Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Israel’s Spiritual Gangster Becomes a Political Kingmaker

Seven clues to understand the mysterious appeal of Moshe Feiglin and Israel’s uniquely Jewish brand of  libertarianism

Liel Leibovitz
April 09, 2019
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Moshe Feiglin campaigns in Jerusalem ahead of the parliamentary polls scheduled for April 9.Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Moshe Feiglin campaigns in Jerusalem ahead of the parliamentary polls scheduled for April 9.Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

What to make of Moshe Feiglin? Until a few months ago, the radical right-wing activist and former Likud backbencher was no one’s idea of a political contender, let alone kingmaker. Now, if polls are to be believed, Israelis casting their votes are slated to hand Feiglin’s party, Zehut—the word is Hebrew for identity—as many as seven Knesset seats, which might make it the most sought-after partner for anyone seeking to assemble the country’s next coalition. Much has already been written about Zehut’s unorthodox platform, which advocates for a host of seemingly incompatible policies, such as the legalization of marijuana and the establishment of an independent halachic legal system side by side with the country’s secular courts. What’s behind the party’s rapid rise? Seven observations come to mind:

Feiglin Is a Spiritual Gangster: The Israeli pundits straining to explain Feiglin’s appeal were telling a simple, sour story: Duped by the candidate’s faux libertarian vibe and charmed by his emphasis on legalizing weed, scores of Israelis were too gullible or lazy to bother reading the other bits of his platform, and were cheering on a wolf who would, the moment he was elected, shed his sheep’s clothing and engage in extreme right-wing policies. But voters are rarely as dumb and deplorable as the media make them out to be. Most of Feiglin’s voters know precisely what he stands for, and they support him because, not in spite of it. Why? Because the left is decimated and out of ideas, and the right, a decade now in power, has done little but manage the status quo. Politics being every bit as much a game of emotional thrusts as it is of logical calculations, Israeli voters—just like voters in Ukraine, England, the United States and elsewhere—are yearning for someone who speaks not in the hushed tones of civil servants but in the passionate alto of a radical promising to reconnect the nation with its fundamental values. “The Zehut Party,” reads its platform, “grew out of a recognition formed over decades that it is not possible to repair the seemingly simple and practical problems of the State of Israel without leadership that believes in the G-d of Israel and turns to Him.” Which, the platform clarifies, doesn’t mean that the leadership has to be religious; it can be secular, and it should concern itself with earthly affairs like decriminalizing weed, as long as it is powered not by the grays of parliamentary democracy but by the stark blues and whites of a sacred horizon. When it comes to religion, most Israelis consider themselves, at the very least, traditional, and many are growing increasingly observant. Glance at the Instagram accounts of the country’s most popular singers, actors, and athletes, and you’ll see a bevy of famous men in tefillin and celebrated women lighting Shabbat candles to the digital adoration of their like-minded fans. These displays of immediate, unequivocal, and uncomplicated pride in being Jewish is sorely lacking from the established political parties. To some, like Likud, Judaism is a strategic asset, to be protected against future attacks. To others, like Blue and White, it’s a liability, to be negotiated with bearded haredi zealots. To Zehut, it’s the cornerstone, and one that is compatible with most other aspects of modern life. This spiritual affirmation is one that voters appreciate, and it was perfectly delivered by the straight-talking Feiglin, unadorned by heated rhetoric or empty promises. Most Israelis, it turns out, are far from repulsed by the idea of theirs being a really Jewish state.

Everyday Life Matters: Israelis going to the ballot today know one thing: No matter who’s elected, the nation’s policies moving forward are likely to remain more or less unchanged. Maybe Netanyahu will follow through on his recent promise to annex the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Maybe Benny Gantz will come up with some new and creative way to revive the moribund Oslo Accords. But, most likely, whoever ends up being prime minister later this week will continue to tread lightly, avoiding major concessions and major conflagrations alike. This near-certainty frees Israeli voters to focus on their everyday lives, which, for the most part, are good. According to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel’s long-term unemployment was the lowest of all of the organization’s 36 member nations—which include Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Japan, and others—and work-life balance continues to improve, with the percentage of employees working 50 hours or more a week dropping from 19% in 2012 to 15% in 2016. Israelis live longer, eat healthier, and enjoy life more than their counterparts in the Western world. And while many still have economic gripes related to the high cost of living, none of these are sufficient to fuel a real political movement. The tent protest that excited the imagination of reporters and editors in 2011 fizzled and all but disappeared, its leaders now ordinary politicians without many followers. In this climate of overall contentment, it’s the little issues, like marijuana, that are likely to take off: Legalization isn’t as hard to achieve as, say, a drastic reduction in housing prices, and it’s likely to have a small but meaningful impact on many Israelis’ quality of life. All other parties and candidates being the same, this sort of small impact might just make a difference.

