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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)

It didn’t come at once, and perhaps it did not even occur on a stated, conscious level. But a tour through Bennett’s TV appearances—he’s left behind a record of recordings that dwarfs that of most Israeli politicians—shows that the change is noticeable. A year after the tiff with Tibi, for example, there he was again, appearing on the same show, debating the left-leaning journalist Gideon Levy. Rather than wear a faded button-down shirt—the unofficial uniform of politicians in a nation not fond of officialdoms—he sported a teal-colored Lacoste. He had put on a few pounds, and his face no longer looked angular and tense; it was rounder now and lent itself more easily to a smile. In fact, the smile seemed to be almost a default. When he spoke, he still projected the same assertiveness, but his tone was more relaxed. He used slang liberally and used his hands not to jab the air to make a point but to motion toward Levy, as if inviting him to agree that there was no other future for Israel apart from fortifying its settlements in the West Bank.

Soon, Israelis were noticing Bennett not so much for his style but for his substance: In April of 2011, he formed My Israel, “an Internet-based movement dedicated to spreading Zionism and the love for the land of Israel over the Internet,” encouraging Israelis to use social media to show the world that life in the Jewish state was more than just a series of wars or checkpoints or grim tidings. It was a virtual undertaking, a Zionist start-up, but the enthusiasm it generated was real: More than 80,000 Israelis signed up in a few months.

A major source of the movement’s cachet was Bennett’s appointee for My Israel’s No. 2, Ayelet Shaked, a striking-looking secular woman from Tel Aviv who speaks with the conviction and the clarity Israelis usually associate with earlier, more idealistic generations. By 2012, the two formed another movement, called The Israelis, dedicated to increasing Jewish and Zionist education and understood by everyone as a placeholder for some future political move.

That move was perfectly timed. Early in 2012, Bennett began his run to become the head of Habayit Hayehudi. It was a risky political calculation. The easiest route for him would have been to run as a member of the Likud—as a former senior official in Netanyahu’s circle, he certainly had the clout and the connections, even if his parting with the prime minister was, reportedly, short of amicable. But as a member of Likud, Bennett knew, he would always be nothing more than Netanyahu’s underling, doomed, like generations of religious Zionist leaders before him, to serve at the pleasure of a strong and secular leader. Bennett was willing to gamble that the tides were turning, that there were enough secular Israelis who found his faith and convictions much more appealing than anything else on offer this election year. These, more than his natural constituency of yarmulke-wearing voters, were the people Bennett’s campaign was trying to court.

His first step was releasing a detailed plan for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Called “the Plan for Calm,” it argued that Israel should focus not on ending the conflict, which was impossible, but by taking steps to produce conditions that were favorable and conducive to curbing Palestinian violence. Israel, the Plan for Calm argued, should annex large swaths of the West Bank, awarding citizenship to the area’s approximately 50,000 Palestinians and allowing the Israeli security services a wider base of operations against terrorism. Bennett’s political rivals, like the newcomer centrist Yair Lapid, called the plan “un-Zionist.” The leftist Peace Now lobby referred to it as hallucinatory. But the Israeli public seemed to love it. As of this writing, polls are predicting that Bennett and his party could win as many as 16 seats, making Habayit Hayehudi, possibly, the second-largest party in Israel.

With great power come great enemies, and many have piled onto Bennett. The most common thread, heralded by everyone from Haaretz’s op-ed page to the Likud’s ongoing campaign, argues that Bennett is a master deceiver whose party is thick with intolerant religious fundamentalists. Uri Ariel, the No. 2 on Bennett’s party list opposes drafting LGBT youths into the army, and another politician on the slate, Moti Yogev, is the former head of the religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva, where he led an effort to segregate boys and girls and pushed back against many of the movement’s previously relaxed religious and political outlooks.

Bennett has barely bothered mounting a defense to these claims. Instead, he has released a series of new ads. The most effective one begins with Ariel and Shaked, the lanky and mustachioed religious man and the no-nonsense secular woman, commenting that voting, previously a once-every-four-years ritual, is now a weekly undertaking; Israelis, they say with a wink, are used to voting regularly for their favorite reality TV contestants, and so now it was time for them to vote for their values. The ad then cuts to Bennett: Smiling widely, he stands against an all-white background, looking like the hip spokesman in an Apple commercial. “My brothers and sisters,” he begins, and the greeting does not come off as insincere. “I want every Israeli child, secular and religious, to know about Moses, about Maimonides, about Yoni Netanyahu, about Hannah Senesh and S.Y. Agnon. I want every child to know how to read the Bible, and know how to make Kiddush.” The smile grows wider. “Look, there are many things we need to improve here in our country, but we can only solve our problems if we remove all the barriers between us, if we stop this hate-filled discourse that sets the secular apart from the religious and the haredi, the left apart from the right, us apart from those who are just a little bit different from us. I love the people of Israel. I love the land of Israel. I love the Torah of Israel. I love the Israel Defense Forces. I love our soldiers. If you feel the same way I do, you have a home.”

It was the same sort of speech religious Zionist politicians had been giving for decades, carefully mixing biblical figures like Moses with modern martyrs like Netanyahu and Senesh. The difference is that in Bennett those ideas have an assertive mouthpiece, a spokesman not content with accepting religious Zionism as his own personal philosophy, but who believes it should be the dominant belief structure of the entire Israeli polity. He is the main attraction, not the extra in someone else’s production, and his message is resonating far beyond self-identified religious Zionists: Polls released this week show that 43 percent of Bennett’s intended voters are secular.

It might be the biographical good fortune of being able to claim all of Israeli society’s most coveted status symbols—army prowess, high tech success—that makes Bennett feel like a more contemporary and appealing candidate than most others. It might also be his message—a revamping of Zionism that ties Israel’s national symbols with Judaism’s spirit, putting the latter in the fore—that is resonating with young voters tired of the increasingly cynical political landscape and eager for the same sort of sweeping ideological conviction their parents and grandparents had, a conviction that made them feel hopeful and proud and inspired. It might, of course, be both. Regardless of his eventual electoral achievements, however, Naftali Bennett already has a major victory to his credit: He has established religious Zionism’s strong claim to Israel’s political mainstream and given it an attractive face and a strong and inspiring vision. It’s an achievement whose ripples we are likely to witness for a long time to come.

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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

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