Naftali Bennett, Eli Ohana and Israeli politics

Naftali Bennett is not my political cup of tea. Many reasons for that, and this is not the gist of this article. Yet, I have followed his rise to political prominence in Israel with a mixture of sympathy and fear. Fear because since I disagree with him, mostly on his approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, I do not like the idea that he will become a P.M, which is what he really wants to be, and why not, this is a legitimate ambition.

The point is, that unlike some other aspirants to the big job, he is not just an ambitious politician, he is also a very clever, intelligent, well-spoken politician, one with a vision. Put in sum, a very talented fellow. So, when you watch such a politician, you ought to be concerned about his growing stature, because he is so appealing. It is along the lines of “recognize the rival,” so that you know how to deal with him. That said, I always have had a lot of sympathy to a religious politician, who has changed the disc, opened up to non-religious members in his party, in short, trying to build a bridge between Religious Zionists and ordinary , secular, Right Wing Israelis.

This is a positive vision, one which is worthy of sympathy , albeit a reluctant one, considering Bennett overall political vision. Few days ago, he may have crossed one bridge too many, not in my mind, rather in that of his erstwhile supporters. It is a big deal, because it can teach us a lot about Israeli society at large, and Israeli politics in particular. It is the unbelievable tale of Naftali Bennett and Eli Ohana.

Eli Ohana, and this is said in the interest of transparency, is one of my heroes. It is because I am a fanatic soccer fan, and Ohana is, in my biased opinion, Israel’s best ever soccer player, and even more importantly, he was the star of Beitar Jerusalem, my favorite soccer club.The team has a huge following, among them, many racist, bigot anti-Arab fans, whose behavior is a source of constant shame and embarrassment. Yet, having a Menorah in my heart, I am still loyal to the team, not without  constant soul-searching process…

Eli Ohana, growing up in a Jerusalem slum, made a name for himself as an intelligent, opinionated footballer, then commentator and coach. A lot of what he says, especially comments against Arabs, is totally rejected by me, and still Ohana is someone whose opinions should be heard. He is a genuine representative of a large number of Israelis, mostly of Sephardic origin, who have found a political home in the Right Wing, starting with Menachem Begin, going all the way, though in smaller numbers to Netanyahu. Naftali Bennett has recognized that, and offered Ohana a safe seat in the Jewish Home list of candidates for the impending Knesset elections. An interesting idea, another indication, that Bennett thinks out of the box, trying to change disc in the collective mind of Religious Zionists. Imagine, the leader of a Religious party is offering a safe Knesset seat to someone who had made his fame playing soccer in Shabbes…. one who do not profess to be a fully observant Jew, rather one who appreciates the role of religion in Jewish -Israeli life, one who espouses strong Nationalist views, one who  did not go to a Yeshiva, but still feels strongly Jewish.

Well, Bennett may have misfired, judging by the Intifada in his party against him. It started with Ayelet Shaked, herself not religious, who was elected first in the Jewish Home primaries, surely an indication that up to a point, Bennett did manage to convey the message that a Jewish Home can be the home also of those who drive on the Sabbath. Shaked stated, that she heard that Ohana was ”intelligent”, so maybe he deserved a chance. Yes Ayelet Shaked, He  IS  intelligent, and why not? how come that she can be so surprised that someone called Ohana is intelligent ? maybe a sense of Ashkenazi patronage?… But this was the more moderate of the reactions against Bennett. Many others were much sharper, and mostly from Rabbis , heads of Yeshivas, moral and spiritual leaders, who simply cannot bring themselves to accept someone else, someone different . Is it having to do with Ohana being a son of Moroccan Jewish immigrants? Is it because he dared supporting the Disengagement from Gaza, though regretting it now? or is it because, the Rabbis feel, that this is the opportunity opened to them to resist Bennett , exactly because they do not want to open bridges to new , other constituencies in Israeli society? Be it as it may, an interesting, promising attempt to change, to create a new line of dialogue between different constituencies in Israeli society may be thwarted by the old , established guard , in this case, the Neturei Karta of Religious Zionism.

If Bennett caves in to the pressures, he will lose the ability to present himself as a national, non-sectarian leader. He will be put back in his right place as a leader of a Religious party, not a national leader. How he will handle the crisis, and what will be the final score of the Jewish Home in the elections remains to be seen, but the torrent of vicious attacks on Bennett and Ohana already indicate, that a lot of those who talk about Ahavat Israel, Rabbis and others, just talk, but do they really mean it?

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina