Opinion |

Naftali Bennett Is Progressive Jews' Most Unlikely Champion

Israel's ultra-Orthodox politicians are throwing curses at the 'evil crook' who now occupies the prime minister's seat. In the Jewish identity wars, Naftali Bennett is their nemesis, the greatest threat to Jewish fundamentalism

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Israeli right-wing nationalists hold a poster of Naftali Bennett with the slogan: 'Bennett, Liar!'His eyes are obscured by stickers reading 'Kahane was right,' referring to the far-right racist rabbi
Israeli right-wing nationalists hold a poster of Naftali Bennett with the slogan: 'Bennett, Liar!'His eyes are obscured by stickers reading 'Kahane was right,' referring to the far-right racist rabbiCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The most vehement opponents to the new Bennett-Lapid government are those who on the face of it have the least in common with the now former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While the Likud MKs heckled the incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s inaugural speech on Sunday afternoon with cries of "liar" and "crook," their ultra-Orthodox colleagues in the Netanyahu camp have been outdoing them for two weeks now, in rabbinical proclamations, special press conferences, on the pages of the Haredi press and in every public utterance with all manner of ancient curses and apocalyptic predictions.

This new government, they say, will "uproot all sign of Judaism from the land" and "trample over every value of the Torah." Degel HaTorah’s Council of Torah Greats called the new government "a desecration of God’s name," and "a provocation towards Heaven, a bitter and unbearable sin." Shas’ Council of Torah Sages said it "bears the threat of immediate spiritual extinction on the entirety of Israel."

Bennett, Israel’s first openly religious and kippah-wearing prime minister, is an "evil man," according to Degel HaTorah MK Moshe Gafni, and threw a Talmudic epithet at him: "May the evil man’s name rot (in his grave)." Agudat Yisrael MK Yaakov Litzman went a step further, calling Bennett "a Reform [Jew]," no less, demanding he remove his kippah.

In an imitation of the "herem" (denunciation and exclusion) decreed by Jewish communities in medieval times, they called on the synagogues of the religious members of the new coalition to shun and boycott them and, for good measure, they added they would boycott members of their own ultra-Orthodox community who work as advisors to the new government.

Agudat Yisrael MK Yaakov Litzman shouts at Naftali Bennett during the swearing in ceremony for the new governmentCredit: Noam Moshkowitz

All this because Bennett et al had the temerity to replace Netanyahu, an atheist prime minister who does not perform any of the Torah’s commandments in his personal life.

They can’t even claim that he’s boycotting the ultra-Orthodox by not including them in his coalition. Bennett would have been overjoyed if Shas and United Torah Judaism, with their 16 MKs, would have been amenable to supporting his government, allowing him not to have to rely on Mansour Abbas’ four United Arab List votes. Bennett would have gladly have had the Haredi parties replace also Avigdor Lieberman, the only party leader in his coalition who expressly opposed having them in the new government.

No matter the mudslinging of his Haredi foes, Bennett isn’t going to desecrate the Torah, and God has dealt with much bigger challenges to his authority in his time. Those who so readily invoke God’s name surely cannot think that Bennett threatens His eternal connection to Israel. So what are the ultra-Orthodox politicians and their rabbis really worried about?

The God-botherers’ collective tantrum is motivated by politics and ideology.

The political side of the equation is seemingly easy to understand. Gafni, the once all-powerful chair of the Knesset’s finance committee, is now just another opposition MK. As are the now former Housing Minister Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Deri. But these are just the swings and roundabouts of politics, hardly a provocation of the heavens. And besides, Gafni, Litzman and Deri could have held on to their jobs if they’d have been prepared to join Bennett’s government.

They chose to go to opposition instead, and now they’ll have Lieberman as Finance Minister and his fellow Yisrael Beitenu MK Alex Kuznitz as committee chair. That is a very real threat to the Haredi organizational networks that have relied for so long on government funding.

Bennett has promised that the new government will not harm the ultra-Orthodox community, but Lieberman doesn’t even have to go after the mainline budget items. He was their ally for a quarter of century, since he served as director-general of Netanyahu’s first prime minister’s office back in 1996, and he knows where the far less obvious funding troughs are hidden.

Lieberman can cause untold damage in a hundred cuts to the financial superstructure the Haredi politicians have built over decades.

