Following Controversial Deal With Kahanists, Religious Israelis Are Seeking a New Political Home

Habayit Hayehudi has long been the home of religious Zionists, but its electoral alliance with Otzma Yehudit, at the urging of Benjamin Netanyahu, has proved the final straw for some party members

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Supporters of Otzma Yehudit marching through the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, July 2017.
Supporters of Otzma Yehudit marching through the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, July 2017.Credit: Eran Gilwarg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Ever since she was old enough to vote, Chagit Moriah-Gibor cast her ballot for Israel’s religious Zionist party – Habayit Hayehudi, as it is known in its latest incarnation. She was a pillar of its women’s forum and in the last election was even on the party’s Knesset slate, albeit not in a realistic spot.

But last week, the 33-year-old mother of three from the West Bank settlement of Efrat called it quits. That was right after Habayit Hayehudi’s leadership voted for an electoral pact with Otzma Yehudit, a party whose members embrace the racist, anti-Arab ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

The deal was initiated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who feared that without the Kahanists joining its ranks, Habayit Hayehudi might not pass the electoral threshold, jeopardizing his ability to form a right-wing governing coalition after the April 9 election.

Moriah-Gibor says it was “the last straw” in a process that began for her years earlier, when Habayit Hayehudi merged with the more religious and politically radical National Union. Bezalel Smotrich, arguably the most extreme right-winger in the outgoing Knesset, was recently elected to head the latter.

Chagit Moriah-Gibor. “The first time I heard Bezalel Smotrich speak, I was really appalled by things he said.” Credit: Miriam Adler

“I felt there was a big gap between my views and those of National Union, especially on issues like how we should treat Arabs,” says Moriah-Gibor, who runs a small life-coaching business and does real estate investing on the side. “The first time I heard Smotrich speak, I was really appalled by things he said.”

Two years ago, Moriah-Gibor spearheaded a campaign within the party to get Nissan Slomiansky – a veteran Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker – deposed after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him.

“Most of the people in the party defended him and attacked me,” she recounts. “It was a big slap in the face.” The case was later closed, she says, because most of the women who came forth were afraid to file complaints with the police.

Despite it all, Moriah-Gibor was still considering running for the party this time around. But then, with no advance warning, last December the two leaders of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, formed their own breakaway party. They explained the move to form Hayamin Hehadash as their response to growing religious radicalization in their old party.

When hard-liner and former chief military rabbi Rafi Peretz was appointed to head Habayit Hayehudi earlier this month, Moriah-Gibor says she realized “the party no longer represented people like me.”

But she still hadn’t reached her breaking point. That happened last week when the deal with the Kahanists was announced. “Before the pact with Otzma Yehudit, I said I probably won’t vote for Habayit Hayehudi,” she says. “Now I can say I will definitely not vote for them. No way! What they did is crazy and dangerous.”

Moriah-Gibor may be politically “homeless” – the term she uses to describe herself – but she is not alone. “I feel we’re a big group of people and that this has been coming for a long time,” she says.

Yaara Yeshurun, who ran the women’s forum at Habayit Hayehudi and was a member of the party’s central committee, also sounds pretty devastated. “I lost my home, and I feel very confused,” she says. “It takes time to digest the fact that your home is no longer your home.”

Yaara Yeshurun in 2014. “I lost my home, and I feel very confused,” she says. “It takes time to digest the fact that your home is no longer your home.”Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Yeshurun had been feeling alienated within the party for a while, she says. But what “tipped the balance” was the electoral alliance with the Kahanists. “For me, Habayit Hayehudi had always been a party that addressed a large range of issues,” says the 37-year-old mother of four who serves as deputy mayor of the central Israeli town of Mazkeret Batya. “But now it’s become a totally one-issue party – and that issue is the Land of Israel. For me, the Land of Israel is important, but it’s not the only issue,” she says, referring to the far-right dream of applying Israeli sovereignty to the entire West Bank.

“I was deeply, deeply connected to the party for many years and to lots of people in it,” she says. “So for me, it’s almost like a personal loss.”

Red lines

Yeshurun and Moriah-Gibor belong to a growing list of former loyalists who can no longer fathom the idea of voting for Habayit Hayehudi. They include Yifat Ehrlich, a former journalist who until the Otzma Yehudit deal was No. 3 on the party ticket – the top spot designated for a woman. Last Thursday, a day after the alliance was approved, she resigned in protest.

The day before, Danny Hirschberg – the former secretary-general of Bnei Akiva (the youth movement affiliated with religious Zionism) – reached out to members of the party central committee on Facebook, begging them to reject the deal.

“There are lines that can’t be crossed, and a move like this has a price that we should not pay,” he wrote. “Not even to save two seats for the right-wing bloc.” He also said he would not vote for the party “that was my home.”

Dr. Michael Ben Ari, left, and Itamar Ben-Gvir at an Otzma Yehudit protest in Umm al-Fahm, July 2017. Credit: Eran Gilwarg

After Bennett and Shaked left the party, Tirza Kelman was among a group of Habayit Hayehudi loyalists charged with getting the house back in order. A prominent member of Israel’s Orthodox feminist community, she devoted herself diligently to the challenge. But then came the deal with the Kahanists – one blow too many for her.

“Those who don’t accept the rules of the game regarding the authority of the state, those who don’t respect fundamental civil rights, those who supported in the past and do not distance themselves from extreme violence by private individuals – they are way beyond the pale for me,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “I assume that those of you who are fuming at me since the beginning of the week will explain to me how terrible it is that I take a stand. But, thank God, we still live in a country where that is legitimate.”

She added: “I’m not moving to any new political home for now. Just consider me homeless.”

By far the most extreme denunciation of the party came from Benny Lau, a prominent Jerusalem rabbi and pillar of the religious Zionist community. (The conventional wisdom is that, given his very liberal leanings, he doesn’t vote for Habayit Hayehudi, or at least hasn’t in a long time). Delivering his weekly synagogue talk on Saturday morning, Lau begged his congregants not to vote for Habayit Hayehudi, comparing the platform of its new Kahanist partners to that of the Nazi Party. (Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir slapped a lawsuit on Lau for the comparison and is demanding an apology.)

Two extremes

Prof. Asher Cohen, an expert on the religious Zionist community, predicts that many of those leaving Habayit Hayehudi – himself included – will most likely align themselves with Bennett’s new party.

“But it’s still too early to estimate the scope of this phenomenon,” he says. “Just because a dozen or so people have gone public on social media doesn’t mean we’re talking about a mass exodus.”

Prof. Asher Cohen. “Just because a dozen or so people have gone public on social media doesn’t mean we’re talking about a mass exodus.”Credit: Courtesy

Israel’s religious Zionists, often seen as the counterparts of Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States, are divided into three distinct groups, he says. “The differences between them have nothing to do with right and left, because nine out of 10 identify with the right,” he says. “Rather, they have to do with issues of religious identity.”

On one extreme, he says, are those who belong to the more radical and conservative “hardal” camp (an acronym for “Haredi leumi,” or ultra-Orthodox nationalists); and on the other extreme are the liberal Orthodox. Each of these groups, says Cohen, is relatively small, with the mainstream in between accounting for the vast majority by far.

“Even before the alliance with Otzma Yehudit,” Cohen explains, “many in the mainstream were starting to feel the party was becoming increasingly dominated by the National Union and its hardal constituency – despite the fact that they represent only a minority of voters.”

Asked if he feels as though he’s lost his home as well, Cohen, who heads the department of communications at Bar-Ilan University, responds: “Not at all. For me, there’s no emotional attachment to a political party. That’s an old concept.”

Members of Habayit Hayehudi voting in favor of the electoral alliance with Otzma Yehudit, February 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shmuel Shattach, the director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah – a movement that represents the moderate camp in the religious Zionist movement – agrees that many leaving Habayit Hayehudi will find Bennett’s new party a good fit. “That’s especially true now he’s brought in some people who are very much identified with the more liberal streams of Orthodoxy,” he says.

As examples, he pointed to journalist and social activist Shibi Raichner and Ori Schechter, the director of Shorashim, a voluntary association that assists young Israelis, particularly immigrants, in locating documents they need to marry legally in the country.

But Shattach predicts that some of the newly “homeless” will gravitate toward Likud and the centrist Kahol Lavan (Benny Gantz’s newly formed alliance with Yesh Atid), which according to recent polls will emerge as the biggest party in the next Knesset.

Anton Goodman, among a minority in the religious Zionist movement to identify with the political left, sees some hope in the recent shake-up, which he says has forced many in his community to take a stand against extremist trends.

“Religious Zionism is approaching a major political split, which has been years in the making,” he says. “The community has reached a critical juncture, and individuals are grappling with their traditional voting tendencies and a reality that has exposed the ascendance of radical vigilantes. There is no political party that represents the deeply held Jewish values of creating a just society, and we will see many religious [people] voting outside of their political sector.”

Goodman sits on the board of Oz Veshalom, a left-wing, religious movement that is organizing a big rally Saturday night outside the prime minister’s home to protest the deal Netanyahu initiated with the Kahanists. Goodman says he’s encouraged by the relatively large number of Israelis who’ve registered for the event.

Back from the dead

Today’s Habayit Hayehudi has its roots in the Mizrahi movement founded at the turn of the 20th century in Eastern Europe. It eventually became known as Mafdal (an acronym for “Miflaga Datit Leumit” – National Religious Party). Before the Six-Day War in 1967, its leaders were overwhelmingly moderate, even dovish, in their politics. But it was ultimately from the ranks of this party that the settler enterprise was born. Today, the movement draws most of its strength and influence from the party.

Habayit Hayehudi had eight seats in the outgoing Knesset. Polls taken right after Bennett and Shaked’s departure suggested they had taken many of the party’s voters with them. Indeed, for a few weeks Hayamin Hehadash seemed likely to win at least the same number of seats in the next Knesset. By contrast, the party they left behind was barely hovering around the electoral threshold (3.25 percent, which translates into about four seats) in the polls.

Following the electoral pact with Otzma Yehudit, though, Habayit Hayehudi appears set to return to the next Knesset. Clearly, whatever votes it lost in the mainstream religious Zionist community, it more than gained back when new radical right-wing blood was injected into its ranks.

Prof. Jeffrey Woolf. “When Bennett and Shaked left, it became very clear to me there was no way Habayit Hayehudit would be able to advance issues concerning religion and state.” Credit: Courtesy

Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, from the Talmud Department at Bar-Ilan University, was a member of Habayit Hayehudi’s central committee until about two months ago. “When Bennett and Shaked left, it became very clear to me there was no way the party would be able to advance issues concerning religion and state that are important to me,” he says.

By way of example, he cites the privatization of kashrut services and friendlier conversion rules. Although Bennett’s new party is yet to unveil its platform on religion and state, Woolf says he’s confident it will be to his liking and will be enough to win his vote.

Yeshurun says she’s also leaning in that direction. A major incentive for her is the relatively large number of women high on the breakaway party’s slate. “The other parties that could have been possibilities – such as Likud and Kahol Lavan – have pushed women out of the top spots,” she notes.

Moriah-Gibor, who considers herself right-wing (“I’m against the two-state solution”), has yet to decide. “To tell you the truth, I still don’t know how I’m going to vote,” she says. “I feel there’s no party out there today that represents the things that are important to me.”

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