Former top army rabbi Peretz tapped as new Jewish Home leader

National religious party officials hope prominent figure will help boost appeal, after faction has struggled in wake of Bennett and Shaked departing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Then-chief rabbi of the IDF Rafi Peretz is seen on February 23, 2012. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90/ File)
Then-chief rabbi of the IDF Rafi Peretz is seen on February 23, 2012. (Gershon Elinson/ Flash90/ File)

The Jewish Home party nominated former IDF chief rabbi Rafi Peretz to serve as the national religious faction’s next chairman on Sunday evening.

Having won the support of Jewish Home’s public council, Brig. Gen. Peretz’s appointment will be brought before the party’s central committee Monday, when it will also choose its candidates ahead of Knesset elections on April 9.

A Jewish Home official told The Times of Israel that Peretz is not expected to face any opposition for the party’s top slot.

The religious nationalist party has struggled to regain its place in the polls since Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked struck out on their own to form the rival New Right party.

Peretz was chosen by a council of prominent Jewish Home members such as Eli pre-military academy founder Rabbi Eli Sadan and the party’s director-general Nir Orbach. The council was given the task after the party’s central committee voted last week to forego primaries over the financial burden they entail.

Once the party slate solidifies on Monday, Jewish Home will enter negotiations with the National Union party newly led by hardline MK Bezalel Smotrich. The two parties are expected to run together, but Smotrich is said to be pushing to lead the joint list, or at the very least have members of his faction placed higher on the lineup than they have been in the past.

Jewish Home is facing the prospect that it will fail to enter the Knesset, as it hovers around the minimum electoral threshold in polls. Reacting to the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the parties should also join forces with other small hard-right factions to ensure that they enter the Knesset and are able to serve as a bulwark for a coalition he would potentially form after April 9 elections.

IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz teaches an IDF orphan how to put on tefilin for the first time at a bar mitzvah ceremony organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, in an undated photograph. (courtesy)

Senior Jewish Home officials have reportedly pushed Peretz hard to take over the reigns since Bennett’s departure left the party unmoored.

The 63-year-old is a well known figure in the national religious camp, particularly among nationalist ultra-Orthodox Israelis, sometimes known by the Hardal moniker.

In 1992, Peretz founded the Atzmona pre-military academy, naming it after the Gush Katif settlement where it was located. The program became known for developing future leaders in the national religious camp.

During Israel’s 2005 Disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Peretz led his students out of the community without clashing with evacuating forces from the IDF in a scene that was praised by security officials who dealt with violently combative protests by settlers in other towns who refused to leave without a fight.

In 2010, he was appointed to serve as the chief rabbi of the IDF, a post he held for six years. During his 30 years in the military, he also served as a helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

His term as chief rabbi also saw several instances of controversy.

Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2013, Peretz came under fire for a book of IDF rabbinic rulings distributed at bases throughout the country that said non-Jews do not have the same rights as Jewish citizens and that it is undesirable for women officers to perform the religious ceremony of attaching a mezuza to doorposts.

A mezuza is a slim container housing a parchment upon which is written biblical excerpts, traditionally attached to the doorposts of Jewish homes.

Three years later, Peretz was filmed dancing at a wedding, in his IDF uniform, with an extreme right-wing rabbi, who co-authored a book discussing when Jewish law permits the killing of non-Jews.

Footage obtained showed Peretz wearing right-wing settler Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro’s hat and Shapiro with Peretz’s IDF beret on his head.

Former Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett lauded the selection of Peretz in a Sunday tweet and wished the party good luck in the elections.

Otzma Yehudit leaders (from L-R) Michael Ben Ari, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Benzi Gopstein in a crowdfunding campaign video on November 5, 2018. (Screen capture/Otzma Yehudit)

The Otzma Yehudit party, led by former National Union MK Michael Ben Ari and far-right activists Baruch Marzel, Itamar Ben Gvir and Benzi Gopstein, released its own statement congratulating Peretz. The extremist faction has made clear in recent weeks its interest in merging with Smotrich, the National Union and the broader Jewish Home.

The party called on Peretz “to understand the weight of the moment and to enter immediately, tomorrow morning, negotiations to set up a technical block that will collect votes of those loyal to the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel.”

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