Voters Want Real Diversity: As is the case in America, the champions of diversity in Israel are playing a bit of a con game by insisting that differences matter while stacking the institutions they control with people who think exactly alike. Last week, Kobi Oz, one of Israel’s most beloved musicians and authors, sparked a minor scandal when he argued that Meretz, the left-wing party beloved by the intelligentsia, was made up of Ashkenazi progressives who fail to practice the diversity they preach. Instead of recruiting people who meet the criteria of diversity in name only but all think alike and share a privileged socio-economic background, Feiglin recruited a truly diverse team that includes a rabbi and former member of Shas; a social worker and men’s rights activist; an economist; a marijuana legalization activist; and a new immigrant from France. These men and women share few life experiences and even fewer convictions, save for the party’s core principles. And most Israelis were thrilled to see a list that wasn’t comprised of yet another torrent of former media stars, former generals, and former corporate hot shots.

The Party System Is Broken …: Once upon a time, Israel’s political system was governed by one large party, Labor, with smaller satellite parties orbiting it and vying for influence. Then came the Big Bang of Likud’s 1977 electoral victory, which led to years of a two-party system and to curiosities like the Rotation, a political agreement under which Likud and Labor, each unable to secure enough votes to govern unilaterally, agreed to share power and take turns occupying the prime minister’s office. More recently, however, Israel has been swamped by scores of parties, big and small, coming together and breaking apart in every election cycle and leading Israelis to think of parties not as ideological homes but as consumer products, here to meet a fleeting fancy. In this climate, Feiglin realized there was no better way than to double down on consumer choice: Save for himself and his No. 2, all other candidates were nominated, selected, and ranked by Israelis voting online. More than 17,000 people registered to vote in Feiglin’s survey and they ushered in a slew of candidates who look and think nothing like anyone recruited by the apparatchiks of the bigger parties.

And So Is the State: Older Israelis, those who grew up with Ben-Gurion and Begin and Dayan and Sharon, tend to see the state as a sacred entity, the near-perfect embodiment of the collective will. That’s why they believe that the men and women in government must display an impeccable character and a sterling record, and that’s why they grow frustrated when a prime minister, say, turns out to be the subject of a criminal investigation or five. Zehut, on the other hand, believes that the state governs best when it governs least, or, more accurately, governs smartest. For example, while the party doesn’t advocate for the dissolution of the Chief Rabbinate, it does propose that the Rabbinate lose most of its current powers. Instead, then, of awarding kashrut certificates, Zehut believes the Rabbinate should define the criteria of what constitutes kashrut, and then allow each eatery to declare whether or not it meets these criteria. “The kashrut standard will not deal with the requirements of supervising the kashrut of the product, but with its ingredients and the manner in which it is prepared,” reads Zehut’s platform. “Fraud regarding kashrut certification will be grounds for action against the advertised business, and will result in severe penalties like any consumer fraud.” It’s the sort of middle-ground arrangement, neither coercive nor truly laissez faire, that appeals to many Israelis who appreciate efficiency but cherish Judaism’s communal values and have no appetite for hard-core libertarianism.

They’re Still Making Up Their Minds: In a nation where bold, declarative statements often turn to sad jokes—remember Avigdor Lieberman’s promise to assassinate the leader of Hamas within 48 hours?—Zehut’s members are appealing in part because they know what they don’t know. The party’s No. 3, for example, Gilad Alper, was recently asked by a reporter to elaborate on his views regarding just who should be counted as a Jew. “I’ve never given it any thought,” Alper admitted. “I was never occupied by trying to think about whether an Orthodox Jew is more Jewish than a Reform Jew or vice versa. I’m so secular that I really don’t know the differences between these groups.” But his ignorance, he added, didn’t matter: Zehut has as many religious candidates as it does nonreligious candidates, and the organic conversation between them is much more valuable—and thrilling—than some prefabricated platform that states its views dogmatically. Whenever a party’s member is confronted with someone else in the party thinking differently, he or she is likely to sound delighted rather than exasperated; one member, a life-long socialist, recently admitted that conversations with her fellow candidates convinced her to endorse capitalism instead. If nothing else, Israelis find this candor refreshing.

Feiglin Solves the Bibi Problem: As a member of Likud, Feiglin was Netanyahu’s scourge, challenging the prime minister at every turn. As an independent candidate, he has managed to solve the key issue many Israelis have this election cycle, the problem of simultaneously believing that Bibi is doing a good enough job keeping the country safe and prosperous and, at the same time, disliking Bibi for any number of reasons, some personal and some substantive. Rather than position himself as Bibi’s alternative, as Gantz and Yair Lapid and everyone else running for office had done, Feiglin cannily marketed himself both as Bibi’s potential partner and his inquisitor, a fierce outsider who shares enough of the prime minister’s right-wing beliefs but who would nonetheless hold Bibi accountable like never before. Because many Israelis assume that Bibi is likely to become the next prime minister, they welcome the opportunity to vote for a party that would help crown Bibi yet again and then immediately hold his feet to the fire.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.