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Zionism’s New Boss

Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream

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Naftali Bennett, head of the Habayit Hayehudi Party, the Jewish Home party, sits in his car during a campaign tour on Dec. 26, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Uriel Sinai//Getty Images)

Naftali Bennett’s press conference late last month was to the Israeli election cycle what a high-speed car chase is to a middling Hollywood action movie. With the chronicle of Bibi Netanyahu’s re-election more or less foretold, Israelis were vying for a shot of adrenaline that would rescue what had otherwise become a bloodless procedural, and Bennett was on hand to deliver.

The chase began on Thursday night, Dec. 20, when Bennett, the young and charismatic head of Habayit Hayehudi—literally, the Jewish Home—a right-of-center religious party soaring in the polls, was interviewed by Nissim Mishal, one of Israel’s most revered television journalists. The veteran reporter wasted no time. He grilled Bennett, Netanyahu’s one-time chief of staff, about his allegedly strained relationship with his former boss. He called Bennett delusional for believing that it was possible for Israel to continue to object to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the face of mounting international pressure. For the first 15 minutes, they maintained a tense conversation, but nothing out of the ordinary for Israeli TV, where interviews are a contact sport and civility a sign of weakness. But Mishal had an ace up his sleeve.

At some point, his tone grew noticeably quieter. “You’re a major in reserve, right?” he asked Bennett, a former officer in one of the army’s elite units. Bennett confirmed that this was true. “If,” Mishal continued, “you were given an order to evacuate a [Jewish] outpost or settlement, what would you do?”

For a few seconds, the studio was silent. The question, Mishal knew, placed Bennett in a lose-lose scenario: As the former head of the settlers’ council, Bennett would be expected to declare that he would never agree to dismantle settlements, but as an ascendant political superstar whose surprising popularity was based on his image as a laid-back moderate, he was obliged to reassure his voters of his fealty to the rule of law.

“If I,” Bennett began his reply, but Mishal, impatient, interrupted. Waving his hand, the journalist bellowed: “Don’t beat around the bush! No speeches! What would you do?”

Bennett hunched his shoulders, looking at Mishal the way a boxer eyes his opponent just before the first punch is thrown. “Listen,” he said, “listen. If I get an order to evacuate a Jew from his home, to expel him, me, personally, my conscience would not let me do it. I’ll ask my commander to excuse me, but I won’t publicly call on others to refuse an order. I personally can’t …”

Mishal was no longer listening. “You’d rather go to jail?” he quipped. Bennett said that he would. “So, you’ll refuse an order? The leader of Habayit Hayehudi, who wants to be in the government, says on live TV that he’ll refuse an order?”

Bennett tried to answer. He tried to say that the Israel Defense Forces had a long tradition of encouraging soldiers to consider the edicts of morality when contemplating controversial orders. He insisted that he would feel just as reluctant to evict a Palestinian family from its home as he would one that was Jewish. He was measured and firm, but the conversation had already spun out of control. Mishal was now joined in the studio by three other journalists for the last third of the program. It was impossible to make out a coherent argument among the crescendos of cut-off questions and aborted answers. By the time the show’s credits rolled, virtually all of Israel’s news websites were reporting that Bennett had called on soldiers to resist any order to dismantle settlements.

It’s easy to understand why the Israeli press pounced on the story; a candidate making an incendiary statement so close to the election is breaking news. But more surprising was what happened next. The morning after his appearance, an advertising campaign was launched, presenting Bennett, juxtaposed against a blood-red background, as a right-wing extremist unworthy of trust. It didn’t come from the left, whose politicians and pundits have spent months decrying the politician as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It was produced by the Likud Party, many of whose parliamentarians hold views identical to Bennett’s. The young newcomer had struck a nerve. He was no longer seen by the prime minister and his men as just another political opponent from an unknown party. He was now a contender.

***

Religious Zionism, the political movement Naftali Bennett now heads, was born as a historical footnote, survived for half a century by hanging on to the coattails of its secular benefactors, and has spent the past five decades trying to come to terms with its journey from Israel’s ideological margins into the heart of the mainstream.

In the late 19th century, Zionism, busy being born, was stirring Jewish hearts and souls across Europe by presenting itself as a muscular and secular movement, at odds with the ancient religion and its timidity. But a smattering of rabbis cast their lot with Theodor Herzl. It was a risky proposition. According to the Talmud, attempts to return to the Promised Land before the divinely appointed time are strictly prohibited; any initiative to settle the land of Israel was seen as an inappropriate attempt to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Zionism, most religious Jews believed, violated this stricture. And yet its early rabbinic proponents argued that it was perfectly acceptable for Jews to manage their earthly affairs by migrating to a land where they could live free of persecution. If such an ingathering happened to spark some mysterious divine process and bring about the much-yearned-for Messiah, all for the better.

To most Orthodox rabbis, such arguments were sacrilegious. Writing in 1899, the Lubavitcher Rabbe, Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn, warned that “we must not heed them [the Zionists] in their call to achieve redemption on our own, for we are not permitted to hasten the End even by reciting too many prayers, much less so by corporeal stratagems, that is, to set out from exile by force.” Secular Zionists were hardly more hospitable toward their yarmulke-wearing brethren: Max Nordau, second only to Herzl in the nascent movement, captured the feeling of many early Zionists when he declared that “Zionism has nothing to do with theology; and if a desire has been kindled in Jewish hearts to establish a new common-wealth in Zion, it is not the Torah or the Mishnah that inspire them, but hard times.”

Rejected by their fellow religious Jews, and distrusted by their fellow Zionists, the religious Zionist faction grew accustomed to treading lightly. More often than not, this meant siding with Zionism’s mainstream leadership. Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, for example, the father of the Mizrachi movement—religious Zionism’s largest political organization—stood with Herzl when the latter proposed the controversial plan to settle Jews in Uganda instead of Palestine. The same pattern persisted after Israel’s founding. For the state’s first two decades, the religious Zionist parties sat in coalitions led by the secularist Labor and did little to upset the status quo that defined Israel as predominantly ethnically, rather than religiously, Jewish.

There were exceptions, both before and after the establishment of Israel—most notably Abraham Isaac Kook. The tremendously influential rabbi saw secular Zionists as the unwitting servants of the Lord and argued that even though the pioneers actively distanced themselves from Judaism they were actually instruments in God’s secret plan to bring about redemption. His words rang particularly true in 1967, when Israeli soldiers conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, placing the biblical homeland once again in Jewish hands.

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PhillipNagle says:

The truth is that the Israeli left has been such a failure when in power that they no longer present a viable alternative. As for Mr. Bennet, if we have learned nothing else from WW II, it was made clear that just following orders is not excuse for immoral behavior.

wishnitz says:

The problem with Liel Leibowitz is that most of what he writes is just plain wrong. His description of Naftali Bennett may or may not be true- his description of religious zionism is certainly untrue. It is not true that religious zionism “was born as a footnote, survived by hanging on to the cotttails of its seculat benefactors”. Has Liel ever heard of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher? or the “Netziv’ (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Jehuda Berlin)? Towering Orthodox personalites that predated ,not only religious zionism ,but Herzl, for heaven’s sake, by decades and encouraged the return to israel? It is absolutely a travesty to affirm (as Liel does) that ” According to the Talmud, attempts to return to the Promised Land before the divinely appointed time are striclty prohibited.Any attempt to settle the land of Israel was seen as an inapporiate attempt to hasten the coming of the Messiah.Zionims, most religious Jews believed, violated this stricture”. Liel is delusional. This paragraph comes straight out of the website of Neturai Karta, the most extreme ultra-orthodox and anti-zionist segment of Jewry in the world, and who have been discredited by even other ultra-orthodox jews for their pro-Palestinian and pro-iranian antics. Has Liel ever heard of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, of the GRA, of the rebbes of Gur, all of them moving to israel and settling there centuries before Herzl and the zionist movement? Liel quotes a saying by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1899. This is, again, a quotation that comes directly from the website of Neturei Karta and has long ago been superseeded by events and by his own successor , the Lubavitcher that we all know for the past sixty years, whowas the staunchest proponent of not giving back an inch of historic Israel.
Liel presents a caricature of traditional religious zionism and thereby forfeits the right to give us any kind of logical analysis of the modern religious zionist movement, who is very much in line with its history..

It’s incorrect a) to say that the Talmud definitively says pretty much anything and b) certainly to say that it forbids return to the land of Israel; though that is one interpretation of Ketubot 111a. However, there have been many other interpretations including the Ramban, who made aliyah 950 years ago.

nyesq1 says:

The rise of Naftali Bennett has more to do with true pride and love of Israel than religion per se. Genuine love which leaves no room for cynicism. Its about people rejecting the Woody Allen diaspora Jew who “deconstructs” everything – if you hate your identity, criticize and attempt to undermine it (regardless of merit) you are progressive. heterosexual. Bennett overwhelming resume – Top elite unit, lawyer, high tech maven, Yesha Council and Chief of Staff for Netanyahu. You cannot accuse him of being anachronistic….. He is fully integrated in both the Modern and Jewish worlds (his wife, actually, happens to be secular. I myself am agnostic and largely non practicing, yet believe that it’s important to create space for Jewish culture (Yiddish, folklore, morality) and let it thrive. Being pro-Israel doesn’t mean being anti-something else.
The point here is not that you have to be “religious” to admire Bennett. All you have to do is have the normal instinct to be part of your group identity especially when there is much to be proud about.

