Middle Israel: The electoral demise of religious Zionism

While modern Orthodox politicians sanctified land, their constituents voted with their feet for a separation of religion and state

2811-middle (photo credit: Archive)
(photo credit: Archive)
By sheer coincidence, when the IDF rescued the hostages at Entebbe one minister was on business in South Africa and therefore missed all the action. His name was Yitzhak Rafael, and when he returned, a jovial Yitzhak Rabin patted him on the shoulder and said: "Well, Rafael, we got along without you." Rafael, a tall, humorless, owl-faced intellectual and efficient executive, did not appreciate Rabin's quip; he understood he had just missed a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take part in making history. It also went without saying that he would have been part of the process, had he only been at hand. This is what the typically tactless Rabin tried to convey in his cumbersome way to the Minister of Religious Affairs, whom he actually appreciated despite a general lack of curiosity for religion, and appreciation for those who cultivated it, particularly Rafael's National Religious Party. Entebbe aside, it was the twilight of an era, one in which Israeli modern Orthodoxy was automatically consulted during nationally sensitive moments, both because its leaders were needed for a majority and because they were appreciated for their balance and sobriety. Thus, in the spring of 1967 NRP leader Moshe Haim Shapira was at the heart of the maneuver that resulted in Levi Eshkol's replacement by Moshe Dayan as defense minister; he was consulted when the war was launched; and he was part of the postwar decision to compromise land for peace. Now all this is prehistory. During the past 16 years the NRP has been in opposition more than in power, and when already in the cabinet it has been a fifth wheel. It has lost its size, centrism and its founders' gravitas. The NRP has became so marginal that last week its own leaders decided to bury it, convinced they can give birth to something entirely different. Sadly, while their initiative finally recognizes that they have a problem, it is not likely to solve it. THE FIRST thing political movements do when they decide to reinvent themselves is get themselves a new name, hoping to launch an entirely new chapter in their histories, like Abraham once he ceased to be Abram. Yet unlike Abraham, they fail to attach to their name change anything quite as painful and sacrificial as late-age circumcision. That is what happened when Meretz repackaged itself as Yahad, or when the Alignment rebooted itself as Labor, or when Agudat Yisrael redressed itself as United Torah Judaism. The NRP is therefore also renaming itself now, as the Jewish Home, and re-piecing some of the many splinters into which it broke over the decades. More ambitiously, the Jewish Home is also tasking the selection of its Knesset candidates with an ad hoc, apolitical council of retired generals, distinguished rabbis, scholars, scientists and maybe even these or those literati. So infatuated have they become with this creation that they abruptly abandoned their original plan, which was to let the public elect their leader, and decided instead that the leader, too, would be selected by the kind of conclave that produces popes while the masses wait at St. Peter's Square - wide eyed, patient and passive. "Well," they explain with a deep sense of insult, "our method is so novel that soon enough everyone will imitate us; the new religious party will field topnotch lawmakers, none of the clowns, hacks and felons that crowded other parties in recent years." And that may well prove true, yet modern Orthodoxy's political predicament was not about cleanliness - it's been more than a generation since one of its leaders was tried for anything; it's about relevance. THE JEWISH HOME says it will not be exclusively Orthodox and that it will diminish the territorial agenda that has dominated the NRP's politics since the mid-1970s; that it will focus instead on Israel's educational and moral problems. That can actually be nice, and it certainly reflects a realization, even on the part of territorialists like Benny Elon, Uri Ariel and Tzvi Hendel, that the Greater Israel ticket has spent itself. Then again, tough as it must be for all these protagonists to emerge with even just this verbal concession, the modern Orthodox public is way ahead of them, and have gradually been voting with their feet against the very idea of religious politics. Originally, when the state was established, modern Orthodoxy needed lawmakers lest there be no religious education, synagogues, matrimonial laws, rabbinical courts or kosher kitchens in the IDF; all that has long been delivered, for better or worse, by Moshe Haim Shapira et al. That was back when Orthodox people were seldom in positions of power, when secularism was often militantly anti-observant, and when employers were capable of harassing people for being observant, or even demand that they work on Shabbat. Today, observance is common and fully immersed in modernity. Modern Orthodox generals, millionaires, judges, entrepreneurs and Nobel Laureates are seen as natural components of a happily diverse Israeli society. The modern Orthodox public, for its part, defected to a plethora of secular parties, and thus effectively shunned not only political modern Orthodoxy's Greater Israel dogma, but also its fusion of synagogue and state. In fact, this is modern Orthodoxy's sweetest success. MODERN ORTHODOX Israelis, apparently some one-tenth of the Jewish population, are by now so naturally present in Israel's social and cultural fabric that they vote like everyone else. Effectively, they are separating synagogue and state - working, studying, serving, enterprising and creating here like everyone else, and keeping all of that totally apart from their worship, which they increasingly consider a private affair, one which does not need the services of politicians, the presence of the state or the scrutiny of state-paid rabbis. Surely, the nationalist rabbis who maneuvered the NRP into the political dead end that awaited it in the West Bank - disagree. To them, rabbis should tell people how to worship, how to dress, what to read, and whom to vote for, just like in their view the Jewish state is divine and its leaders had better report to clergy rather than the public. That is of course a legitimate view, but it is one that the modern Orthodox electorate, not to mention those beyond it, has rejected in the past, and in all likelihood will once again shun now, even while admiring the NRP's clever facelift. Effectively, the knitted skullcaps are telling their politicians what Yitzhak Rabin told Yitzhak Rafael back in '76: "We got along without you."