As West Bank settlements go, Efrat is considered pretty moderate. Not that there’s any real support among residents for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — certainly not one that might require their evacuation. And not that more than a handful would even consider voting for anything but a right-wing party. It’s just that Efrat is not a major hotbed of radical extremism, at least when compared with some of the more isolated settlements and hilltop outposts.
Indeed, most of the settlers here believe — or would like to believe — they are part of the Israeli consensus. That’s to say, in the event of any peace deal involving territorial concessions to the Palestinians, they would be allowed to stay put.
With some 10,000 residents, the so-called capital of the Gush Etzion bloc is situated about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) south of Jerusalem and 6.5 kilometers east of the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border). About 90 percent of its residents identify as religious (many of them affiliated with the more liberal branch of Orthodoxy), and close to half are English-speakers — mostly immigrants from the United States — imbuing this settlement with a distinctly American flavor.
In “City on a Hilltop,” a recently published study on the role of American Jews in the settler movement, author Sara Yael Hirschhorn describes Efrat as “an upscale suburban settlement often stereotyped by both its inhabitants and opponents as ‘occupied Scarsdale,’ promising million-dollar mansions alongside messianic redemption over the Green Line.”
In the last election in 2015, a majority of voters here, 55 percent, cast their ballots for one party: Habayit Hayehudi. It would have received an even larger chunk had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not wooed away many loyalists at the last minute, warning them that without their vote his own Likud might not get enough seats to form the next government. As a result, Likud ended up winning 30 percent of the vote here.
Habayit Hayehudi might have done equally well in the upcoming election, if not better, were it not for one minor technicality: the party no longer exists. In December, three of its eight lawmakers — including chairman Naftali Bennett — left and formed a new right-wing party, Hayamin Hehadash. They explained this surprise move as a desire to free themselves from the clutches of the radical rabbis affiliated with certain factions of their old party. Indeed, their new party has both religious and nonreligious candidates on its slate.
Polls published soon after the split predicted that Hayamin Hehadash would lure away most of Habayit Hayehudi’s voters, prompting fears that, for the first time in Israel’s history, the religious Zionist movement might not have any representation in the Knesset. Concerned that right-wing votes might go to waste if Habayit Hayehudi did not cross the electoral threshold, Netanyahu initiated one of his most controversial political moves: He encouraged the remnants of Habayit Hayehudi to enter an alliance with Otzma Yehudit, a party founded by followers of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. The newly formed party is called the Union of Right-Wing Parties (and also includes Bezalel Smotrich’s equally extremist National Union).
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The split in the religious Zionist movement has placed many Orthodox voters in a bind — and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Efrat.
For many voters here, the dilemma boils down to this: To stay loyal to their old religious Zionist party despite its controversial alliance with the far right, or to join the defectors whose agenda in Hayamin Hehadash is more in line with their own?
The far-right stuff
The fight for the hearts and minds of voters in this sprawling religious settlement, built on seven hills, is still playing out, as was clear on a recent visit. The only thing that can be said with any degree of certainly here a week before the election — and this holds true of any settlement in any election campaign — is that the left is not even part of the fight.
Valerie Pessin, originally from Australia, has already made her pick. This mother of five, who voted for Habayit Hayehudi in the last election, will be casting her ballot for the Union of Right-Wing Parties this time around. “What I like about them is that they put a lot of emphasis on Jewish values and education, and I think Bennett’s new party doesn’t as much,” says Pessin, taking a break between customers at the crafts shop she owns and runs in the small commercial district here. Hayamin Hehadash is “more about defense,” she adds. “Don’t get me wrong, I love Bennett — though I will say I was disappointed in him for leaving the party in a shambles like he did.”
Pessin, 53, has been living in Efrat for 26 years. Asked how she feels about the new alliance between the remnants of the religious Zionist party and the Kahanists, she says: “From what I understand this was just a technical, rather than ideological, thing. It was done so they could all stay in business and, once this all over, they’ll each go their own way.”
Her 21-year-old daughter, Yael, stops in after completing her studies for the day at a nearby teaching college. Pessin only discovers now how her middle child plans to vote. “I don’t vote for people, I vote for a derech [path],” says Yael. “So I’ll be voting for the Right-Wing Union, too.” Mom appears to be kvelling at the news.
David Curwin, who moved here from Boston with his family 22 years ago, has thrown his support behind different parties over the years. In his first election he voted for Yisrael Be’aliyah — a now defunct party headed by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky that targeted immigrants, particularly Russian speakers. He has also voted for Mafdal (a precursor of Habayit Hayehudi) as well as Likud. In fact, he is quite a big fan of Netanyahu’s. “He’s done a phenomenal job, yet most Israelis take it for granted,” says Curwin, who works in high-tech.
He had considered voting for Habayit Hayehudi in the last election but decided at the last minute to vote for Likud, citing concerns that it might not end up as the biggest party otherwise.
Curwin, 46, won’t be voting for Israel’s ruling party this time around, though. That’s because Bennett’s new party is as perfect a fit as it gets for him. “This is the first time really that you have the equivalent of a Modern Orthodox party in Israel,” he says. “For someone coming from America like me, there’s a big difference between a religious Zionist party and a Modern Orthodox party. The religious Zionist parties until now have been beholden to the religious leadership in this country. As I see it, with Bennett’s new party there’s finally a chance of addressing issues that are really important to me — like an expanded role for women in religious life and helping converts.”
Curwin believes Hayamin Hehadash will be the most popular party among voters in Efrat. “There are lots of people like me out here,” he says.
Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, from the Talmud Department at Bar-Ilan University, was also persuaded to vote Likud in the last election in order to help Netanyahu form a governing coalition. But not again, he vows.
“If Netanyahu shouts ‘Gevalt!’ this time, I won’t do it,” says Woolf, a resident of Efrat for the past 24 years.
A former member of Habayit Hayehudi’s central committee, he says that on April 9 he will be casting his vote for Bennett’s new party. The deciding factor, he says, was Hayamin Hehadash’s more progressive platform on issues related to religion and state. These include kashrut certification, the status of the Chief Rabbinate and prayer at the Western Wall.
“I will say, though, that I’ve been feeling a bit distressed lately that these aren’t the issues they’ve been emphasizing,” he says. “Instead, they’ve been focusing almost exclusively on defense and the judicial system.”
Woolf believes a majority of former Habayit Hayehudi voters in Efrat will support Bennett’s new party — at least until they arrive at the ballot box. “You just never know what happens once people close the curtains,” he says. “Many times, at the last minute they go back to old patterns of tribal voting.”
Or they try something entirely new, which could explain the popularity in recent polls of a far-right party being hailed as the “big surprise” of the 2019 election. Zehut, a party that champions libertarianism, marijuana legalization and Israeli annexation of the entire West Bank, is tipped to capture more seats in the next Knesset than Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash. That is quite a feat for a party that virtually came out of nowhere.
As might be expected, Zehut is also sparking interest in Efrat. Several young voters approached in the streets, who asked not to have their names published, said they had either decided to vote for Zehut or were mulling the idea. Yaakov Edri, an immigrant from Atlanta and the only one willing to be quoted by name, said he had decided to vote for Zehut because “it’s the closest thing to libertarianism in America.”
The local burger shop is a popular lunchtime hangout. Among the diners this late afternoon is an elderly man, who agrees to be identified as J.L. (“I don’t want my friends to find out I talked to your newspaper”), his wife and their grandson. As they wait for their orders, J.L. — who moved to Efrat from the United States seven years ago — volunteers that he, too, is considering voting for Zehut.
Referring to party leader Moshe Feiglin, he says: “He’s the only one who talks about draining the swamp like Trump, and he also wants sovereignty for Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] — and those are the things that are important to us.”
Asked whom she will be voting for, J.L.’s wife says she’ll let her husband decide for her. “He knows a lot more about what’s going on than I do,” she says.
J.L. explains that this is fairly common in their social circle. “I learn in a kolel here,” he says. “Most of the guys I learn with are also Anglos, and from what I hear they also tell their wives how to vote.”
Efrat was founded in 1983 by Shlomo Riskin, the former rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan and a towering figure in Modern Orthodoxy. Among its best-known residents are Nadia Matar, a settler activist and leader of the right-wing group Women in Green, and journalist Caroline Glick, who joined Bennett’s new party and is number six on the ticket. (Based on recent polls, her chances of serving in the next Knesset are not looking good.)
Yair Sheleg, an expert on the religious Zionist community, says the big debate among its members today pertains to only half of its identity. “On the Zionist side there are hardly any divisions,” he says. “Almost everyone in this community is on the right. But when it comes to religious identity, there is a much broader spectrum and it covers everything from ultra-Orthodox Zionism to liberal Orthodoxy.”
Although he is inclined to believe that Hayamin Hehadash will enjoy an advantage in Efrat because voters there tend to be on the more liberal side of the religious spectrum, there is also one key factor working against Bennett’s party. “Many Habayit Hayehudi voters are very angry over Bennett’s defection three months ago, leaving them without any leadership right before an election,” says Sheleg, a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.
Noa Choritz, 39, is still undecided. Originally from Pittsburgh, this mother of three voted for Habayit Hayehudi in the last election, though she says it wasn’t the “perfect choice” because she tends to be more left-wing on social issues. Bennett’s new party, she says, which also embraces hard-core capitalism, poses the same problem for her, while the Union of Right-Wing Parties is “definitely way too right for me.”
Choritz, who runs the Terem emergency medical centers in the Jerusalem district, says she and her family moved to Efrat because it was a relatively easy commute to work and the local schools are good. Active in various peace initiatives with Palestinians from nearby villages, she considered voting for the new centrist Kahol Lavan — consistently leading in the polls — because of its social platform, which is more in line with her beliefs. “But, on the other hand, it’s way too masculine a party for me,” she says, alluding to the fact that there are no women at the top of its ticket.
David Tesler, his wife and five kids moved into their spacious home overlooking the Judean Hills this past summer. The decision to buy a home over the Green Line, he insists, was not ideological. “I knew about 30 families here, including all my close friends, so we knew it would be a soft landing,” says Tesler, 45, who continues to run a commercial real estate business and industrial recycling facility back in the United States.
“I wouldn’t go to a place I thought would eventually be returned. I follow these things closely, and it is clear to me that Efrat would be part of a future land swap with the Palestinians.”
He says he believes Israel should eventually pull out of “parts of the West Bank,” and that he would “do anything for a peaceful Palestinian state on our border,” but that he doesn’t think it possible under the current leadership. “So until then, my main concern is how we make sure Israelis aren’t killed,” says Tesler.
Describing himself as “a passionate conservative,” Tesler says he is currently torn between three parties: Likud, Kahol Lavan and Hayamin Hehadash. “My dream,” he says, sitting at his dining room table with a yarmulke atop his head, “is that Likud and Kahol Lavan get together and form a national unity government without any of the religious parties.”
Tesler is excited to be voting in his first election in Israel, but will “probably only decide for which party the day before — and it will be based on which I think will do the best job of guaranteeing security.”