It’s difficult to see from the official photograph but the new cabinet includes five kippah wearers belonging to four different parties. Opposition too comes from knitted kippot, with Bezalel Smotrich of the self-proclaimed Religious Zionist Party charging the government with excluding Jews and being dependent on terror supporters.
As spectrums go, religious Zionists span a wide one – from those who term the Pride Parade a gathering of ‘perverts’, to religious LGBT members. Other than their head-covering, does anything connect them?
The national religious community is primarily right-wing when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet major religious and cultural disagreements exist: over personal autonomy versus rabbinic authority; the integration of Western values into one’s personal life; and the relationship to the ‘other’ – the non-Orthodox, LGBT community, Arabs, and non-Jewish world in general.
In his book Unravelled, Israeli journalist Yair Ettinger notes the community is “getting stronger, diversifying, radicalising and moderating, becoming both more and less sectoral”. While it is no longer bound around one official theme “neither is it divided into two separate camps but rather scattered across a broad spectrum between conservatism and innovation”.
It is this social-cultural divide rather than the territorial debate that best explains the split between Naftali Bennett and his allies and the ‘Smotrich’s”. For the former, the Israeli left-wing are allies and partners towards building a better Israeli-Jewish society. For the latter, they represent the decadent, un-Jewish West.
In a conversation, journalist and author Yossi Klein HaLevi says most religious Zionists, including Bennett, are on the side of modernity. “They want an Israel that is connected to the West, that values secular education, that is cutting-edge in technology, and that is broadly democratic.” In fact, he argued, Bennett is likely to be more comfortable with those Israelis committed to a sane Israel than he is to “fellow religious Zionists whose vision is a fundamentalist Israel … at war with the world”.
Bennett is thus arguably the poster child for this territorially right wing but socially-culturally engaged group. It’s no coincidence that Bennett’s first political party was called Bayit Yehudi, a Jewish home. He included secular Tel Avivi Ayelet Shaked and later tried to co-opt ex-footballer Eli Ohana. He seeks engagement with wider Israeli society.
It’s also no coincidence that these moves drew the wrath of Rav Zvi Tau, one of the leaders of the more conservative camp. Rav Tau even issued a Halachic ruling that it was preferable to ally with the Islamist Mansour Abbas’s Raam party than with the Israeli left.
That tension between these two groups will continue to play out. Yet the larger question is whether the national religious can, in Klein Halevi’s words “embrace the consequences of Israel as a democratic state”.
Zionism, according to Klein Halevi. “reconstituted Jewish peoplehood but also created a new people, the Israelis… Even as they rightly insist on affirming the centrality of Jewishness within Israeliness, they need to internalise that Israeli doesn’t necessarily equal Jewish.”
Ultimately, the extent to which the community can relate to and include the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land in the larger Israeli national tent may become its decisive test.
- A longer version of this essay appeared in the Fathom Journal on 22nd June: https://fathomjournal.org/naftali-bennett-and-israels-divided-national-religious-community-a-guide-for-the-perplexed/