You mistake propaganda for historical inquiry. The vast majority of Torah observant Jews in Eastern Europe, before WWII, opposed political Zionism. The dominant organizations within the observant community were the Agudat Yisrael & Machzikei HaDas (Belzer Hassidut), both actively opposed political Zionism, with The Agudah reaching a modus vivendi (not an endorsement) with the leadership of the nascent State of Israel on the eve of its independence. The Mizrachi was a distant third place organization within the Orthodox community. The descendants of those disciples of the GRA who lived in Jerusalem were among the most fervent in opposition to political Zionistm (and many still are). All of Liel Leibowitz’s contentions which you find objectionable are groundrd in historical facts. Liel is not delusional, he just understands that there is a difference between history and ideology. Your contentions would go down very well at a B’nai Akivah Shabbat, and they form an important ideological underpinning for those who wish to be both observant and Zionist, nevertheless they trotting out Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer as the ultimate reproach to Liel’s article is not serious. Rabbi Kalischer’s influence on the acceptance of political Zionism within the Orthodox community was marginal (in terms of numbers).

It is not a matter of whether the Talmud actually prohibits a return to the Land of Israel or not; rather, Liel Leibowitz is describing how this passage in the Talmud was taught by most of the leaders of pre-WWII Eastern Europen Orthodoxy and how this teaching was apprehended by the Orthodox masses, at the time.

wishnitz says:

Dear Sir,
I do not confuse propaganda with historical inquiry.If there is any propaganda, it is in the other side. It is true that a large part of Orthodox jewry opposed political Zionism in the early days of the Zionist campaign. However, please re-read Liel Leibowitz’s words. He talks about settling and living in Israel before the arrival of the Messiah. His words reflect the most extreme anti-israel views, espoused today only by a remnant of the Neturei Karta. His words come straight out of their website. I know, I read it !
And to quote a saying of the old Lubavticher rebbe, said in 1899, is straight out of the same old, defunct playbook. Why not quote the Rebbe that we all know, whose presence dominated the second half of the twentieh centuey-and who opposesd giving back an inch of israel?
You know as well as I do, that present day Orthodox jewry (not only the religious zionists) lives and builds in israel and is actively involved in its political process. You don’t have to be a religious zionist to accept the fact of modern day israel. I quoted Rav Kalischer to demonstrate that the impetus to return to Israel started out well before Herzl (see the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and the GRA). My point was simply that leil Lebowitrz totally misrepresented orthodox Judaism in all its aspects and certainly religious zionsim who, incidentally,has always polled much higher that the Orthodox parties in israel,

wishnitz says:

You are wrong. No plausible Orthodox leader ,save one or two, interpreted that talmudical passage in this way. Only in recent years has this become populaized by the late Satmarer rebbe.

Ron Lewenberg says:

Should we really care that a few ghetto Jews, after praying for their mythical “good Czar”, would make a fetish of a Roman-imposed Rabbinic ruling at odds wit the Torah?

Redwood509 says:

If he does not deliver on the agenda of the fractured orthodox voters they will split again, because he represents mainly the Ashkenazim with a Yarmulka, this is more or less, what it is about and there are numerous issues in conflict with other more or less Orthodox streams, with the Israeli center, and the Left which is totally mystified, how the Orthodox are more powerful than they used to be. The bottom line, if Bibi gives in to their blackmail (there is no nicer way to describe it), they will be right there for more votes, if they get less, his leadership could crumble. Previously, many wunderkinds came on the political scene, some with gravitas (Prof. Y. Yadin, 1977) or or former Eichman body snatcher, Raffi Eithan) all formed a “party” which vanished. Even Kadima (which means forward, but is more backward these days)that came with 28 seats in 2009, presently can barely cobble 5 secure spots. Bennet is one of a kind, he can also be history after a grind upward, not different to Livni’s fate as another Israeli has been who could no tick back regardless of her standing in the West as “one of us”!

Great article. Just a quick correction: the Habayit Hayehudi TV ad features not Uri Ariel but Uri Orbach.

Papa493 says:

“The truth is that the Israeli left has been such a failure when in power….”

1948-77 a failure? “The truth” is your truth.

PhillipNagle says:

Yes, a failure! If we look at the economic progress under capitalism versus socialism in Israel (as well as most countries that have wisely made the switch) one can come to no other conclusion.

Papa493 says:

The left was busy establishing the nation, fighting victorious wars and laying a foundation for the current economy.

PhillipNagle says:

They weren’t laying the foundation for the current economy they stifling any real economic growth. It’s just like the left, they and their ideas get bounced, then they take credit for a growing free enterprise economy.

Papa493 says:

And Israelis’ longevity is due to the nation’s universal healthcare and mandatory insurance. The system also keeps healthcare costs lower, which helps the economy.

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Zionism’s New Boss

Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream