Famed soccer star Eli Ohana decided to give up his place on the Jewish Home Knesset list on Thursday after his appointment drew criticism from party activists and leaders.
Ohana was appointed to the religious-nationalist party’s list by its leader, Naftali Bennett.
But Bennett apparently did not expect the backlash that followed the announcement this week. Rabbis affiliated with Jewish Home threatened to abandon the party. Zvulun Kalfa, a member of the Tekuma party that shares the joint list with Jewish Home, resigned from the list in anger.
Ohana is famous in Israeli public life for his long, successful career as one of Israel’s best soccer players and coaches. But for many in the religious-nationalist camp, the place of soccer in Israeli public life represents the diametric opposite from their own vision for Israeli society. Games are played on Saturdays, in violation of the Jewish Sabbath, while the culture of celebrity that surrounds successful players is anathema to an Orthodox religious lifestyle.
Ohana, who is not observant, has said he supported the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, a withdrawal remembered as a traumatic moment for the settler movement that forms a significant camp within the nationalist-religious movement. Kalfa himself was a resident of Gush Katif, the Jewish settlement bloc in Gaza.
“I did not expected the public storm the followed my entry into political life, and I don’t feel at this stage of my life that I’m built for it,” Ohana said in a statement Thursday announcing his resignation.
“I was very happy when Naftali Bennett turned to me, and I joined the party out of a powerful desire to contribute and to help the weak in our society, but since then I experienced day after day repeated, consistent attacks toward him and me, attacks that hurt me and my family, despite my good intentions. I have no desire to cause harm to Minister Bennett, and certainly not to my family.”
Bennett put out a statement Thursday praising Ohana and lamenting the response from his party colleagues to the appointment.
Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha Council settler organization, who was elected to the 21st slot on the Jewish Home list, also announced Thursday he was leaving the party.
Dayan said he rejected an offer from Bennett to move up to the 17th slot. “I asked to remove my name from the list altogether,” he said.
Bennett has worked hard in recent years to transform the party once considered narrowly sectoral – and garnering just four seats in elections – to a political force with a broader appeal. These efforts are credited by the party’s leaders, including Bennett’s opponents, with its meteoric rise under his leadership, to 12 seats in the outgoing Knesset with polls showing a likely jump to 15 in the next.
The furor over Ohana, Bennett argued Thursday, harmed these efforts.
“In polls published yesterday, Jewish Home actually grew stronger. The [appointment] was the correct one, I’m proud of it, and who knows – maybe it came too early,” Bennett said in a statement published on his Facebook page.
“And another thing,” he wrote in an unmistakable reprimand of his own party’s rank and file, “Jewish Home long ago opened to all the people of Israel. That debate is over. When we have in our list a secular woman [MK Ayelet Shaked] at the top slot, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan after her…when we have military officers, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, women and men, young and old – that vision has already come true.”
He added: “That doesn’t absolve us as a public, or me as a leader, because we’ve learned a lot this week. From Eli I learned a great lesson about love of Israel, and the humility of a great man.”