Naftali Bennett - Not What the Religious Zionists Expected

Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett declares publicly that while he consults rabbis he does not take orders from them, in contrast to his predecessors over the past 20 years.

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While the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi was putting the finishing touches on the coalition negotiations, things in his backyard were not quiet.

The great majority of the rabbis and politicians in the religious Zionist community may have toed the line for Naftali Bennett, but the conservative wing is starting to respond uneasily to the alliance with Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party and the abandonment of the Haredim, which has already caused a rift between the two groups.

It seems the response is coming too late, just on the verge of the establishment of the coalition, but it can teach Bennett something about the trials and tribulations waiting for him just around the corner.

A rather exceptional advertisement was published Tuesday in Haaretz and Israel Hayom by the heads of the separatist Har Hamor Yeshiva, which is at the conservative edge of religious Zionism. The three rabbis spoke out harshly against the Haredi conscription bill being worked out by Likud, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.

“Quotas and plans to reduce support and budgets [for yeshiva students] on the part of unknowledgeable bodies and excessive power and political manipulations are an attack on the crown of Torah, a desecration of God’s name and, God forbid, a degradation of the foundation of Israel,” they wrote.

Bennett is different from his predecessors at the top of the National Religious Party. On the one hand, he was the first to shake off the deeply-rooted Haredi patronizing attitude toward the national-religious community and is also playing a central role in what is viewed as an anti-Haredi move. On the other hand, he never studied in yeshiva and does not speak with the basic Torah vocabulary of his NRP predecessors, even those who were no great scholars.

There are rabbis who are confused by the two situations: They themselves are used to walking hunched over alongside the Haredim, and some view Bennett as a foreign import. The rabbis, who in recent years stood up to defend religious soldiers who boycotted ceremonies where women sang, are now forced to deal with a political leader who posts a video of a girl singing on Facebook for his thousands of followers. He was filmed on television hugging a woman who is not his wife and worse, he declares publicly that while he consults rabbis he does not take orders from them, in contrast to his predecessors over the past 20 years.

Religious Zionist rabbis are not a monolithic group, and they represent a variety of communities. Many of them, including some who are considered quite strict in their religious observance, are proud of Bennett and see him as a faithful representative.

Rabbi Haim Drukman, the head of the Bnai Akiva youth movement and yeshivot, is the best-known of them. Others are beginning to accept that Bennett is carrying out an internal coup in the very heart of the religious community, which places the rabbis back where they were many years ago.

Most of these rabbis are remaining quiet for now. Some might be willing to swallow their pride in the area of religion and suffer humiliation from the Haredim as long as Naftali Bennett protects what is really important to them: expanding and protecting the settlements. This is how to understand the approval of some of the right-wing rabbis last week, including Rabbi Dov Lior, of the alliance with Lapid. This support comes in the wake of constant, aggressive rhetoric from Haredim against the religious Zionists.

While Yair Lapid is merely following in his father’s footsteps, Bennett’s alliance with Lapid “is not just betraying Haredim, but God and His Torah,” wrote the Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman Tuesday. But even those rabbis who are more than a bit uncomfortable with the split with the Haredim are not coming out against Bennett since he is the one who brought the movement an exceptional electoral showing, 12 Knesset seats. Because of this accomplishment, there are only a few rabbis who are willing to attack Bennett. 

Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali BennettCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yair Lapid, left, and Naftali Bennett. Credit: Emil Salman