The immense popularity for illiberal and supremacist political parties among Israel’s National Religious community signals their trajectory down a politically restrictive and morally heinous path. It is up to them to change track and avoid becoming a reviled segment of the Israeli public and the Jewish world.
Last month, in almost every National Religious community throughout the country, on both sides of the Green Line, the overwhelming electoral champions were, first and foremost, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party, followed by the Religious Zionism party list, consisting of three radical far-right factions led by Betzalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Moaz. While their performance was somewhat muted nationally, with Yamina and Religious Zionism receiving 6.2% and 5.1% of the vote respectively, even among the more liberal National Religious communities these far-right parties have been decisively elected as the political voice of religious Zionism.
National Religious kibbutzim, moshavim and settlements from every corner of Israel saw the lion’s share of the vote go to Yamina and Religious Zionism. Efrat and Alon Shvut in the Etzion settlement bloc, for example, both saw upwards of 40% vote for Yamina, and a quarter and a third for Religious Zionism respectively. Likewise, the northern communities of Lavi and Sde Eliyahu, and the southern communities of Sa’ad and Masu’ot Yitzchak saw a very similar voting pattern for both of these parties; between a third and a half for Yamina, and around a fifth or a quarter for Religious Zionism. Among the more liberal outliers, Religious Zionism performed poorly but a particularly strong Yamina showing compensated. At the other extreme, the most radical settlements saw near-unanimous support for Religious Zionism. It would seem that without exception, the two parties alone accounted for a majority votes in all of these bastions of National Religious Israel.
To apply a known turn of phrase in Israeli politics, Israel’s National Religious strongholds voted in droves for the most extreme and decidedly right-wing elements of Israeli politics. There’s no sugar-coating this miserable fact and there’s no brushing over the shame it has brought on this proud, pioneering segment of Israeli society.
Religious Zionism party list head, Betzalel Smotrich, who rose to fame by organising the anti-LGBT “Beast Parade” in 2005, decried Arab and Jewish patients being treated side-by-side in maternity wards. Last week, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, he tweeted at a fellow Arab MK that “[a] true Muslim must know that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel and over time, people like you who don’t recognize that will not remain here”. Otzmah Yehudit faction head, Itamar Ben-Gvir, is a Kahanist disciple who for years proudly hung a portrait of the infamous Jewish terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, on his living room wall and supports the expulsion of “disloyal” Arabs. Meanwhile, Avi Moaz and his Noam party put the demonisation of homosexuality and non-Orthodox Jewry at the centre of their political platform. Amidst all of the frantic post-election political wrangling, the top two conditions for joining a Netanyahu government were the exclusion of Arab parties’ support and the reversal of the government’s adoption of UN resolution 1325 which calls on incorporating more women on security matters. It is this party of unapologetic racists, chauvinists and homophobes that has become a chief political home of Israel’s National Religious.
There is, of course, a significant difference between these far-right ultra-conservative extremists and the more popular Yamina party and its leader. Yet, while it would be disingenuous to lump the two groups together, the fact of the matter remains that in choosing Yamina as a top choice for a political home, the National Religious are boxing themselves in with a politically illiberal, decidedly hard-right political grouping that has very little national support. Their illiberalism was laid bare in their political campaign slogan two years ago which promised that “[Justice Minister Ayelet] Shaked will overcome the Supreme Court, Bennett will defeat Hamas”, thus equating the justices of the State of Israel with Islamic terrorists. It is clear to everyone that Yamina’s intervention in the judiciary is less to do with measured constitutional reform and more about wielding a sledgehammer to the integrity of law and the fundamental democratic principle of judicial checks and balances. The party’s disdain for such principles reared its ugly head most shockingly during the Elor Azaria saga in which Bennett vocally stood behind the soldier who slayed an unarmed terrorist lying on the ground, calling for him to be pardoned.
More revealing, however, is the fact that while Bennett is supposedly “free” from the shackles of the more extreme political voices of the National Religious base (including Smotrich, with whom Bennett formerly shared a party list) the Yamina chief has proven to be unwilling to broaden his party’s appeal or compromise leftward, let alone take on the extremists with whom he has supposedly split. He climaxed his latest election campaign with an on-air pledge not to sit in a government led by Yair Lapid, a politician better described as centrist rather than leftist by any reasonable criteria. So detestable are the centrists and leftists in his eyes, Bennett has shown that he would go to extraordinary lengths to keep them out of government. He is considering not only giving up the opportunity to be prime minister first in a rotation agreement and replace a prime minister on trial for corruption, but also allying himself with Smotrich and his despicable gang of fundamentalists.
To put it in diplomatic parlance, Yamina’s politics is not for the faint-hearted and is highly unsavoury to huge swathes of Israel’s voters. It is to the political detriment of the National Religious community and a stain on the moral integrity of Zionism that the political descendants of the National Religious Party (NRP) have strayed so far from the relatively broad church ideals and political flexibility they once professed. Bennett’s pledge not to sit with Lapid is a marked contrast from the NRP’s willingness to sit with left-wing governments in the past.
If there are moderate voices within the National Religious community calling out these extreme political elements or seeking to reform from within then they’re quiet and insubstantial. A suggestion that “Religious Zionism did not vote for ‘Religious Zionism’” by one rabbi of that camp is nothing short of denial. The voting patterns don’t lie, and the damning silence of most of the National Religious is, well, damning. If putting one’s head in the sand is the preferred tactic to hold together the moral integrity of the National Religious political movement, then there really is no hope.
What happened to the days when religious figures within the National Religious community would stand for decent moral and political values, such as when Rabbi Soloveitchik demanded that the NRP support the state commission to investigate Israeli responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila Massacre or Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog would write on non-Jewish minority rights in Israel? By contrast, today’s leading National Religious rabbis and movements stand shoulder to shoulder with illiberal and intolerant politicians.
One wonders not only how the National Religious will come to be seen in the eyes of fellow Israelis who find the politics of Bennett, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir so unappealing and repellent, but also in the eyes of Jews abroad. The normalisation of these extremists by not only entering Knesset but being considered as serious contenders for political partners in government by the sitting prime minister, is sure to only widen the gulf between liberal diaspora Jewry, particularly those in North America, and the Jewish State.
Israel’s National Religious community is no longer at a crossroads. On election day, they radically forked off down a hairbrained and morally reprehensible path. At its end lies a future in which they are constrained to a small and widely reviled tent lacking in political variety and dominated by uncompromising racists, supremacists, chauvinists, and homophobes. It’s up to the National Religious, and them alone, to decide whether to make the difficult journey of retracing their steps to that fork in the road, and attempt to undo the damage they’ve inflicted on themselves; if not by successfully eradicating the most extremist elements, then at least by broadening the tent to amplify moderate and respectable voices.
The shameful silence from most of the community’s religious and political leadership following outrageous moral statements and behaviour suggests that there’s currently no intention to do so. If they continue down this path, they must know that they risk vilifying themselves and their values in the eyes of the Israeli public and Jewish world. They will have isolated themselves from mainstream Israeli society who will, one can only hope, mercilessly fight against them tooth and nail within the bounds of the law in the righteous battle of our generation to defeat the primitive monster they’re choosing to become.