Religious Zionists do not feel their faith needs any political help

‘Does it sound logical?” wondered Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. “Imagine an American congressman hanging in his living room the picture of a man who murdered tens of Jews in a synagogue.

NAFTALI BENNETT with Ayelet Shaked Wednesday night in the Knesset – back in religious Zionism’s political ship of fools.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
NAFTALI BENNETT with Ayelet Shaked Wednesday night in the Knesset – back in religious Zionism’s political ship of fools.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘Does it sound logical?” wondered Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. “Imagine an American congressman hanging in his living room the picture of a man who murdered tens of Jews in a synagogue during prayer.”
Bennett was referring to Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s alliance with far-right maverick Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose Hebron living room is adorned by a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the physician who last century slew 29 Muslim worshipers in a mosque.
Well, illogical it indeed was, as was the Likud’s brazen demand that Bennett carry on his back into the Knesset the man who the Likud would not carry there itself.
Yet all this illogic was but a detail in the greater anachronism of religious Zionism still fielding its own political party.
RELIGIOUS Zionism’s roots lie in a lone Lithuanian rabbi’s defiance of the rabbinical elite that rejected the Zionist idea as blasphemy. His name was Yitzhak Yaakov Reines, and the movement he established in 1902 – Mizrachi – became a pillar of the Zionist enterprise.
Religious Zionism struggled on three parallel planes: the theological, the legislative, and the sectarian.
Theologically, the rival was ultra-Orthodoxy, whose leaders believed the Jews’ restoration of their power will be delivered not by human action but by divine miracle. Reines’s heroic rejection of this theology inspired thousands of observant Jews to embrace Zionism.
Legislatively, religious Zionism confronted liberal parties that resisted Jewish law’s imposition on the public sphere. Religious Zionism’s politicians responded by crafting an alliance with David Ben-Gurion in the 1930s.
The alliance paid off when the state was established, as marriage and divorce were placed in the Chief Rabbinate’s hands, serving kosher food in the IDF was made martial law, and Shabbat was enshrined as the national rest day on which buses and trains don’t run and companies don’t put employees to work.
Finally, as a social sector, religious Zionists’ rival was the ruling Labor Party, which kept observant people away from many senior positions in the economy, government and defense establishment.
Religious Zionism’s politicians responded by installing their constituents as executives in the ministries, religious councils and Chief Rabbinate they ran, as teachers and principals in the schools they created, as bankers and tellers in the bank they established (Mizrahi), as professors in the university they opened (Bar-Ilan), or as contractors and managers in the housing company they ran (Mishab).
It was all part of an era in which observant Israelis felt on the defensive. That reality no longer exists. Religious Zionism is now theologically legitimate and socially confident.
NO RELIGIOUS Zionist today feels a need to apologize for his or her convictions, whether in the synagogue, army or university or at work.
Religious Zionists also don’t feel they need any new legislation, or that if they won’t have a party in the Knesset their children’s schools will be closed down. And there is no position in the Jewish state closed to religious Israelis, from generals and ambassadors to detectives and spies, and there is hardly an agency that observant Israelis haven’t headed, from the Hebrew University to Israel Police.
That is why so many religious Zionists vote for secular parties, and that is why observant politicians – from the Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely and Yuli Edelstein to Blue and White’s Elazar Stern and Chili Tropper – feel at home in secular parties.
Beyond these individuals sprawls a multitude of observant Israelis who do not feel their faith needs any political help, let alone protection, and they are right: 120 years after its emergence, religious Zionism has accomplished its political goals, and no longer needs its own Knesset faction.
It was against this backdrop that religious Zionism’s politicians this week offered the vaudeville theater in which their unwed parents returned to their unmade bed after a noisy fight over the picture in the room of their unloved foster child.
THERE IS tragedy beyond this farce, twice: first, in Peretz’s failure to see the immorality and impracticality of his pact with Meir Kahane’s disciples; second, in Bennett’s Pyrrhic victory.
Yes, Bennett put his foot down and kept Ben-Gvir out of his party. However, Bennett’s grander political quest, to emerge from religious Zionism’s straightjacket and conquer the mainstream electorate, remained elusive. If anything, this week’s events exposed the impasse at which his career has arrived.
Bennett knows religious Zionism no longer needs its own party. That is why he created the nonreligious New Right. What he cares about are defense, economics and foreign affairs. The one religious cause for which he fought, a place for liberal Judaism by the Western Wall, is anathema to most of his partners.
That is why Bennett has tried to ornament religious Zionism’s party with secularists like Ayelet Shaked or soccer legend Eli Ohana, hoping to broaden it into a platform for conquering the premiership, an aim of which none of religious Zionism’s previous eight leaders even dared dream.
Bennett may or may not be a worthy prime ministerial candidate. However, the party in which he is trapped cannot serve as the springboard his candidacy requires; the party’s own constituents deny its right to life.
Shedding Ben-Gvir may have finally blocked religious Zionism’s steady drift toward the political margins, but Bennett remains shackled by a collection of reactionaries, obscurantists, and neofascists, ranging from one who called to bulldoze the Supreme Court to another who struck a pact with Meir Kahane’s disciples and a third who organized an anti-gay parade that compared homosexuals to beasts.
Such is the tragic aftermath of Bennett’s attempt to break from the anachronistic party that kept him from sailing to the political high seas. Having broken that anchor only to end up electorally shipwrecked, he now is back in religious Zionism’s political ship of fools.
Like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, Bennett can now say: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.