The room in Jerusalem’s Ramat Rachel Resort earlier this week was seemingly jammed with a homogenous crowd — bearded Ashkenazi, Orthodox men in a range of ages — for a Noam Party campaign rally. (Latest election polls – click here)
Rabbi Dror Aryeh, the nascent party’s co-founder and leader, opened proceedings by telling the assembled group: “You are the real people of culture in the State of Israel. You are the ones fighting for culture and normality in this country.”
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 36
What are these dire threats to “normality” that must be battled? For Aryeh, and the other rabbis addressing the event, the answer was clear: Hostile, foreign-backed forces in Israeli society that are pushing for acceptance of LGBTQ citizens, legal recognition of their households, and education toward tolerating them, female participation in the Israel Defense Forces and mixed prayer at the Western Wall.
“Someone is trying to re-engineer us, to change our language, to erase our identity, blur our values; to erase our families and fill children’s heads with gender confusion,” the party states on its website, decrying the same forces working to “privatize religious conversion and assimilate the Jewish people ... and turn the Western Wall into a circus.”
The party’s scathing online videos bluntly illustrate this point, pointing the finger at the Reform movement and New Israel Fund as foreign infiltrators, comparing the forces of secular life and pluralistic Judaism to Nazi Germany, while Arab armies and Palestinian suicide bombers are aimed at “destroying” Jewish life. Failing physical destruction, their videos explain, the new tactic is to kill Jews spiritually.
If these nefarious efforts succeed, the videos warn, Israel will lose future wars due to a female-weakened IDF, while LGBTQ rights will result in the “destruction of the family and the country’s birth rate,” leading to demographic disaster.
These are themes that speakers at the Ramat Rachel event returned to again and again, punctuated by celebratory religious music and crowd chants of “Torah! Torah! Torah!”
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Speaker after bearded speaker spoke of the threat to “holiness” and “purity,” and the need for Israeli law to hew more closely to Jewish religious law.
For those who fear this party’s “Handmaid’s Tale”-esque vision, there is some good news: Its number of supporters is currently so statistically insignificant that Noam does not show up in polls.
Earlier in the election campaign, its first, the party rejected an opportunity to improve its electoral prospects by merging with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit. The agreement floundered because the latter party insisted on fielding a secular candidate. Noam would never consider consolidating with right-wing religious parties in the Yamina bloc, which is headed by a secular woman, Ayelet Shaked. On this, it is firm: No secular candidates and no women, even if it carries a cost at the ballot box.
The main purpose of Monday’s gathering was to launch a “signature” campaign — an attempt to amass tens of thousands of signatures of people committed to voting for the party on September 17. The goal is to show that Noam has a chance of passing the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and thus entering the Knesset.
Hit 40,000 signatures, its leaders said, and Noam will stay in the race. If not, it will drop out so its votes can go to other right-wing religious parties and not be wasted (which would increase the chances of a governing coalition that would exclude the religious parties altogether).
“I am a bit fearful about throwing seats in the garbage,” Aryeh confessed to his audience. However, he believes his party has 9 percent support among the public — which would be more than enough to see it in the 22nd Knesset. “This is our time and, with God’s help, we’ll win and triumph,” he said.
Whether or not Noam stays in the Knesset race, its entry on the political stage should not be dismissed. Its laser focus on gender and sexuality, its battle against what it views as the pollution of Israel’s Jewish culture from the modern world and its utter rejection of secular Israeli society marks a turning point for the Zionist religious right.
There is no shortage of religious right-wing and ultra-Orthodox political leaders who clearly object to many aspects of secular Israeli culture. Right-wing religious Zionist Bezalel Smotrich, for example, has made no secret of his hostility to LGBTQ lifestyles. And Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Rafi Peretz recently spoke in favor of conversion therapy.
But the issue has generally taken a back seat to other priorities. The need to cooperate with secular Israelis to secure support for the settlement enterprise, funding of yeshivas and other religious institutions has led most of the political religious right to keep their opinions on such matters to themselves.
Noam, driven by the teachings and philosophies of its spiritual leader Rabbi Tzvi Tau, is unique in its call to rid Israel of what it views as un-Jewish and “foreign” influences — which it blames for the growing acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles.
In Tau’s worldview, no matter how right-wing or generous to Orthodox Judaism they may be, secular Israelis represent immoral forces who are corrupting the country and moving it in an ungodly direction.
Speaking at Ramat Rachel, he contrasted the “kosher world” — the “pure Israel” of Noam’s activists — to the “rotting, dying world” outside it. Tau decried “the spirit of the postmodern world and its utter loss of values,” and the attempts to “put this postmodernism vision into law.”
“We won’t let it happen,” he asserted. “There will be a reawakening. If not, [Israel] will become Sodom. We must resist the attempt underway to force us to lose our greatest treasure: the influence of Torah.”
