Can Religious Zionists Lead Israel?

September 18, 2014

4 min read

The controversy over Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett’s internal power grab has raised several nagging questions about the resurgent Religious Zionist movement. Those who care about that movement’s political success should be concerned, but not necessarily for the reasons that have been fiercely debated in several media forums.

The main questions can be broken down as follows:

1. Is Bennett abandoning the values of Religious Zionism by opening up the Jewish Home party to Russian Jews and Druze?

2. Is Bennett’s desire to be prime minister more important to him than the ideological purity of the movement?

3. Is Bennett seeking to turn the party into another Likud?

Whether one agrees with the harshness of the criticism or not, these are legitimate questions that should be discussed, but the need for unity should be central in any dialogue. While there are certain individuals for whom national-religious unity is less important than ideological purity, most Religious Zionists would agree that there will always be a spectrum of opinions within the movement, and that sitting helplessly with 2-5 seats in the wilderness of the opposition is not a position that we want to go back to.

Naftali Bennett has proven to be a remarkable politician, with an ability to bring people together, and that has led to the resurgent Jewish Home party’s relative success with its 12 seats in the Knesset. The desire to expand further to attract many of the mostly secular/traditional/nationalistic Russian Jews and Druze voters is a positive step that can greatly increase the leverage of the party in the formation of the next government. In all of the recent debate, there has been little convincing evidence presented to buttress the charge that enabling greater inclusion will lead to the abandonment of Religious Zionist values.

The precedent of the very popular MK Ayelet Shaked is a case in point. While considered secular in her personal observance, Shaked has proven herself to be very respectful of religious values, has acted consistent to the party platform in her legislative activity, and has remained faithful to her previous reputation as an outspoken nationalist. That precedent should be a guideline for any “secular”, or less traditional candidates that may be brought in as potential members of the next Jewish Home list. It should be pointed out that in the last election, the only party considered to be to the right of Jewish Home also did not have a list consisting just of religious purists. There will always be debate and differences of opinion in any party and that is legitimate, as long as the overall party platform is adhered to.


As for the strategy of reaching out to those who would not have been Jewish Home members in the past, this should have been done years ago to increase the rather stagnant voter base of the Mafdal (the old National Religious Party and all of its periodic offshoots with their rather pathetic 2-3 seat Knesset factions). While Shas was rapidly expanding its voter base despite its non-Zionistic positions, and while the Likud was attracting national-religious voters despite its anti-national religious election campaigns , the Mafdal/Jewish Home never really expanded its potential voter base to include those who want to see a more traditional and more Zionistic Israel, even if their personal observance is less traditional.

Bennett’s change of direction in aggressively pursuing those voters, which parties like Shas have done for years, spurred the Jewish Home’s remarkable growth in the last election, and its continued growth in the polls since then. In fact, Shas has always appealed for votes from less religious voters, but has always remained faithful to its principles and has continued to consult its rabbis. There is no reason why Jewish Home can’t do the same, and, as a strongly Zionistic party, can do it much better, even with a few “out-of-the-box” candidates.

There has long been great frustration on the Right about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to allow the sorely needed building of homes in the liberated areas of Judea and Samaria, a state of affairs that has not improved much since the last election, even though Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel is Housing Minister. And that is the proof that despite the recent growth, being merely the third largest party in the coalition is not enough. Like it or not, it is the prime minister who determines the direction of national policy on issues such as building policy in Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem and it’s not likely to change as long as the Netanyahu-led Likud and the left-of-center Yesh Atid are overwhelmingly the two largest parties.

The real question is not whether Naftali Bennett wants to be prime minister, but whether Religious Zionists want to greatly increase their power in the fulfillment of critical goals such as strengthening national-religious education, protecting the complete Land of Israel, and asserting Jewish sovereignty. Only a large and powerful Jewish Home, with at least 18-20 seats in the Knesset, can truly make that happen. If the current party platform remains the same, with all candidates promising to be faithful to that platform, and if Bennett continues to seek rabbinical guidance about the overall direction of the party, then the recent panic about the perceived shift in political strategy is greatly exaggerated.

Reprinted with author’s permission

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