The spirit is gone

We'd like to remember the NRP as a bastion of modern Orthodoxy and bridge between religious and secular.

NRP, NU mks shake hands (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
NRP, NU mks shake hands
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Religious Zionists have officially admitted that they are too polarized - over politics, theology and personality - to share one home. That, more than anything else, explains the demise of the National Religious Party yesterday, age 52. Sad, really, when you consider the movement's illustrious history. In the 1800s, religious Zionists disputed the ultra-Orthodox stance that it was blasphemous, until God sent the messiah, to promote a return to Eretz Israel and the reestablishment of a Jewish state. With the Zionist movement dominated largely by agnostics, religious Zionists also worked against the tide to inject tradition into the cause. Rabbi Samuel Mohilever convinced Hibbat Zion, in 1893, to establish a bureau aimed at Orthodox Jews to be known by its Hebrew acronym "Mizrahi," or merkaz ruhani - the spiritual center. In 1902, Rabbi Jacob Reines, one of Mohilever's disciples, took the name Mizrahi when he helped reconstitute the religious Zionist movement. Their mantra was coined by Rabbi Meir Berlin - later Bar-Ilan: "The Land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. (It was at Bar-Ilan University that the NRP met to dissolve.) Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, gave religious Zionism his spiritual imprimatur, making the case that settling the land was a precursor to the Redemption. RELIGIOUS Zionists went on to have a profound influence on the overall enterprise. The Sabbath, not Sunday, became Israel's day of rest; no state functions would be held on Shabbat or religious holidays, nor would there be public transportation. The dietary restrictions of kashrut would be adhered to in the IDF. Most significantly, marriage, divorce, even burial, would fall under the purview of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. For decades, an NRP-dominated Rabbinate steered Israel's "established church." Today, that role is held by non-Zionist haredim. Mizrahi created a worldwide network of educational and charitable organizations. It sponsored the Bnei Akiva youth movement (for boys and girls). It fostered moshavim and kibbutzim that settled the Beit She'an Valley, Gush Etzion and the northern Negev. National-religious schools became a vital stream in public education. These accomplishments allowed the national-religious to have influence disproportionate to their numbers. In the 1949 Knesset elections all the Orthodox parties (Zionist and non-Zionist) ran as a united slate, garnering 12 percent of the vote. Such unity would be unimaginable today as Orthodoxy has splintered along theocratic, ethnic, personal and political lines. In 1956, Mizrahi's heyday, the NRP was born. Mizrahi/NRP was part of every government coalition from 1948 until 1992. Between 1956 and 1981 it generally captured about a dozen Knesset seats. THE 1967 Six Day War was a turning point for the NRP. Though it had a theocratic agenda, it was otherwise a centrist party. And its leader, Yosef Burg, was a perennial fixture in a succession of Labor governments. In the wake of Israel's stunning victory, NRP's young guard created Gush Emunim to settle liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Over time, the party's paramount mission became supporting the settlement enterprise. In 1977, the NRP brought down Yitzhak Rabin's (first) government on the pretext that the IDF had accepted delivery of several F-15s on the Sabbath. After new elections, the NRP became a pillar in the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. But the party suffered a major blow in 1981, when Sephardi members broke away to form the haredi-oriented Shas Party. From then on the NRP picked up mostly four to five Knesset seats. In 2006 it merged with the National Union (soon also to be defunct) and together the largely Orthodox grouping won nine seats. In the 2009 elections, parties to the right of Likud hope to create a new alignment intended to attract, among others, voters who formerly supported the NRP. We would like to remember the NRP in its idealized form - as a bastion of modern Orthodoxy, a bridge between religious and secular, for its inclusion of women in leadership positions, for the bipartisan civic-minded legislation its MKs ushered into law, and for representing Israelis concerned with Jewish education. It is dismaying that the dwindling constituency that was once animated by these issues is now left politically homeless.