Those at risk are not the thousands of yeshiva students diligently studying Torah. There will be sufficient resources to keep them bent over their Talmuds, and if necessary, they will make do with less. What’s in danger is the archipelago of institutes for tens of thousands of wastrel Haredi "students," who can't or don’t want to spend their lives in study.

Yeshiva dormitories in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town next to Tel AvivCredit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Successive governments provided the funding for schools that didn’t teach them any productive skills, trapping them for life in a tarnished cage: a closed environment which supports them financially while denying them from getting relevant education and jobs.

The new government’s plan to shift funding away from fully-autonomous Haredi "small yeshivas," which don’t teach men any part of the national curriculum, to "state Haredi" high schools, which combine religious and general studies, has the potential to break the ultra-Orthodox leadership’s stranglehold of their young people’s lives, by providing them with actual tools and opportunities for a future which isn’t preordained by the rabbis.

They can still choose a life of Torah study, but this time it will be up to them. This is a real threat to the Haredi political structure. If young people can get jobs outside the community and support themselves, their commitment to voting for the Haredi parties that once supported them will evaporate.

The structure holding the Haredi autonomy in place has been under construction since Israel’s foundation, but until a week ago, the Gafni-Litzman-Deri trio of politicians in charge of sustaining it, who go back together with Netanyahu (and Lieberman) from when they all got their start in national politics in the late 1980s, had been enjoying an extended pinnacle of power.

Netanyahu calls them "natural partners," and they will never have this instinctive alliance with any other prime minister. His departure spells also the imminent end of the political careers of the three most powerful Haredi machers ever.

But the anger isn’t just over lost political power, though that is a significant part of it. Netanyahu gave the Haredi leadership more than just autonomy and uncontested rule over entire swathes of domestic policy which affect the lives of all Israeli citizens. He also allowed them to perpetuate the myth that the Haredim are the sole representatives of "authentic" Judaism.

Israeli right wing politician Betzalel Smotrich shouts during a Knesset session and is led out prior to Naftali Bennett's swearing in as prime ministerCredit: Ariel Schalit,AP

As a staunch secular Jewish nationalist, this isn’t Netanyahu’s personal view. Perhaps a younger Bibi Netanyahu, channeling his father Benzion who had rejected the religiosity of his father, Rabbi Natan Miliekowski, would have bristled at the way his Haredi political partners tried to dominate Israel’s Jewish discourse.

But from his earliest days as Likud leader in the mid-1990s, Netanyahu equated his own political ascendancy with Israel’s destiny. Wall-to-wall political support from the ultra-Orthodox was predicated on them not interfering with his decision-making in the fields of diplomacy and security, while he would not challenge them on matters of Jewish identity.

Under Netanyahu, the Haredim were to be allowed to monopolize any Jewish symbol or site they chose, including the Western Wall, where women were segregated throughout the entire plaza and prevented from holding their own prayers, and where any foothold for non-Orthodox movements, no matter their size and influence in the Diaspora, would be crushed.

Bennett, no less a nationalist than Netanyahu and an Orthodox Jew himself, poses a major threat to the ultra-Orthodox, because unlike them, he sees other streams of Judaism as legitimate and scandalized the rabbis by visiting non-Orthodox communities in the U.S. Bennett, as Diaspora Affairs Minister, fully endorsed the Western Wall egalitarian prayer space agreed in conjunction with the Reform and Conservative movements that Netanyahu abruptly suspended, under Haredi pressure.

Israelis celebrate the swearing in of the new government with a foamy party in Kikar Rabin, Tel AvivCredit: Oded Balilty,AP

The great divide amongst Jews today, in Israel and the Diaspora, is not, as some would have you believe, over the Palestinian Question. It’s over the Jewish Question.

Around 20 percent of the Jewish people today are fundamentalists. Either they're ultra-Orthodox or they're Haredi-style nationalists, like MK Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the "Religious Zionism" Knesset list, who was once Bennett’s parliamentary partner, and is now his bitter rival.

They may be a minority today, but they are both the fastest-growing section of the Jewish people and the most active in the war for Jewish identity. Netanyahu and many in the right-wing do not share their obscurantist beliefs, but still prefer them as political allies.

Bennett will never be the darling of the Jewish progressive left, but whether they like it or not, he is currently their champion on the Jewish Question; the side that does not believe in one fundamentalist narrative dominating Jewish identity. The Haredim are abominating him for good reason. Bennett is the biggest threat to everything they believe and have worked for.

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