Bennett energizes disheartened disciples, prepares for long road

Jewish Home activists were expecting more, but party leader insists the mission to inject religious content into Zionism is making heady progress

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett electrifies supporters at Kfar Hamaccabiah on January 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett electrifies supporters at Kfar Hamaccabiah on January 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

RAMAT GAN — There were far more balloons than people at the Jewish Home party headquarters on election night. And though the large clusters of pale green balloons swayed merrily throughout the evening, the crowd, energized only by the rock-star entrance of party leader Naftali Bennett at around midnight, showed up in small numbers and left somewhat deflated.

Perhaps party insiders and activists knew more than the media: one hour before publication of the poll results the hall at Kfar Maccabiah was full of local and international media and devoid of supporters.

Photographers, though, enjoyed a burst of adrenaline as future Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked entered the room. A secular resident of Tel Aviv, representing in her person the shift that Bennett has tried to lead — morphing the former National Religious Party into a mainstream party — she entered the hall in a red dress and red high-heeled shoes but went straight to the Channel 10 booth and did not surface until much later in the evening.

At 10 p.m. exactly Channel 2 announced the projected results. The Jewish Home Party received 12 seats in the Knesset. The results were dramatic. No constellation of the NRP had ever received more than 12 seats. Green confetti was tossed into the air. Supporters waved little Israeli flags. But there was a touch of disappointment in the air.

Perhaps the expectations were unreasonable. Bennett has launched the beginning of a revolution: a former commando and current millionaire who sold a successful high-tech company, he set his sights on fulfilling the historic goal of the religious Zionist camp — injecting into Zionism an ideology that extends beyond the goal of a safe haven for the Jewish people.

Founded in 1902 and first headed by Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, the Mizrachi movement, the seed of the Jewish Home party, believed from the onset that “religion and nation constitute an indispensable unity,” historian Walter Laqueur wrote. They claimed that “the spiritual and moral values of Europe have only limited value” and that “the Jewish nation without religion is a body without a soul.”

This position had little traction within the predominantly secular Zionist movement. For years the party was a small component in Labor’s hegemony and then, in 1977, took up with the Likud-led government.

In the 18th Knesset, the outgoing one, there were two national religious parties holding a total of seven seats. And while the religious camp was seen by many to be the most ideologically driven, and was held aloft for that reason, there was no chance of it leading the country. Then they unified, elected Bennett, and within weeks began speaking of themselves as close to “the driver” of the state’s bus — the prime minister.

Once the exit poll results were announced, MK Uri Ariel, second on the list after Bennett, sat down to eat after a long day on the road. “We drew new crowds. From the Druze, Bedouin, women and peripheral cities and towns,” he said. “We scratched at the potential. We started to lead. And we’ll continue.”

Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, fifth on the list and director general of the rabbinical courts in Israel, spoke of fulfilling a more traditional role — as the bridge between secular Israel and the ultra-Orthodox, with a particular focus on the conversion process. “The biggest problem facing conversion today,” he said, “is that people don’t come. They’re scared.” He vowed to change the face — though not the halachic core — of the rabbinical courts.

Tired of the constant loop of Bennett on CNN on the large movie-screen and the loud jingle over the loudspeakers, I stepped outside and talked with several American and Australian Bennett supporters. They were concerned they might not be let in, imagining that the hall was full. And so it looked on TV. But in fact the party had reserved two connected halls, one with room for the media and no more than a couple of hundred supporters, and another, far larger room one, with big screen TVs, which remained empty throughout the night.

While I was speaking with Bar-Ilan University gap-year students about their support for Bennett, the emcee hollered the party leader’s name and everyone went running for the small hall.

Bennett, in a gray dress shirt and blazer, was mobbed on his way in by photographers and reporters. It’s hard to imagine something similar under the old, more devout leadership. The mostly male crowd sang a Hassidic song about there being a great mitzva to be happy. They seemed to be urging themselves on, and followed it with a ditty about Bennett being the next prime minister and finally, a sadder and perhaps more appropriate song entitled “The people of forever are not afraid of a long road.”

Bennett’s chief entry into the Israeli mainstream is through his and his community’s ties to the IDF, and he began his speech, perhaps fittingly, with a shout-out to the soldiers “out in the cold” and “on ambushes” all along Israel’s borders. “Soldiers of the IDF,” he said, “you are our heroes.”

He described the party as a home for the religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, and for those who believe in “an Israel that believes in its strength” and knows how to protect its citizens “not just with cement” and further fortifications but also with “force and daring.”

He also departed from the usual script of the religious camp. The party, he said, would “be tested” in its ability to “safeguard the people of Israel as it has the land of Israel.”

Blending religion and the military, he said he wanted every child in the country to know “who Maimonides was and Yoni Netanyahu and Emmanuel Moreno and Agnon” — slipping one of the greatest thinkers in Judaism and a Nobel laureate in alongside two officers killed in action, in Entebbe and Lebanon respectively.

He then channeled Karl Rove post- the 2004 elections and called his campaign manager “the architect.”

Bennett thanked his wife sweetly and invited all party members on stage. The high-tech commando, Ayelet Shaked, and the rabbi from the rabbinical courts made a strange sight together.

A rabbi spoke, describing the campaign as “a dream that started eight months ago and has begun to take shape before our eyes.” He peppered his speech with rabbinic references. So, too, did Uri Ariel. Then everyone was invited to join in and sing along to several traditional Jewish songs.

Finally, the ceremony ended with the national anthem. At last, Shaked was on solid ground. She sang in a full voice.

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