Naftali Bennett’s misspoken comment on disobedience in the army has buttressed the emerging media storyline about his political party: that the surge of Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) in the polls reflects the rightward shift of the Israeli public.
I say that pundits have the story all wrong. The rise of Habayit Hayehudi is not really about nationalist politics. The emergence of Bennett is better described as a social-communal awakening, a re-emergence of the Religious Zionist (or Modern Orthodox) public. The benefit of Bennett is not mainly a clear statement against Palestinian statehood — although such clarity is refreshing — but the vehicle he has recreated for giving Religious Zionists a renewed and unified voice in national affairs.
For the last 20 years, the Religious Zionist community in Israel and its political representative, the National Religious Party, have been crushed by Oslo-era diplomatic policies and ultra-Orthodox political gains. The Left-haredi juggernaut brought about confusion, dispirit, division and despair within the Modern Orthodox world. The gray group of functionaries and rabbis that led the Religious Zionist factions in the Knesset was not up to the challenge. Religious Zionist voters gravitated to other parties, including Likud.
As a result, the drive, commitment, contribution and voice of this very broad swath of Israeli society were lost. Community self-pride eroded. Community institutions began to starve. Schools and yeshivot associated with Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy, in particular, were hard hit, as massive government funding was shifted to haredi institutions.
The so-very-impressive youth of the community chafed at the downtrodden status and poor self-image of the community. Why should they — young men and women who are devoted to military service and academic excellence, to traditional values and modern culture, to both the spiritual and economic advancement of the country — be considered the suckers of Israeli society? Why should they, the “real Zionists,” be the disenfranchised of the Israeli political game?
Naftali Bennett stepped into this vacuum, and boldly led a revolution within the community by forcing the National Religious Party’s first open primaries. Fifty-five thousand people registered as members of the rejuvenated “New NRP-Jewish Home” party, and they elected a very impressive slate of young educators and former Israel Defense Forces officers to lead the party, with Bennett at its head. The old guard was swept away.
Bennett has managed to strike a chord across a wide spectrum of Religious Zionist voters, from the semi-haredi ultra-nationalists and hard-core settler types, to bourgeois middle-class liberal Orthodox businessmen and high-tech workers in Petach Tikvah and Raanana, to Sephardi traditionalists in Netivot and Beersheba. Bennett’s main draw: a poise that is proud and unbowed, self-confident and assertive, both modern and traditional. A sense of belonging and self-worth. A new opportunity to speak as one unified community, and reap the gains that rightfully accrue to this community in government funding and representation. A gust of renewal and youthful enthusiasm swept across the community.
Many analysts persist in describing the party as “the young Israeli hard-liners’ party, the refuge for those who mistrust both Palestinian professions of seeking peace and Netanyahu’s commitment to settlement.” (This is how the usually keen David Horovitz described it in a widely read column last week).
This misses the mark. The party is more a societal phenomenon (an important one!) than a diplomatic statement. It's not necessarily an ideological choice but identification with the tribe, which is now speaking with a younger, more self-confident voice.
Bennett’s incautious remark, which made it sound as if he was condoning disobeying military orders — he doesn’t — is juicy stuff for Likud’s campaign against Habayait Hayehudi. But the Religious Zionist public isn’t going to be dissuaded from supporting Bennett. His voice is theirs, discovered anew.