The old National Religious Party – lately rebranded as the “Jewish Home” – is enjoying a resurgence. From three seats in the current Knesset, polls predict it will reach as many as twelve after Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, having forged an alliance with the more radical National Union party. The last time the NRP did so well was 35 years ago when Menachem Begin built Israel’s first right-wing government with a Likud party base and support from the religious Zionists.
This time the spark plug is Naftali Bennett, a former army commando and high-tech millionaire who wrested leadership of the party from educators and rabbis by channeling a force modeled on Israel’s brash start-up computer companies. A far cry from the fervent followers of Rav Kook, whose messianic message dominated religious Zionist discourse for the past three decades, Bennett has become the Start-Up Candidate.
At 40, Bennett sent his predecessor Zevulun Orlev into retirement by courting a new generation of voters who are dazzled by his ability to maintain strict Jewish observance while serving in the army’s Sayeret Matkal special ops unit and founding the computer security firm Cyota, which he and his partners later sold for $145 million. After making his fortune at 33, Bennett turned to politics. He was a top aide when Benjamin Netanyahu was Knesset opposition leader and later led the Yesha Council, which represents West Bank settlers, even though he lives with his family in Raanana, a prosperous Tel Aviv suburb.
Bennett has fashioned himself as a poster child for the 2009 best-seller Start-Up Nation, which attributes Israel’s success in breeding innovative entrepreneurs largely to the army, which encourages independent thinking and operational flexibility in training its top officers, whether as commandos or in field intelligence and cyberwar units.
During the first decades of Israeli statehood, the NRP’s main constituencies were middle-class urbanites and those associated with the religious kibbutz and moshav movements. Indeed, it was the outlook of the socialist kibbutzim that brought moderation to the state-sponsored religious education system and the Bnei Akiva youth movement, smoothing the NRP’s alliance with the ruling Labor party.
From the late 1970s, a fresh power base arose that rebelled against the meekness of the religious Zionist camp. The settlers of Judea and Samaria derived their inspiration from the students of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his messianic Zionism. Along with their efforts to reconceive Bnei Akiva and banner educational institutions, Knesset members such as Rabbi Haym Druckman and subsequently Hanan Porat, paved the way for a new type of religious Zionist leader: religiously fervent, dogmatically driven, decidedly right-wing on dealing with the Palestinians, and dedicated toward realizing the State of Israel’s role as the “beginning of the redemption.” Over the course of the last decades of the twentieth century the “Kook school” increasingly drove the overall agenda of the religious Zionist camp, with its charismatic adherents serving as the main role models and inspirational figures for religious Zionist youth.
To be sure, internal struggles between pragmatists and zealous factions endured, and led to splits and compromises over NRP candidates. A liberal backlash also made inroads within religious Zionism, spawning moderate institutions such as Yeshivat Har Etzion, Beit Morasha, and more recently Beit Hillel.
Naftali Bennett would not have stood a chance of becoming leader of the Jewish Home party without his right-wing politics and prominent kippah perched on his head. Once those credentials were established, however, it was his image as a “start-up” leader and commando that propelled him to victory over the NRP’s old guard. His broad appeal suggests that the age of ideological battles as the center of religious-Zionist consciousness may be over.
Like Israeli secular society that abandoned polemics over social-Zionism and revisionism, the rank and file of religious Zionism is shying away from visceral activism. This may have been triggered by the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which brought to light the dissonance between the redemptive vision of a “greater Israel” at any cost, and the more pragmatic consensus among the majority of the country. In practice, the retreat from Gaza highlighted the political impotence of the religious Zionist leadership.
Somewhat ironically, another factor reflected in Naftali Bennett’s rise is the expanding influence of pre-army mechina institutions on religious-Zionist youth. At first glance, these yearlong programs that combine intensive Torah study with indoctrination into the worldview of the modern Jewish fighter would seem to bolster religious commitment. Unlike the five year hesder yeshiva programs, it would appear that the longer lasting effect of the mechina year has been to cultivate a military ethos that celebrates the crack military commando as the ideal Jew. Thus Bennett, who was graduated from a religious high school but did not attend either a mechina or a hesder yeshiva, serves as a role model for the many mechina graduates of these institutions who now serve in top commando units and are making their way up the officer ranks.
The Bennett phenomenon suggests that after years of hyper-idealism and focus on elitist religious standards, the religious-Zionist camp is headed toward increased bifurcation. With the settlements of Judea and Samariaan established fact and a consensus of support for them apparent among Israel’s right-wing majority, there is no pressing issue to galvanize the troops. In parallel, the post-army generation feels less obliged to adhere to the levels of observance dictated by their high school rabbis and youth movements. While zealous settlers and deeply committed yeshiva graduates will continue to make their voices heard, a growing portion of the religious-Zionist community – many of them from the greater Tel Aviv area – is celebrating something that was shunned for many years: an observant lifestyle that is not suspicious of prevalent cultural norms. For this constituency, no one could be more inspiring than a kippah-wearing former commando whose religious observance and right-wing politics never interfered with his starring role in the Start-Up Nation.