Naftali Bennett's Balancing Act

'I am who I am,' says Habayit Hayehudi chairman, while those to his right believe he's not religious enough and those to his left would say he's not doing enough on issues of state and religion.

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Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett speaks with the media ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Jan. 18, 2015.
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett speaks with the media ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Jan. 18, 2015.Credit: AP
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

He tries to appease everyone, from the extreme national religious camp to the LGBT community, yet they all see him as their main enemy. Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett's frustration and confusion only intensifies in face of the growing rifts in religious politics – from the conservatives trying to uphold the Rabbinate to the liberals striving for privatization of religious services, who were surprisingly strengthened last week.

On Monday, Bennett woke up with a bothersome headache. While vacationing with his family up north, trying to recover from the previous week’s fury following the attack on the Gay Pride Parade, a new rabbinical dispute was brewing in Jerusalem, one from which he won’t be able to extricate himself easily. Important rabbis from his own national religious camp carried out their threats and established an independent court which will deal with large-scale conversions, competing with the Chief Rabbinate and its supporters, who include rabbis that Bennett is careful not to cross.

Religious affairs and rabbinical politics were never foremost in Bennett’s mind, but after three years at the helm of a religious party he certainly knows that there is no issue like that of the rabbinate that splits the orthodox public in Israel. There are other issues, but this is the essence of the dispute, which is now more strident than ever. The ultra-Orthodox, by some strange twist, warmly embrace it, the extreme national-religious camp sanctifies it, setting up a new support group last week in Jerusalem, yet large portions of the religious community are reconsidering the Zionist-religious vision of the Rabbinate, or at least are posing some heretical questions concerning its function.

It’s unclear yet whether the new conversion system will benefit new converts, but the rebellion against the rabbinical establishment, which started at the ground level, is now encompassing the orthodox mainstream. The founders of the new system are senior yeshiva heads, not just from the liberal wing, such as Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, Rabbi Yaakov Medan and Rabbi Re’em Hacohen. They are not only taking the halakha (religious law) into their own hands, but are also embracing political action. They probably realized that nothing new will come from Habayit Hayehudi, at least not in terms of dealing with religious issues, with conversions as the key topic. Not surprisingly, the religious politician who was one of the main instigators of the new system is former MK Elazar Stern, who has a longstanding open account with Bennett on issues of state and religion. “We’re only at the first stage of this revolution” Stern said this week.

Thus, yet again, Bennett finds himself falling in line with people bypassing him on the left. In an interview with Haaretz last Wednesday, he admitted: “The establishment of independent courts was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I completely understand that. These rabbis are right, I’m disappointed as well. These are rabbis with a broader view – this is the central religious Zionism in my view. Listen, we’re talking about Rabbi Rabinovitch, who is a giant religious law scholar. These rabbis are taking responsibility for the people of Israel after deciding not to close their eyes, and I’m happy for that. Nevertheless, I’m trying to maintain a situation in which state institutions are upheld.” In conversation, Bennett stresses that he’s ambivalent – on one hand he supports state institutions, yet on the other hand he believes that the current state of affairs is no longer tenable.

Who is Naftali Bennett?

“I am who I am” he declared a year and a half ago in an auditorium filled with skullcap and kerchief-wearers, at a conference organized by the religious newspaper “B’Sheva”. This was his response to the attempt by interviewer Sivan Rahav-Meir to confront the political leader of religious Zionism with the fact that he is considered “a lightweight religious person,” the first of these to lead the camp. The question evoked a storm in the auditorium, directed against the question and questioner, but Bennett insisted on answering, embarking on an unapologetic monologue: “Look, I’m far from being perfect in fulfilling all religious rules, I have my way of life, I observe religious rules, I follow the path of Judaism. I am myself. I’m who I am and I can say that what motivates me is Israel’s eternal God and the fulfilment of Israel’s destiny, and everyone does things his own way.”

First to address Bennett’s religious identity publicly were the extreme national religious rabbis. They understood the implications of the fact that the idol of religious youth is a declared lightweight orthodox person, who forms alliances with the secular camp, publicly hugs women and shakes their hands, listens to their singing and includes them on his public Facebook page. Rabbis have uttered statements such as that he “lacks the fragrance of the Torah”. He’s been called “semi-religious” and “Torah-depleted” and other epithets that land squarely on his skullcap (and we haven’t even mentioned attacks by the ultra-Orthodox such as by Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who said that “Bennett’s skullcap is smaller than his eyes – you call him religious?”). We have here an orthodox politician who takes it on the chin mainly from other orthodox persons.

