How the national religious camp moved from land for peace to union with radicals
The dispersal of Modern Orthodox Israelis into diverse political homes over the decades has left a progressively messianic minority in charge of their once dovish party
Days before the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, the National Religious Party’s central committee convened in Jerusalem to pass a resolution stating that it would not be a partner to any government that did not place the pursuit of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors at the top of its agenda.
At the first cabinet meeting following the war, as a result of which Israel’s size more than doubled, the NRP (known by its Hebrew acronym, Mafdal) was among those that supported a government decision to pursue peace in exchange for the territories captured.
This week, the central committee of the national religious party convened once again, albeit under the updated banner of the Jewish Home. The members voted overwhelmingly to back an agreement for their party to merge with the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction, which not only opposes peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, but supports encouraging non-Jews to emigrate from Israel and expelling those who refuse to declare loyalty and accept sub-equal status.
The current political climate helps to explain partially the slumping Jewish Home’s decision to band with a group of long-tabooed hardliners. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been bent on maintaining his hold on power and, if in 2015 that meant him warning supporters that Arab-Israelis were being bused to the polls “in droves,” in 2019 it seems he is prepared to expand his coalition rightward to include those that would gladly bus those very same Arabs to Jordan.
But more than contemporary politics, it has been a pair of competing trends over the past half-century in the national religious camp that can better explain the Jewish Home-Otzma Yehudit merger.
The dovishness of the Mafdal party proved to be short-lived. Israel’s 1967 capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula quickly led to the rise of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, which managed to modify the national religious camp discourse to add an emphasis on the issue of sanctity of the Land of Israel.
Over the decades, Zionist Orthodox Israelis — unlike the majority of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim — have remained integrated into society, with many of them dispersing into political parties across the spectrum. At the same time, experts say, the state’s evacuation of settlements, in an apparent backpedaling on what many Orthodox believed was the expediting of the messianic redemption that began in 1967, drove the rise of an increasingly religious and nationalist subgroup, the Hardalim.
The ideology of Hardal, an acronym for “national Haredi,” is personified in Bezalel Smotrich and Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who merged their National Union and Jewish Home parties last month.
“The Mafdal has historically been a bourgeois party whose members have resided in the cities, but there began to be a move to the (West Bank) hilltops as well,” explained Bar Ilan University philosophy professor and Shalom Hartman Institute researcher Dov Schwartz.
While the national religious ideology was quickly developing in the wake of the Six Day War, Schwartz explained that it maintained an element of “pragmatism” due to its members’ integration into society.
“They were able to differentiate their ideology from what was pragmatic,” he said. “When they went to work as lawyers, doctors or accountants, they weren’t thinking about Greater Israel.”
Alongside their belief in the importance of settling the Land of Israel, the idea that all humans — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — were created in God’s image was still an “instinct” to national religious camp members, said Professor Avi Sagi, a colleague of Schwartz’s at Bar Ilan and the Hartman Institute.
However, with Israel’s 1982 evacuation of the Yamit settlement as part of its return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, Sagi explained, religious Zionists experienced a “cognitive dissonance.”
Rather than question their messianic ideology that failed to foresee a setback in the march toward a Greater Israel, a large section of the national religious camp doubled down in its dogma and “began preferring a metaphysical version of Israel over a more practical one,” he added.
This Hardal outlook climaxed in 2005 with the Gaza disengagement, during which Israel unilaterally removed all of Gaza’s settlements and four in the northern West Bank without even the promise of peace in return.
The increasingly nationalist and religious Hardal grew further apart from the rest of the national religious, yet they remained loyal to the Mafdal and later to the Jewish Home.
The ones abandoning the party were the more moderate religious Zionists, for whom the idea of a sectoral political home had lost its relevance. That camp today is represented in factions across the political spectrum, from Naftali Bennett and his New Right to Yuli Edelstein in Likud, Elazar Stern in Blue and White, and Yaya Fink in Labor.
A minority of more traditional Mafdal members have remained with the party in its modern-day Jewish Home form. These politicians — MKs Moti Yogev, Nissan Slomianksy and Eli Ben Dahan — were among those who over the past several weeks voiced opposition to the idea of a merger with the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit.
In addressing the Jewish Home central committee ahead of the merger vote on Wednesday night, they highlighted their distaste for Otzma Yehudit’s views, which include support for a population transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens.
“What has long differentiated the religious Zionists from supporters of Meir Kahane was (the former’s) recognition that the state belongs to its citizens and not the other way around,” Sagi said.
However, one after the other, each lawmaker went on to explain that the party’s poor polling performance since it was abandoned by former leaders Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, coupled with the ministerial posts Netanyahu was dangling in front of it in exchange for a merger with Otzma Yehudit, simply made it too difficult to say “no” to an alliance.
Among the roughly 250 Jewish Home members listening to their lawmakers justify the “painful” decision they felt forced to make, the feeling was not quite unanimous. But while statements in favor of the merger throughout the evening were met with thunderous applause, those who attempted to raise doubts were shouted down by their peers.
“It’s possible that the willingness of Jewish Home to merge with Otzma Yehudit demonstrates that the (the former’s) rhetoric, which appears to be much more moderate, is simply just rhetoric,” said Sagi.
When it came time for a vote late Wednesday evening, it was already clear that the alliance with the Kahane disciples would pass by a landslide. But perhaps for those paying attention to the growing number of religious Zionists deserting the party over the years, this wouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.
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