That attempt, he said, represents an effort to “turn our society into a lab experiment” using mind control and psychological tricks.
“We won’t let our boys and girls be lab rats in pedagogy and demagoguery of the postmodern world. … This lesbianism and homosexuality is an experiment ... who is letting this happen?” he asked. “Who asked the people what they think? Who gave them the mandate to promote these myths of two parents who are men, or two parents who are women? The people have to speak out, take to the streets. This needs to be a citizen’s revolution,” he added.
Monday’s speech reflected Tau’s preachings over many decades. In a 2017 article in the Jerusalem Post, Yoav Sorek, an editor at the religious right-wing journal Shiloach, described Tau’s idealogy as “a demonic and extremist narrative” that states the need for “a cultural war against Jews who adopted a Christian-like agenda that is even anti-Semitic in its essence — an antithesis to Judaism,” and a view of the secular Israeli world as containing “a threat by Jews who are allegedly trying to alienate fellow Jews from the Torah.”
Prof. Yedidia Stern, former dean of law at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, describes the 81-year-old rabbi as an “intriguing” figure. Raised in the Netherlands, Tau was “well-versed in liberal, intellectual open-minded thinking” when he came to Jerusalem to study at the prestigious Mercaz Harav yeshiva under Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook.
As Tau rose in the ranks from student to leader, his scholarship increasingly became more conservative, developing a philosophy that gave “less and less space to influence coming outside of Judaism,” according to Stern.
Tau was one of the two rabbis leading Mercaz Harav in the 1990s, when he dramatically split from the yeshiva over his opposition to plans to open a government-approved teachers training program there.
Tau’s breakaway Har Hamor Yeshiva has grown rapidly in subsequent decades, developing a network of institutions founded by students and followers. These include yeshivas, premilitary academies and, most recently, a group of political NGOs that persistently lobby against what they consider as the dangers of acceptance of homosexuality, the Reform movement and Women of the Wall, the New Israel Fund, Orthodox feminist groups and the threat represented by female service in the IDF, particularly among religious women.
Tau’s followers are the most extreme example of the “hardalim” — an acronym for “Haredi dati leumi” (ultra-Orthodox religious Zionists). “Essentially, they are ultra-Orthodox in all aspects but one: they are Zionist in the extreme,” Stern explains. “They see Israel, its institutions, its head, as a holy artifact. They see the world through messianic eyeglasses.”
It is this outlook that has led Tau — unlike the ultra-Orthodox — to encourage many of his students to leave yeshiva study in favor of pursuing military careers in order to gain power and influence, because, as Yehudah Mirsky wrote in 2011, “In time, Tau confidently believes, the current occupants of positions of power in Israel will yield their place to those who alone understand the subtle dialectics of God’s movements through history.”
Stern concurs. “Just yesterday, I talked to one of the major rabbis of ultra-Orthodoxy. He told me that he essentially sees Rav Tau and his followers as Haredim like himself. The ideology and the same way of life — only Zionist. He said that despite this difference, he and Tau essentially share the same goal: that Israel should be an ultra-Orthodox state. The only difference between them is the means of getting there.”
Tau and Co.’s journey from applying external pressure on politicians to retail politics was the result of a “gradual and logical process,” says Yair Sheleg, a journalist and author who researches the religious community. The process began with involvement in two areas — education and the military — “because those are the two government institutions with a captive audience where it is possible to influence the whole society,” he says.
In education, Tau and his followers helped push public religious education to the right, increasing Torah studies, gender segregation and tightening dress codes for girls, in an effort to promote “modesty.” Through the creation of pre-army military academies and encouraging their graduates to work their way through the ranks, their influence has grown in the IDF and they have pushed hard against efforts to widen the number of roles women can fill in the military — particularly in combat units.
Sheleg sees it as “a natural progression for them to form a party and enter politics. They’ve already worked to influence the direction of Israel in every other way. It’s not surprising they are in politics; it’s surprising that it took them so long.”
Sheleg says the prospect of Noam falling significantly below the electoral threshold will not deter its leaders in the least.
“What you have to understand is that the primary goal of the creation of the Noam Party isn’t really to enter the Knesset. It was created because, for their movement, becoming a political party is the best platform to get their ideas out to the public.”
He notes that in June, ahead of the Jerusalem Pride Parade, billboards by a Tau-backed NGO (called Hazon) were taken down by the city’s municipality. They read: “Father and mother = family. The courage to be normal.”
“Now look,” Sheleg continues. “They can distribute exactly the same message in their election materials and nobody will do anything to them, because political parties are given a wide berth when it comes to their messaging.
“Nobody is charging them with inciting against the LGBTQ community or taking their signs down anymore. Because now they are a political party — and declaring that families must be ‘normal’ is just campaigning.”