Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer of Migdal HaEmek is a huge fan of the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich and his No. 2, Itamar Ben Gvir.
“I think they really care about and are concerned with introducing Torah values into Israel as much as possible while doing so with a very positive attitude toward Zionism and loving all Jews,” Oppenheimer told Israel365 News on Friday shortly before Shabbat.
Oppenheimer moved to Israel in 2017 after serving as a synagogue rabbi in various congregations across the United States. Today, he is “happier with the party than in the past” because he feels it is uncompromising.
“In the past, some of our Religious Zionist leaders were trying to be secular Zionists with kippahs [Jewish head coverings],” he said.
If Oppenheimer has his way, then he will be one of an expected roughly 500,000 Israeli voters who cast their ballots for the Religious Zionism party on Tuesday, ensuring them a prominent place in any future right-wing coalition.
The polls show Religious Zionism securing around 14 seats – 12% of the parliament’s 120 seats. This would make it the Knesset’s third-largest party.
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes to be the first leader charged with forming a coalition, has already said he would tap into the party and promised to give the controversial Ben Gvir a ministerial position. Smotrich has said he is interested in top roles, including the defense minister. Ben Gvir has expressed interest in being public security minister, overseeing the Israel Police.
Although nothing can be decided until all the votes are cast and counted, and it is unlikely for several reasons that even if the Religious Zionism party becomes a senior partner in a Netanyahu-led coalition that its leaders would be able to enact its extreme policies, the party has sparked dialogue among the Religious Zionist community.
At the center of the conversation is usually Ben Gvir, a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from the Knesset for his racist and anti-Arab views. The Religious Zionist community appears to be divided over just how much support to give him.
“The idea that mainstream national religious rabbis would support a Meir Kahane follower would have been unthinkable only three years ago,” said Daniel Goldman, founder of the Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research and former chair of Gesher and World Bnei Akiva.
But something has changed.
‘The alternative is terrible’
“Ben Gvir has clearly normalized on the Religious Zionist spectrum,” Goldman told Israel365 News. “The more religious and socially conservative you are, the more likely you are to be accepting of Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s opinions. I don’t see enough or a large number of people speaking out against them.”
According to Goldman, mainstream religious Jews in the United Kingdom, Australia or the United States would “have great discomfort” with these candidates. He recalled how earlier this year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews disapproved of and rejected a visit by Smotrich to their community.
“There is definitely a gap between how communities view these people there versus here,” Goldman said.
But that is also likely because those communities deal with different issues than the State of Israel. In May 2021, for example, thousands of Arab citizens rioted across Israel, beating innocent civilians, setting fires and stealing from Jewish synagogues and other property. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has experienced multiple wars and terror attacks against the country and its people, largely at the hands of Arab countries and people.
“A lot of people say this is happening because the alternative for Israel is terrible,” Goldman said, meaning a left-wing government. “So, they are more tolerant of Ben Gvir and Smotrich.”
Others believe that Ben Gvir has truly become more tolerant himself, as he has claimed in dozens of interviews in the last two months. It is a Jewish viewpoint that people should be forgiven for their wrongdoings, and, at least according to Steven Pruzansky, a rabbi and author who lives in Modi’in, Ben Gvir deserves this privilege.
“I think all politicians, journalists, people in the public eye say things that they later regret,” he told Israel365 News. “Some people exaggerate his views because they dislike what he said and don’t want to accept his retraction. Man can be very unforgiving.”
He cautioned fellow Jews to be careful of slandering Ben Gvir and Smotrich in public, the way the international elite slander Israel.
“People describe Ben Gvir as a racist, bigot, a narrow-minded supporter of apartheid – the elites in the world would say the same thing about Israel,” Pruzansky said. “What society is doing to him is what the world does to us.
“People are not the total of a statement made 20 years ago or even 20 months ago,” he continued. “We should look at people’s policies even more than their personalities. Ben Gvir has evolved. He has changed his views.”
‘They basically love Jews’
Ben Gvir has indeed shifted his stance in recent months and years, at least according to him.
This election, he did not publish a manifesto on his website like in the previous two, where he laid out his current policies. The previous ones centered on policies like encouraging Arab citizens of Israel to immigrate, annexing the West Bank without giving the Palestinians the right to vote, allowing Israel Defense Force soldiers to shoot at Palestinians who are throwing stones or rioting and imposing the death penalty on terrorists.
Ben Gvir has continued to say he would support many of these policies, though he has softened his rhetoric. Instead of calling for “death to Arabs,” he now calls for “death to terrorists,” for example. And he has said that Arabs are welcome in Israel so long as they recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
“I have no problem, of course, with the minorities here,” he told the New York Times in a recent interview. “But whoever is a terrorist, whoever commits terror — and anyone who wants jihad and to annihilate Jews, and not only that, also hurts Arabs — I have a problem with him.”
He told the Times of Israel that Israel is at “war” with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority “but not with all the Arabs in Judea and Samaria. Someone who wants to live there and understands that this is the State of Israel — they’re welcome.”
“I don’t think Itamar Ben Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich, or for that matter Meir Kahane, hate Arabs,” Oppenheimer said. “I think that they basically love Jews and feel strongly that they want to protect Jews.”
He said that with dozens of Arab states around the world, Jews deserve a homeland and only Arabs who are willing to accept that should live in Israel.
“The Jewish state was formed to further the Jewish people and protect the Jewish people and to be the homeland of the Jewish people,” Oppenheimer added. “If they are willing to sign allegiance to that, I have absolutely no problem with Arabs.”
Although he admitted that not every Religious Zionist Jew supports the policies of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, he said they are “legitimate” have “integrity” and are based on “Torah sources aimed to serve Hashem [God] and the best interest of the Jewish people.”
He also said that to say Ben Gvir is the reincarnation of the most extreme positions of Kahane is “simply wrong.”
‘Best positioned to move the redemption forward’
Pruzansky said he will vote for the Religious Zionism party because it “best reflects my values and they are best positioned to move the redemption forward by strengthening the Jewish character of the state, expanding settlements and making sure every Jew has the opportunity to see the value and beauty of Torah.”
Goldman said that he does not believe all of the Religious Zionist community’s votes will go to the Religious Zionism party because the community is diverse and has a broad spectrum of political opinions.
“We are all connected by a set of core values: the land of Israel, Torah and the Jewish people. How these values are reflected in a specific political platform differs greatly,” he said.