Whither NRP?

Architects of the new religious Zionist political party hope to somehow incorporate its disparate camps and streams.

religious party merger 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious party merger 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Tuesday the National Religious Party's central committee, a group of 1,160 crocheted kippa-wearers representing the heart of religious Zionist political aspirations, will convene to vote on its own demise. "Some people might call it political suicide," said attorney Moshe Patt, a member of the NRP for more than 40 years and head of the party's Tel Aviv branch. "But in reality we are embarking on a new era, creating a party that will continue the NRP's tradition under a different name." Patt, who said that he first joined the NRP after college not for ideological reasons but "because all my friends from Bnei Akiva and religious high school were members," admitted the sentimental part of him was sad about seeing the NRP's central committee taken apart. "We have to do it though. It is a necessary step for the sake of unifying religious Zionists and traditional Jews under one list," he said. Last week, after months of negotiations, the NRP and the parties making up the National Union - Moledet and Tekuma - announced they would disband and form a single political party that has yet to be named. Two NU MKs - Arye Eldad and Effi Eitam - opted against the union. Eldad plans to establish a right-wing secular party called Hatikva, while Eitam hopes to find a place for himself in the Likud. The inability of Eldad, the lone secular parliamentarian affiliated with the NU/NRP list, to find a place in the new party sheds some doubt on its chances of expanding its support base from a strictly Orthodox religious Zionist base to traditional Israelis who do not adhere to Halacha. As Eldad, a reserve brigadier-general and former head of the IDF Medical Corps, put it in an interview with the weekly Basheva, which caters to a decidedly right-wing segment of religious Zionism, "I asked one of the senior members of NU/NRP who is running to become chairman of the new party a question: If I bring you a combat pilot who is a reserve colonel, a decorated war veteran, a real patriot, but who drives on Shabbat, would you include him on the list? He said to me, 'That's a problem.' If that is the type of party they want to create, it is not for me." In accordance with the agreement, the chair of the party, which aspires to unite all the diverse streams within religious Zionism, will be chosen in an "open" primary election. Any citizen who identifies with the party's goals and is willing to pay NIS 20 will have the right to vote. BUT THE united parties propose an even more far-reaching change in the election process, which was engineered in large part by Dr. Asher Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University who has written extensively on the reasons for the deterioration of the NRP's political clout. The unity deal calls for the creation of an election council composed of rabbis, university professors, businessmen, IDF officers and other non-politicians who will choose the new party's candidates for the next elections. The council of about 40 will be chaired by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror. Some of the rabbis who were chosen to sit on the council include Dov Lior, rabbi of Hebron-Kiryat Arba; Haim Druckman, rabbi of the Bnei Akiva yeshivot; Elyakim Levanon, rabbi of Elon Moreh; Yuval Cherlow, rabbi of Tzohar; and Yehuda Gilad, rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi. The rabbis represent a broad range of opinions and leadership styles from the more liberal Cherlow, Gilad and Druckman to the more right-wing Levanon and Lior, who belong to the haredi-nationalist camp. Several women are council members as well, including Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, vice dean of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Law, and Sarah Eliash, who runs an elite girls' high school in Kedumim. The election council also 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 caused the NRP to disintegrate over the years. Religious Zionists are split on socio-economics, ethnicity, political ideology and theology. Each of these divisive issues has created fault lines within the NRP that, over the years, have widened, undermining the religious party's electoral strength. On the left-wing side of the spectrum are those who integrate readily into general society and tend to reject rabbinic involvement in the political realm. Most voters belonging to this "pragmatic" camp are usually more liberal in their approach to religious practice but are normally hawkish, with political opinions to the right of the Likud. Some are more centrist and identify with Kadima, while a small minority is politically left-wing and supports Meimad, a religious party that favors territorial compromise for peace with the Palestinians. Meimad, which failed to enter the Knesset on an independent list, runs on a united ticket with Labor. The stereotypical NRP pragmatist is an educated professional - doctor, lawyer, accountant, university professor - who lives in one of the religious Zionist neighborhoods inside the Green Line, in cities such as Givat Shmuel, Rehovot, Modi'in, Netanya and Kfar Saba or in one of the more established settlements in Judea and Samaria such as Elkana or Efrat. The men are usually clean-shaven and wear their tzitziot inside their pants, while the women often do not wear a head covering. The NRP also represents the religious right. These voters are more "enclavist" and parochial in their religious outlook. Like haredim, they tend to accept Torah opinion (da'at