It’s doubtful whether he deeply engaged in issues of state and religion, yet in his relaxed religious conduct over the last few years he has become a symbol in the already tense relations between the liberal and conservative camps within the orthodox community, which is constantly splitting over religious issues. Not over political or diplomatic issues, only religious ones. Bennett and the head of the Tkuma faction in his party, Uri Ariel, see eye-to-eye on diplomatic questions yet they almost dismantled the party before the last elections.

This may highlight how barren the political arena in Israel is at this moment, but these new developments are important. Until only a few years ago the national religious camp squabbled over the Jewish underground, over “statesmanship,” about disobeying orders to evacuate settlements, about the correct ways of “settling into people’s hearts." And now?  It’s about religion. Rabbi Rabinovitch, who now finds himself on the “left” on a religious issue, never retracted his earlier call for soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements.

As for Bennett, an undisputed right-wing politician, for the religious public it is significant that he participates, as a cabinet minister, in official events held by Reform and Conservative circles, that he doubled the budget for a gay youth organization in response to the murder of Shira Banki at the Gay Pride Parade and that he has taken other steps no other religious politician has ever taken. On the other hand, anyone who thought that this comes together with a liberal stance on affairs of state and religion was disappointed – in that realm his achievements amount to nothing. In the previous government he dissociated himself from a woman who was elected to represent Habayit Hayehudi in the race for mayor of Beit Shemesh, he prevented the addition of women to a body of electors for the Chief Rabbinate and he opposed a new conversion law (which was replaced by a cabinet decision which he supported, but which was later cancelled), and more.

Whereas in the past the national religious party fought alongside the ultra-Orthodox to counter secular laws, now Habayit Hayehudi is challenged by a liberal religious faction, represented by Stern, who was ousted from the Knesset but remains active outside it, by MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who ensured that women would be included in a committee appointing religious judges, and MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), who recently opposed a new kashrut law proposed by Shas. All of these people are not members of Habayit Hayehudi. However, this group has been severely weakened. In the previous Knesset it held some sway over Habayit Hayehudi as well, and the entire group was part of the ruling coalition. An attempt by Yesh Atid to present a liberal religious group as one of its factions in the last elections, a group which included Shai Piron, Dov Lipman and Ruth Calderon, was unsuccessful.

Now this group is proposing severing the link between the Rabbinate and religious life in Israel, a privatization of religious services, increased legislation to strengthen the representation of women in the orthodox establishment and the protection of women in rabbinical courts. However, this agenda doesn’t win any votes. Prof. Asher Cohen from Bar-Ilan University researches religious society. He is a liberal Orthodox person who for years has been calling on Bennett to dissolve his marriage to the extreme national-religious camp. Cohen failed in the last Habayit Hayehudi primaries and his conclusion is this: “The tragedy of a right-wing liberal camp is that it has to reach the Knesset through parties that aren’t on the right. I agree 80% with Stern and Aliza Lavie but we’re not willing to be part of Yesh Atid. The religious public is not with Yesh Atid - there are no right-wing votes there.”

Stern says that Habayit Hayehudi realizes that his group “represents a huge public but they aren’t willing to contend with us. They spread lies such as that I supported the 2005 disengagement. That’s a dirty trick. They know that their voters may support changing rules regulating conversions but people don’t vote based on issues such as conversion. So what do they do? They intimidate people by telling them that we support the evacuation of settlements – these are lies.” He says that Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett see eye-to-eye with him on everything, but “they have their political considerations.”

Bennett refuses to say who he feels closer to, to Stern or to his party colleague MK Bezalel Smotrich (whom he sharply criticized last week in an interview to the “Saloona” magazine website). He says that there was a great misunderstanding around his intent to speak at a rally of the gay community in Tel Aviv. Some people interpreted it as my wish to please the left. That is nonsense. I came for the public that believes in me, since my role is also to educate.”

With regard to the Rabbinate he’s still ambivalent, lashing out at the ultra-Orthodox: “The current Chief Rabbinate is definitely not the one envisaged by [former more liberal Chief Rabbis] Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Uziel. I think Rabbi Kook would be shocked by its conduct, not only in the last two years but over the last decade.” By what, for example? “By the fact that someone who was a Chief Rabbi is facing serious criminal charges and by the fact that [addressing] conversions is of no interest to them. Of no interest. The ultra-Orthodox themselves do not respect kashrut supervision by the Chief Rabbinate. They don’t regard it as a state-sanctioned institution. I don’t know what it means for them, perhaps a power struggle or a source of jobs – it’s shocking.”

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