Israelis Are Realizing That Naftali Bennett’s Party Really Is Conservative

Now that Habayit Hayehudi has blocked gay rights bills, liberals are losing respect for the party led by a former high-tech entrepreneur.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

No doubt the greatest accomplishment of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party was the slogan “Something new is beginning.” That catchphrase did the trick in the election almost a year ago, producing 12 Knesset seats - of course, mostly from religious voters, but also from traditional Jews and right-wing secular people.

Somehow, many people still expect Bennett’s party to establish a little Netherlands here, where gay marriage is performed, euthanasia is practiced, ritual circumcision is banned and of course the chief rabbinate is abolished. The convoluted path of Bennett’s alliance with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid has surprised many Israelis, who are now realizing that Bennett’s party really is religious and its conservatism really is conservative.

Now Yesh Atid’s dream to give equal tax benefits to same-sex parents is being ruined. Habayit Hayehudi has partially retreated from its support for the legislation, support that from the beginning came with reservations.

Anyone surprised should remember that Habayit Hayehudi is really the National Religious Party, one of its forerunners. It’s that same NRP whose chief in 1994, Zevulun Hammer, said that “in the name of human rights a sword has been thrust into family life in Israel.” He was referring to the High Court’s ruling recognizing gay couples.

Another famous MK for the party, Hanan Porat, warned that the 1994 ruling could be a watershed between the religious community and the court. A year later, when the Population Administration decided to register households with single-sex parents, the NRP threatened the High Court, and MK Shaul Yahalom said the idea involved “new, distorted public norms.”

The religious community has changed. In recent years gay and lesbian religious groups have sprung up, and important rabbis have come to their meetings. This is only the beginning of the dialogue, an effort to get beyond the denial of the previous generation.

Still, Habayit Hayehudi is the NRP, and at least half its MKs are conservative emissaries of rabbis in the party’s Tekuma faction, or of national-religious rabbis that tend toward ultra-Orthodoxy. Basically, by being elected party chairman, Bennett staged a coup against these rabbis.

He and party colleagues Uri Orbach and Ayalet Shaked are probably aware of the sentiments in the gay and lesbian religious community, not that this involves any commitment. In any case, Bennett needs to keep his party’s promises on the issue of religion and state, create better access to government services involving religion and improve ties with Diaspora Jewry.

Some of the issues that Habayit Hayehudi is addressing are creating major tensions in the party, and we can’t assume that Bennett or Deputy Minister Eli Ben Dahan will open another front against the conservative rabbis.

What can we assume? It's still possible to tone down the bill that would provide tax benefits to same-sex parents. A good scenario for Yesh Atid would be an indirect approach that doesn’t explicitly recognize gay rights.

It’s not clear if Habayit Hayehudi’s conservative voices will prevail in the end. It’s also not clear if Yesh Atid will agree to a retreat or if something new really can happen. But this modest scenario would be something.

This article was amended to correct the name of Zevulun Hammer.

Israeli and Rainbow flags in Tel Aviv.Credit: Reuters
Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset. Credit: Michal Fattal

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