Over twenty years ago, I published a booklet titled “Religious Extremism: A Threat to the Future of the Jewish People” which was translated into many languages and widely distributed. It dealt with extremist trends in the religious world, stressing that the greatest danger emanated from messianic nationalism inspired by rabbis claiming to know precisely what the Almighty desired and were willing to suspend traditional societal behavior to promote their beliefs. This was prior to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a crazed religious assassin but after the “underground”, when religious extremists were arrested for orchestrating the bombing of Arab activists. It carried a call to religious Zionists to expunge the extremists from their midst and concentrate on building bridges with other sectors of Israeli society and strengthening national Jewish identity without coercion.
Alas, since then, religious Zionism has been on a continuous decline. The haredi political parties have hijacked the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts, imposing the most stringent standards on the nation. Rank and file Israelis became enraged by the growing numbers of haredim evading the draft as well as those who became nonproductive beneficiaries of state welfare because their rabbis discouraged them from working. Their excessively strict halachic interpretations also created crises in areas such as conversion, marriage, divorce and gender separation.
Now, Naftali Bennett, a charismatic young religious Zionist, has sensationally rejuvenated the national religious party Bayit Yehudi, which polls predict will become the third largest Knesset party and be well positioned to displace the haredi parties, reclaim the Ministry of Religion and other ministries and and launch a national religious renaissance
But as I remarked in my previous column, this could fall apart if far-right trends within the party are not contained.
Many traditional Likud voters intending to vote for Bennett, will do so on the assumption that they remain within the national camp and that as an independent right-wing religious party it will merely reinforce a nationalist government and enable Netanyahu to be in a better position to withstand American and other global pressures.
Yet, if Bayit Yehudi pursues its stated annexationist objectives, it may undermine a moderate nationalist government and lose an historic opportunity to restore religious Zionism as the dominant religious force in Israeli society.
These concerns are heightened by the fact that 40% of the Bayit Yehudi Knesset list was not elected but appointed by the central committee of Tkuma, a far-right settler party formerly a faction of Ihud Leumi.
The Tkuma constitution obligates its Knesset members to “accept rabbinical authority that shall guide the elected representatives according to Torat Israel and who shall determine the fundamental principles” and explicitly states that “ the Committeee of Rabbis of the Party have the ultimate authority in determining the principal ideological direction of the Party and the order of its candidates to the Knesset”.
The Tkuma Knesset contingent will therefore be committed to implementing directives of their three Tkuma rabbis – Kiryat Arba’s Chief Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Zalman Melamed and Rabbi Chaim Steiner. This is a radical departure from the approach of traditional religious Zionists who adamantly refused to defer the determination of political policies to rabbis. It mirrors the manner in which Shas and United Torah Judaism operate.
The dominant rabbi is Rabbi Lior, whose extremist proclamations such as asserting that the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein be considered “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust” and that conceiving with non-Jewish sperm causes genealogical abnormalities, have shocked and alienated all but the most extreme of the religious right wing.
Following the Gaza disengagement, Rabbi Lior amended the wording of the prayer for the welfare of the state recited in synagogues under his control to eliminate a blessing for the government.
One can assume that Naftali Bennett does not endorse most of Rabbi Lior’s extremist views. Besides, Rabbi Lior declines to endorse him or Bayit Yehudi in order not to offend Michael Ben Ari’s Otzma L’yisrael, an even more extreme far right party.
But that does not detract from the fact that a substantial number of his Knesset contingent are Tkuma members committed to implementing their Rabbi’s’’ directives.
In fairness, Likud-Beiteinu also includes a number of candidates who would be considered far right or extremist but there is no suggestion that they would seek to override democratic decisions. In contrast, Rabbi Lior and his followers repudiate majority rule when it conflicts with what they determine to be the will of the Almighty.
After the elections, the new government will confront unprecedented pressures, from the United States, Europe, and the broader global community.
Netanyahu is likely to find this phase even more daunting than his previous confrontations with President Obama. He will need maximum maneuverability to maintain the diplomatic balancing act which hitherto enabled him to stand firm in relation to major issues whilst displaying flexibility in secondary areas. He must be able to govern without the threat of veto by extremists out of synch with the real world.
Despite the recent imprudent outburst by President Peres, the reality is that with “peace partners” like Hamas or the duplicitous PA leaders, few Israelis would today visualize their government endorsing a Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, a government coalition dependent on support from a party committed to the formal repudiation of a two state solution and annexation of the West Bank would be in crisis. No responsible government could conceivably implement such policies which would lead to disastrous international repercussions including loss of the crucial support of Congress and the American people. It would also impact on the impending Iranian nuclear crisis.
Voters should appreciate that a coalition government based on a weakened Likud-Beiteinu, subject to pressure from a party promoting such policies could lead to an early collapse of a nationalist government.
This would be nightmare scenario for the national camp which underwent a similar crisis in the past when the extreme right disassembled a center-right government and paved the way for the left to regain power. Under such circumstances, Bayit Yehudi would become as irrelevant as the failed former Mafdal.
Those of us with traditional religious Zionist inclinations yearn for Bayit Yehudi to distance itself from demagogic populist policies and the messianic commitment to retaining land at any cost. Whilst this alliance may attract support from extremists, Bennett himself must surely be aware that such policies would incur disastrous repercussions on Israel’s global status.
Bennett and Bayit Yehudi must convince us now that as constructive partners in a future government, they will promote realistic and mainstream national policies, suspend annexationist objectives and vigorously oppose extremist views exemplified by Rabbi Lior which have no place in an authentic religious Zionist movement.
Bayit Yehudi must not blow this unique opportunity to reform Israeli society, bring an end to the era of haredi domination, promote Jewish values and enable religious Zionism to reclaim the central religious role in the State.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom