Extremely Jewish & Incredibly Unified: Libertarianism, Messianism and the Battle Over the Israeli Right

This election, Israel’s far right discovered that it’s not alone in the world. So, how can you tell the difference between Netanyahu and Bennett, Feiglin and Smotrich? A week spent following the far-right leaders shows how blurred the lines have become

Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin posing for a selfie with supporters at an election campaign event in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2019.
CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

Despite forming an alliance known as the Union of Right-Wing Parties nearly two months ago, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union have been campaigning separately from their new partner, Otzma Yehudit. Each side knows where their voters are and the merger was unnatural anyway. Or so they said, explaining that “It’s just a technical bloc,” not a marriage.

The princes of religious Zionism at Habayit Hayehudi and National Union didn’t want to be seen in public with the Kahanist ruffians, it seemed. But on Saturday night, at a hall in Bat Yam, the relationship was finally consummated when National Union head Bezalel Smotrich attended an Otzma Yehudit election rally.

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For those who remember the wild days of the racist movement’s founder Meir Kahane and his cronies in the 1980s, there was only a faint hint of nostalgia. Michael Ben Ari, the party’s candidate who was recently disqualified from running by the Supreme Court, tried to resurrect his mentor’s performance by mocking democracy and the courts. But it didn’t have the same passionate hatred as Kahane elicited from his flock when he led them in chants of “Death to the Arabs!”

Otzma Yehudit is the “vegetarian” version of the party that was outlawed in 1994 following Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The party doesn’t call for genocide anymore: “Dismantle the Supreme Court!” is an insipid alternative. And despite their disdain for the legal system and academia, every speaker made sure to give Ben Ari his “Doctor” title and call the remaining candidate “Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir.”

Ben Ari has nothing to lose. He’s already been disqualified from running. He talks about Kahane’s teachings, but when he asks the crowd “Who here is a student of Rabbi Kahane?” not all of the hands are raised. He incites against the Arabs of Haifa — “Supporters of Hezbollah” — and advises Palestinian prisoners to “go ahead and hunger strike.” (The detainees subsequently struck a deal with the authorities Sunday to avoid taking such action.)

But Ben-Gvir is much more cautious. In a speech that is almost mainstream in tone, he doesn’t mention Kahane’s name once. When he speaks of a Shabbat he just spent in a mixed Jewish-Arab city, he says that “in Ramle, when a Jew’s car is burned, the police don’t arrive” and that “a Jewish child who goes to play soccer gets slapped, in central Israel!”

This may be a reformed Ben-Gvir or someone scared of the Supreme Court, but the word “Arabs” doesn’t pass his lips once. One of the party’s main activists, who is close to Ben-Gvir, observes: “It isn’t the same thing anymore. This isn’t exactly Kahanism.”

Astonishing success

The evening’s star is undoubtedly the brother from the sister party. Smotrich has never been surrounded with so much love as when he first enters the hall, like a bridegroom on his wedding day.

“My friend Bezalel,” Ben-Gvir calls him. “The next Knesset will be happy!”

Baruch Marzel, left, Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben Ari at an Otzma Yehudit meeting, April 6, 2019.
David Bachar

Smotrich begins his speech by paying tribute to the veteran Kahanists in the hall. “Michael Ben-Ari, a Jewish zaddik! A lover of the people, of the nation.” He goes on to salute “dear” Bentzi Gopstein, founder of the anti-assimilationist movement Lehava, and “dear” Baruch Marzel, leader of the most violent of the Hebron settlers and Kahane’s parliamentary assistant back in the ’80s.

Smotrich ends his short speech by declaring “I love you, I’m happy you’re here. We’ll go forward together for four years. Together. Only together.”

So that’s it. No longer just a technical bloc but a full merger: Religious Zionism — or at least the national-Haredi wing that Smotrich represents — has ended up in a loving union with the Kahanists.

But maybe the change wrought is not that significant. After all, the disqualified Ben Ari was already elected to the Knesset once before, in 2009, when Otzma Yehudit ran together with National Union (and separately from Habayit Hayehudi). And in the 2015 election, the Kahanists ran together with Eli Yishai’s Yachad.

The results in some religious Zionist areas, especially those where the national-Haredi rabbis held sway, showed the party enjoy astonishing success. Take, for example, Naveh, a small community in the western Negev: Some 77 percent of voters there voted for Yachad and the Kahanists. The community’s best-known resident is Rabbi Rafi Peretz, now the leader of Habayit Hayehudi.

The lines within religious Zionism, particularly between the national-Haredi and Kahanists, have been blurring for years. The main impetus came after the ideological crisis caused by the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The rabbis who had promised their followers that God would not allow the settlements of Gush Katif to be evacuated had to find a culprit, and ended up accusing the state.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual father of the settlement movement, had venerated the state above all, repeating the quote of his father, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, that: “The State of Israel is the foundation for God’s throne on Earth.”

But that veneration crumbled after the Disengagement — and with it, the taboo on public cooperation with the followers of the late Kahane.

Crossing a red line

There is nothing new about such cooperation. However, a red line has been crossed by Likud. It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who pushed Habayit Hayehudi into bed with the Kahanists. Under him, Likud has signed a “surplus vote” agreement with the Union of Right-Wing Parties. Furthermore, he hasn’t even tried to deny reports that if Ben-Gvir gets into the Knesset, he will have a seat on the Judicial Appointments Committee that selects new High Court justices.

A poster warning against Bezalel Smotrich being given the education portfolio in the next government, March 2019.
Stand Together

In Netanyahu’s Likud, May Golan — a leader of the campaign against African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv — has won the “young candidate” spot on the party’s slate. “I haven’t moderated my views,” says Golan. “Likud has come over to my position.”

The issue of African “infiltrators” has become one that unites the entire right. No one remembers that the first decision of Menachem Begin in 1977 after Likud came to power was to bring a group of Vietnamese “boat people” to Israel, as a sign of the Jewish people’s solidarity with those suffering anywhere.

Two weeks ago, Peretz was on a tour of south Tel Aviv and dared say that the fact Israel supplies social and health services to the asylum seekers was a “badge of honor” for the state. He was immediately hit by a wave of hate from right-wingers on social media and forced to quickly clarify that “infiltrators have no place in Israel, period! We must do everything to get them out of here and as quickly as possible, and we will lead that in the next government.”

When everyone is so united and so extreme, how can you tell the difference?

Uniting the people

In his speech on Saturday, Ben-Gvir claimed that Moshe Feiglin — leader of the surprise package of this election, the far-right, libertarian Zehut — is “a friend of mine. A dear man.” But the latter believes in dismantling the welfare state. “There’s no way we’re going to stop taking care of the poor, like Feiglin wants,” Ben-Gvir vows. “And there’s no way we won’t take care of the infirm and downtrodden. It’s in our souls.”

Whoever thought that the day would come when the biggest distinction between far-right parties would not be their militancy in holding onto Greater Israel, but on financial policies and loyalty to the welfare state? But when a party that yearns for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem draws so many secular and even former left-wing voters, anything is possible.

Zehut’s main campaign event in Tel Aviv’s Hangar 11 last Tuesday attracted the most heterogeneous crowd ever to gather for a political rally in Israel: Hilltop youth with long sidelocks alongside secular students in short skirts; Haredim next to high-tech entrepreneurs; first-time voters rubbing shoulders with those who have voted for every party (except perhaps the Arab ones).

Leading this three-ring circus? Feiglin, the firebrand settler convicted of incitement during the Oslo period who has now achieved the breathtaking feat of uniting Am Yisrael.

“These are tectonic shifts happening around the world,” explains Shai Malka, number six on Zehut’s list, the party’s CEO and Feiglin’s right-hand man for the last 16 years.

Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin at an election campaign in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2019.
Meged Gozani

“In the deepest sense,” he says, “there is a retreat today from the politically correct concept that said there are no nations and no national identities, just a new big nationality that blurs the borders between people from different backgrounds. All of the political correctness is collapsing — you can see it from Brexit in Britain to [President] Donald Trump; from Poland to Brazil. All the surprises in elections across the world are people returning to the basic identities of sexuality and family. Back to romantic nationality, but not nationalism,” he adds.

For generations, it was the Israeli left that was internationalist and saw itself as part of a global movement believing in universal human rights. On the other side was the far right, which escaped to the hilltops of the West Bank to get away from the impure goyish influence of the Western world and to rebuild a more natural Jewish identity. Suddenly, the far right has woken up and discovered it is no longer alone in the world.

‘Selfish and uncaring’

In Hangar 11’s lobby, a small bookstall has been set up by the publisher of Feiglin’s most recent book, “To Be a Free Jew: An Operating Manual for the State of Israel” (which also doubles as Zehut’s manifesto). Beside it are some interesting foreign books translated into Hebrew. Along with the expected works of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of libertarianism, there are more recent tomes by Canadian psychiatrist Jordan Peterson, the angry prophet railing against political correctness, and British journalist Douglas Murray, propagator of the myth that millions of Muslims are on their way to conquer Christian Europe.

Not since the early days of (Likud forerunner) the Zionist-Revisionist movement — whose founder, Zeev Jabotinsky, said of himself: “If I have a spiritual home it is Italy” — has the Zionist right felt so connected to foreign counterparts.

Netanyahu may have found common cause with leaders like Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. But at the grassroots level Likud has remained a rather parochial party. Feiglin is the first right-wing leader to give his supporters the feeling that they are part of a much wider global movement — one that has rejected the soft neoliberal and globalist conformities in favor of the newly muscular nationalism and neopopulism.

One religious Zionist politician, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Haaretz: “I’ve found myself disgusted by some of the young people I’ve been meeting on the campaign trail. I never thought young religious people could be so selfish and uncaring of society.”

But Feiglin’s calls to slash taxes and welfare services have found an open ear with young religious folk. Not all of them are dreaming of being brave warriors in the Israel Defense Forces’ Sayeret Matkal elite unit or combat pilots like Matan Kahana, number four on Hayamin Hehadash’s slate.

Just like their young secular counterparts in Tel Aviv, these youngsters also want to enlist in the IDF’s (electronic intel) Unit 8200 and go on to found startups and make millions from exits. And they don’t want to have to pay the state millions in taxes when they do so.

Hayamin Hehadash leader Naftali Bennett, a Sayeret Matkal alumnus and high-tech millionaire himself, has seen his party hemorrhage votes in the polls to Zehut. Yet Bennett’s newly formed party was supposed to be the fresh, right-wing alternative in this election, somewhere that religious and secular voters would gather in their multitudes. He has belatedly realized he is not extreme enough for those voting for the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and not capitalist enough for those attracted to Zehut.

Hayamin Hehadash leader Naftali Bennett visiting the Lev Institute in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019.
Emil Salman

Last week, he was particularly scrambling to try to engage young voters. At the Lev Institute — a respectable religious engineering college in Jerusalem — he barely spoke about settlements or his plan to fight Hamas in Gaza. Instead, he explained why Feiglin’s ideas were impossible because they would be blocked by the legal system, and tried to convince the students that “Feiglin didn’t invent anything with his talk of a free economy. [American economist] Milton Friedman already said it all.”

But in a mock election held at the college, the Union of Right-Wing Parties won 44 seats, Zehut was second with 21 and Hayamin Hehadash was a distant fourth with only 13.

Partitionists v absolutists

Some see the fact that far-right parties are now focusing on conquering the new fields of law, finance and society as a testament to their ultimate victory. Their struggle against a Palestinian state and further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank has been won. There will be no second Disengagement. The prime minister of Israel is currently trying to win them over by dangling the carrot of annexation before their eyes.

But there is an opposite perspective, according to which in the historical argument that split the pre-state Zionist movement between the absolutists who demanded a Jewish state over the entire Land of Israel and the pragmatists who accepted partition, the pragmatic partitionists were the victors.

The last time an Israeli prime minister openly proposed annexation was in December 1977 when, at the end of Likud’s first year in power, Begin presented his “peace plan” to the Knesset. He wanted to annex all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, from the river to the sea. (Begin, the liberal-nationalist, also advocated offering the Palestinians in those territories the option of choosing between Jordanian and Israeli citizenship, with full equal rights.) Some 42 years later, another Likud prime minister is offering annexation — but this time only small parts of the West Bank, and not the areas where Palestinians live.

“The prime minister is calling to annex,” Smotrich said mockingly during his speech on Saturday. “How can you annex something that is already ours? We will extend sovereignty over all of the Land of Israel. When you speak of annexing a small part, you are only covering up for a retreat from the Land of Israel.”

Malka, Feiglin’s right-hand man, voices a similar complaint. “We have nothing personal against Netanyahu,” he says. “But the entire Israeli political system is on the same axis of dividing the land. When Netanyahu talks of giving [the Palestinians] autonomy-plus or autonomy-minus, and even Naftali Bennett, the leader of the so-called right, speaks of it, they are actually speaking of dividing the land.

"From a historical perspective, the left has won big time," says Malka. “Those who call themselves right-wingers today are actually carrying out left-wing policies from 20 years ago. The only ideology they have is to hate the left and play with national themes — that’s not right.”