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.
The Six Day War fundamentally changed the game, emboldening Kook’s followers and believers in religious Zionism. Under the tutelage of Kook’s son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, a new generation of young religious Zionists came to see their mission as once again settling the newly liberated lands. It was as much, perhaps, a personal awakening as it was a theological one: The 1967 generation, the sons and daughters of religious Zionism’s original guard, looked at their parents—milquetoast, many of them foreign-born, nearly all of them political moderates—and boasted that they would do better. They would rebuild the Jewish state east of the Green Line.
Thus, the settler movement was born—and the religious Zionist movement was split in two. On the one hand, the older generation continued to understand itself in terms of the old balancing act between the dictates of the Torah and the ethos of the state, a challenge that doomed them to play second fiddle on either side of the church-state divide. On the other, the new generation was awash in Messianic zeal. In 1967, for example, one of its most incandescent leaders, Hanan Porat, wrote with characteristic ecstasy: “Here I am—for the priesthood, for the kingdom, to kill, to be killed. O Lord, here I am. … This is how I understand the true meaning of the word pioneer.”
As the older generation died off, the younger generation began its ascent. Theoretically, there was nothing standing in its way: The majority of Israelis, even those who bitterly opposed the settlements and saw them as an obstacle to peace, couldn’t help but think of men like Porat—pioneering, bold, and idealistic—as the heirs apparent to Zionism’s true spirit. As the Jewish state matured, as it strove for normalcy and foreign brands and international acceptance, secular Zionism seemed archaic; what, after all, was the mission of a movement to establish a national homeland for the Jews in the State of Israel decades after such a home was already established? Secular Israelis looked at the nation’s founding ideology and could think of little use for it anymore, given that it had already accomplished its goal. Religious Zionists, on the other hand, were still going strong; they were rooted in ancient and immutable values, and their project, building settlements and reclaiming all of the land that God promised, was only getting started. Whether or not they saw the settlers as their secret id, successive Israeli administrations, even those on the other end of the political divide, continued to support them generously.
Plus, the religious Zionist movement had other projects apart from building settlements. In 1990, for example, only 2.5 percent of all IDF infantry officers were religious; by 2007, that number had skyrocketed to 31.4 percent, and it continues to grow. Religious Zionist activists set up newspapers, film schools, radio stations, and other public institutions, but they’d never been especially good at accumulating electoral power. Last election, in 2009, the religious Zionist votes were split between the Likud, the National Union, and Habayit Hayehudi. The former two, the movements’ main parties, received a combined total of seven seats in the Knesset, making the movement as politically marginal as ever.
That’s when Naftali Bennett stepped in.
Bennett is in possession of considerable talents, but his main asset is his charisma. It’s not the luster of the veteran politician, the kind of authoritarian aura Ehud Barak, say, strongly projects. Nor is it the elusive sort of pat sincerity that Bill Clinton has so finely crafted. Bennett’s mode of getting his point across—which I had occasion to witness when he visited Tablet Magazine earlier last year—is by coming across as an equal, a smart friend or an older brother who will never let his intelligence outshine his compassion. He listens, and when he speaks he sounds not as if he’s trying to sell you on his viewpoint but as if he’s eager to save you the embarrassment of being misinformed. It’s the sort of genial but steely leadership posture forged in infantry battalions or high-tech start-ups or any other unit that depends on its commander’s ability to convince his small band of followers of the sanctity of the goal ahead.
Bennett has been practicing this mode of leadership his entire life. He began his military career in Sayeret Matkal, the same commando unit that trained Netanyahu and Barak, before moving to another elite unit where he so much embodied the presiding spirit that he was called on to pen the unit’s new hymn. After his service, he received a law degree from the Hebrew University and, in 1999, founded the anti-fraud software company Cyota. The company struggled for a few years, but Bennett kept it alive long enough to see it through: In 2005, it sold to a much larger corporation for $145 million, making Bennett a very wealthy man.
His money bought him the freedom to dabble in politics, first as Netanyahu’s aide and then as the leader of the settler movement. But politics were a much wider, and much muddier, field than the self-contained environments to which Bennett was accustomed, and his style, in the early days in the public arena, could often be brusque.In September 2010, for example, Bennett, then the head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, agreed to a televised debate with Ahmed Tibi, the most prominent Israeli-Arab member of Knesset. Tibi is chubby, bespectacled, and quick witted, and he wasted little time calling Bennett and his fellow settlers “colonialists” and “usurpers.” “Ahmed Tibi,” Bennett said in response, “I’ll say it loud and clear: This land was ours long before Islam was even created.” He made a few statements along these lines, and then, just to make sure his point was clear, he thundered: “I’ll say it again. This land is ours. The land of Israel belongs to the Jews, long before you discovered the holy Quran. So, do me a favor: It’s ours.” The last word, in Bennett’s diction, seemed to have 16 syllables. Tibi, livid, tried to say something, and Bennett interrupted. Tibi urged Bennett to shut up; then, in the heat of discussion, he told Bennett that he considered him, a settler, to be like “a tumor that had to be removed.” Bennett fired back quickly. “When you were still climbing trees,” he said, “we had here a Jewish state.”
The incident generated little attention. The following morning, Walla, a prominent Israeli news site, ran a small article titled “Does the Yesha Council believe that Arabs climb on trees?” It was a dog-bites-man story: Here was Bennett, another hotheaded settler, another zealot, speaking bombastically. To the extent that the press reported on Bennett before the spring of 2012, most stories about him read like this. Some noted that he had served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Others, that he was the son of Jim and Myrna, Americans who had left San Francisco in 1967 and settled in Haifa. But these were tidbits; the main story was that Bennett, despite all the trimmings, was still a settler ideologue, and most of his public appearances, like the shouting match with Tibi, seemed to confirm that characterization.
And then came the change.
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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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.