In an apparent attempt to break from his past as leader of the religious right-wing Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday morning that his recently founded New Right party will oppose religious coercion, an issue he had previously dismissed.
“I am without doubt right-wing.” Bennett said in a closed-door meeting with the AIPAC leadership in Jerusalem, participants of the meeting told The Times of Israel.
“However, we are all Jews, we are one country,” he added.
Explaining his new party to the US Jewish community leaders, Bennett said, “We are conservative in the judicial field. We are strong on security. We will oppose religious coercion — not education — but coercion.”
As head of the Jewish Home and education minister, Bennett was at the center of a furious national debate about the role of religion in state schools, called hadata, or religionization, that among other things alleged illicit ties between the religious Zionist party and religious Zionist nonprofit organizations operating in state schools.
An apparent concession by the Education Ministry, which he heads, that religious content had seeped into the books was combined with fierce denials by the ministry of any such general trend.
“Hadata Shmadata,” Bennett said at the time. “Read my lips: The Israeli education system is not attempting to proselytize a single child.”
Wednesday’s comments suggest an attempt to distance himself from the accusations of religious coercion raised primarily by secular parents and NGOs.
Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced at the end of December that they were departing the Jewish Home party to forge a “true partnership between secular and religious,” saying that the stalwart party of religious Zionism had lost its ability to influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that a new right-wing platform was needed to challenge the premier.
“We have taken a risk but I believe we need a rational, positive, optimistic right,” he said Wednesday.
The new party came under criticism last week after one of its members was recorded calling for Israel to be ruled by Jewish religious law.
“As people whose lives are based upon commitment to the Torah, I think that is the essence of the battle to bring the Torah into every aspect of our lives,” MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, another ex-Jewish Home lawmaker, said at a conference on Jewish civil law.
“And the entire State of Israel, God willing, will go more and more toward that place of commitment to Torah and halacha,” or Jewish law, she added.
The recording was published by Army Radio, which didn’t say in what context the remarks were made. Opposition lawmakers condemned the remarks at the time and assailed the party.