the issue of education, Rabbi Dr. Micha Goodman, head of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership and research fellow at the Hartman Institute, believes that the best thing for Jewish Zionist education is precisely for the portfolio not to be held by a religious city councillor. "We are facing good news now in Jerusalem. After we witnessed a movement of getting back to Jewish sources in various ways, including a return to religion, now we can see a process of Israelis becoming more Jewish. And Jerusalem is the perfect place for this process and this message for all Israelis: Here, the secular and the religious are not the same as the secular and the religious everywhere else in the country... We have no ghettos, and the segregation between religious and secular Zionists is the lowest in the country. I firmly believe that we can develop a very particular and successful model here - and education is, of course, the most important way. "Without expressing a political point of view regarding the NRP or Habayit Hayehudi, I am convinced that Jewish Zionist education doesn't have to be a matter for religious Zionists. Regarding the role of this new political party, I would say that with all due respect, Judaism belongs to us all, observant and non-observant, it is not a matter of 'dati'im.' We might be divided on the issue of different kinds of Israeliness, but our Jewishness is the same - and it is not a matter of religious or secular. You can see it best on Shavuot eve in the streets of Jerusalem. Look at the number of cars parked on the roadsides, look at what is happening in the streets: people, religious and not religious alike, come to Jerusalem not for the Beit Hamikdash [Temple] but to seek the Beit Hamidrash [study hall]." One thing is sure - leaders and opponents alike in Habayit Hayehudi agree on one thing: They are all striving to become part of Barkat's coalition, even though it seems that their desire to obtain the education portfolio will not be fulfilled. "Education was our first request," admits Hadari, "but if, as it seems, we're getting the Finance Committee, we will, of course, be able to accomplish our goals."