The end of the NRP?

The idea of reaching out to the non-religious is another dead end.

A recent proposal by the National Religious Party (NRP) to accept members who do not identify themselves as Orthodox represents another and perhaps final step in its self-destruction. Ostensibly, the idea of NRP party chairman Zevulun Orlev is a victory for moderation, practicality and openness. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If it adopts the proposal, the NRP will have bankrupted itself theologically as it has done so ideologically. Alternatively, if it follows the crowd and joins the National Union party, the NRP simply will fade into oblivion. Last year, the party reached the end of its meandering path of nationalism after a decade of trying to derail illusory peace agreements and, more recently, to prevent the Gaza expulsion by remaining in the same coalition government whose policies it opposed. Instead of influencing from within, NRP Knesset members were putty in the hands of more savvy politicians. Voters responded by reducing their representation in the Knesset from 11 in 1996 to six in the last two elections. Two of its leading members, Effie Eitam and Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, put ideology above the supposed privilege of being part of the ruling coalition and removed themselves from the government and ultimately from the party and formed the Hitchabrut faction. Orlev and his three remaining colleagues left the coalition soon after. Ironically, but not coincidentally, the NRP had chosen Eitam, a political rookie, to breathe life back into the party in the last elections. Eitam proved himself to be like most retired IDF generals, religious or otherwise, who don't understand that there is a difference between leading soldiers into battle and representing citizens on national issues. The NRP managed to hold on to its six seats, mainly to the credit of Gila Finkelstein, whose struggle for the rights of women proved there are other public issues besides nationalism and yeshivas. Eitam and Levy represent the hard-line religious faithful who fought the expulsion tooth and nail, while the remnants of the NRP tried to be the link between the Orthodox public and the traditional and secular sectors. "The party cannot remain in isolation," party chairman Orlev stated. Its secretary, Sar-Shalom Jerbi, added, "It will clear the way for the non-religious public to join." Both are day dreaming. The NRP vainly still attempts to be in two places at once, thereby ending up nowhere at all. The party has tried to hold its holy middle ground between the ultra-Orthodox and secular communities, but that piece of earth is a crumbling island. Non-religious nationalists have no reason to side with the NRP when there is the National Union party, a group of nationalists, most of whom are religious but whose leaders have kept religion inside their own homes and have not used rabbis to preach that electing its slate of MKs fulfills God's will. The ultra-Orthodox community never has been able put nationalism above money for its yeshivas. Its five United Torah Judaism MKs conveniently remained in the coalition during the expulsion, even if it went against their grain. The stand of Shas, the Sephardic religious party, has been clear. It is prepared to give up parts of Judea and Samaria if it is in agreement with the Palestinian Authority and not a unilateral act. Presumably, money for its institutions also would be part of the agreement. That leaves the NRP all by itself. It used to insist that nationalism and Orthodoxy are inseparable. The suggestion that it reach out to traditional nationalist Jews is a declaration of theological bankruptcy. Are they going to change the name of the faction to the National Traditional Party? Such a move would alienate the old-guard Orthodox members, while traditional Jews, whatever that means, who have a nationalist bent would be just as comfortable if not more so in the National Union party. It would have been more logical for the NRP to reach out to a growing part of the haredi community which is slowly leaving the yeshiva world and entering the workforce. A natural result will be that working haredi people feel more a part of Israeli society and more willing to vote for a national religious party such as the NRP. The suggestion by Orlev to turn to the traditional public reflects his party's fear that it may not even sit in the next Knesset if it cannot win the minimum number of seats required. For the same reason, Eitam and Levy merged their Hitchabrut faction with the National Union. The NRP is leaning in the same direction, regardless of whether the party accepts the idea of opening its arms to the non-Orthodox public. According to recent polls, if the NRP were to merge with the party, the combined list easily could become the second- or third-largest political bloc. Whether the NRP decides to go for broke and attract "traditional" nationalist Jews or decides to merge with the National Union, it is fated to go to the political graveyard, and that will be the best news for the nationalist camp. The writer is a freelance journalist living in the Hebron area.