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