Zionism’s New Boss
Under rookie politician Naftali Bennett, religious Zionism is finally becoming Israel’s political mainstream
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
How Asma Agbaria-Zahalka is turning a socialist party of Arabs and Jews into a political phenomenon in Israel