Torah) as binding for political as well as religious matters. Overwhelmingly this group tends to have political views to the right of the Likud. This combination of haredi-like observance of Halacha combined with fervently right-wing politics earns them the name "hardal," a combination of haredi and nationalist (leumi). Hardal men normally have beards and wear their tzitziot outside their pants. The women are strict about modesty dress codes and scrupulously cover their hair. Hardal parents tend to send their children to schools that devote more time to Torah studies than to secular studies. High-school graduates are more likely to postpone IDF service indefinitely instead of entering the army after attending a pre-military academy or hesder yeshiva. Yoske Achituv, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Tzurim who broke with the NRP to join Meimad, is strongly critical of the hardal elements which he claims have commandeered the NRP. "The NRP has been taken over by a bunch of hardalim who are convinced that there is some metaphysical connection between maintaining the entire Land of Israel and the imminent redemption of the Jewish people," said Achituv, a researcher at the Hartman Institute. "For these people it is crystal clear what God wants them to do. They know His ways and they know how He manifests Himself in history. "This messianism was never a part of religious Zionism. In the past religious Zionists worked hand in hand with secular Zionists to build the Jewish state. But today's religious Zionists claim that the origin of Zionism has nothing to do with [Theodor] Herzl. Rather it all started with the Gaon of Vilna and his students. Theologically, I can have no part of this style of religious Zionism." NRP MEMBERS from the religious Right and Left have clashed over a variety of issues over the years from the permissibility of electing female MKs to the intervention of rabbis in political matters. A recent example was a Knesset vote on an amendment that changes the way rabbinical courts decide divorces. The bill was aimed at aiding agunot, women who cannot remarry because their recalcitrant husbands refuse to give them a writ of divorce. It received strong backing from women's rights groups, including the religious Zionist Emunah. And it was aggressively opposed by the haredi rabbinic and political establishment. The NRP was split. Party chairman Zevulun Orlev, who is identified with the more moderate stream, supported the bill. So did liberal rabbis such as Cherlow and Shlomo Riskin. However, most NRP MKs opposed it, voting like the haredi MKs. The left-right religious rupture is not the only divisive element within religious Zionism. There is also an ethnic, socio-economic split. Historically, the NRP has drawn electoral strength from various strata from predominately Sephardi development town residents to middle- to upper-class, predominately Ashkenazi professionals and businessmen. Over the years the NRP has lost Sephardi votes to the Likud and Shas. It has lost hardal votes to various splinter parties that broke off from it, such as Moledet, Tekuma and Tehiya. Meanwhile, less right-wing religious Zionists have been drawn away by the Likud and Kadima and to a lesser extent by Labor-Meimad. Architects of the new political party hope to somehow reverse this trend and incorporate the disparate camps and streams within religious Zionism. The proposed solution is the election council with its diverse collection of left-wing and right-wing rabbis, Sephardi social activists and Ashkenazi businessmen. The new party is banking on broadening its electoral basis by reaching out to more religious Zionists. The objective is to give as many religious Zionists as possible the impression that their particular political, religious, socio-economic, ethnic persuasion is being given expression in the Knesset. In addition to the traditional NRP constituency, the new party is also making a major effort to appeal to traditional Israelis. Many of them send their children to state religious schools and to a certain extent identify with religious Zionist ideals. If the NRP manages to tap into the traditional vote, the electoral potential is enormous. As part of the unity agreement at least two places in the top 10 will be reserved for traditional Jews who do not wear kippot. POLITICAL SCIENTIST Menachem Friedman, an expert in religious political parties and himself a religious Zionist, argues that the NRP has lost its political justification. "Today there is no need for the NRP," he said. "If you are right-wing in your political views, there is the Likud. If you are haredi in your religious outlook, there is Shas or United Torah Judaism. The NRP never offered an alternative theology that could seriously compete with the haredim. There was always a feeling that religious Zionists were subordinate to the more authentic version of Judaism practiced by the haredim. "I believe we are entering into a political era that will be similar to the US's two-party system in which people with diverse opinions and backgrounds will find what they need in a few large political parties." NRP chairman Orlev disagrees. "Politicians with crocheted kippot who join a larger party end up losing their impact," he said. "The NRP has a unique agenda in numerous fields whether it be value-based education or the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Our economic platform is fundamentally different from the Likud's under Binyamin Netanyahu. "And of course there is our belief in the Greater Land of Israel, not for security reasons, not because it is easier to defend ourselves with Judea and Samaria, rather because there is an inherent religious value in settling the Land of Israel."