Borderline Views: Bayit Yehudi – failure in success

The world of religious Zionism has come a long way since the early days of Sebastia, but it is by no means clear that their success at today’s polls will have a positive impact on Israel during the next four years.

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
In the days leading up to the end of one of the most boring and uneventful election campaigns in Israel’s history, two events take place in different parts of Israel, each of them reflecting, in their diversity, the constituencies which will go to the voting booths in today’s elections.
On Saturday evening, at the desert kibbutz of Revivim, the auditorium is packed with people eager to hear some of Israel’s leading authors, including A.B. Yehoshua and Haim Gouri, discuss Israeli literature, art and society in an event which is part of a weekend devoted to poetry and literature and which has brought many of Israel’s foremost writers to the Negev.
The evening before the elections, the auditorium of the Israel Opera House in Tel Aviv is just as packed, for a concert including some of the world’s leading hazanim, cantors, including Yitzhak Helfgott from New York and Haim Adler from the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Their voices are the equals of the operatic tenors and baritones which are normally to be heard in this hall.
With a few exceptions, the audience at Revivim is almost entirely secular, while the audience at the Opera House is almost entirely religious.
Participants in each of the events have left the realities of the world and the superficiality of election promises outside the doors of the respective auditoriums.
The Revivim audience includes many of the state’s founders and kibbutz members of the Negev communities, such as Sdeh Boker, Revivim and Mashabei Sadeh.
They will almost certainly vote for the remnants of the Labor Party, even if it no longer reflects the Mapai of old, or perhaps for Meretz which, after a major downturn in the polls, seems to have made a small comeback in the final run-up to the elections.
The younger members of the audience – of whom there are many – have alternative options, ranging from Yair Lapid to Tzipi Livni and even the Greens. There will unfortunately be many in this audience who, having despaired of Israeli politicians and political parties, won’t even bother to vote.
The Opera House audience includes a large segment of Israel’s religious citizens.
Their vote will be more uniform.
While there may be a few people who vote for the mainstream parties, probably Likud, and perhaps a few ultra-Orthodox who will vote for United Torah Judaism, the vast majority of this audience will be voting for Bayit Yehudi.
But just as the Labor Party of Shelly Yacimovich is far removed from the Mapai party of old, the party of Israel’s first prime minister and a Sde Boker resident, David Ben-Gurion, so too the Bayit Yehudi party is far removed from the National Religious Party (Mafdal) of old, the party of political veteran and long-serving minister of interior, Dr. Yoseph Burg.
Neither is it the party of Burg’s successors, the radical young guard led by what was then seen as the Bennett equivalent, long-serving education minister Zevulun Hammer and his then partner, Dr. Yehuda Ben-Meir.
Hammer was responsible for the right-wing turn within the world of religious Zionism and the gradual transformation of Mafdal from a party which created bridges between religious and secular Israel to one which, under the leadership of Bennett and his extreme right-wing list of candidates, has become transformed into the mouthpiece of the West Bank settlement movement.
THE CONCEPT of religious Zionism has indeed been one of the great success stories of the reborn State of Israel. The “knitted skullcap” population no longer need to prove themselves. They no longer need to look over one shoulder to prove that they are as productive citizens as secular Israelis in Tel Aviv, Revivim or Sdeh Boker. Nor do they need to look over the other shoulder to prove that they are sufficiently religious to the haredim, who have always questioned the intensity and sincerity of their religious beliefs.
It is precisely because of their success at integrating so well into the Israeli mainstream, without losing their religious identity or lifestyle, that the Mafdal party of old gradually disappeared from the face of the Israeli political scene. They achieved what they set out to do.
To obtain political power, the party had to reinvent itself, and it has done so by becoming the country’s most extreme right-wing party, representing the interests of the settler population and the anti-peace factions within Israeli society. No amount of election advertising focusing on the beauty and warmth of the Jewish family, of Friday night Shabbat gatherings, can hide the fact that Bennett and his party list represent the most right-wing group of religious politicians which has graced the ranks of the National Religious Party to this day.
This is epitomized in Bennett himself; a smooth, successful, modern businessman and former combat solider whose intransigent views concerning the peace process (in which he does not believe) and relations with America (which he is prepared to endanger even further) are clearly inspired by a fundamentalist, uncompromising ideology.
This belies his outward appearance and lifestyle, which can best be described as “religious lite,” appealing to many who have been turned off by the right-wing turn in the religious values espoused by many of the party’s rabbis and yeshiva followers in recent years – what has become known in the local jargon as “Hardal” (National Haredi).
But it is, unfortunately, a world which has become so imbued by extremist nationalist politics that, even in power, it will have nothing to contribute to Israel’s future stability, however many seats it obtains in today’s elections.
Its real message belies its external appearance of modernity. It takes Israel back into a world of insularity, and the notion that we are alone, that the whole world is against us. It creates enemies where there were friends and allies, and it portrays religion as nationalist, violent and aggressive, rather than seeking peace and dialogue.
The political vacuum which has been created by the failure of the Revivim audience and its successor generation to seek new challenges for the future of Israel has been filled by the right-wing reactionism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the ideological zeal and activism of Bennett and his followers. Bennett is, in reality, the more sophisticated, more political version of the late Hanan Porat, who created the settlement movement back in the 1970s. The world of religious Zionism has come a long way since the early days of Sebastia, but it is by no means clear that their success at today’s polls will have a positive impact on Israel during the next four years.
Of one thing you can be sure: Rav Kook would not have approved.