Opinion

From a Moderate to a Radical religious-Zionist Party

Habayit Hayehudi has become more extremist, and moderate voices are finding homes elsewhere

Rafi Peretz reacts after being elected Habayit Hayehudi chairman, Bar-Ilan University in central Israel, February 4, 2019.
Meged Gozani

When Rabbi Rafi Peretz this week was elected chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi party – whose name means Jewish home – dancing broke out at the yeshiva he heads. Now that this home has a boss, the response has been positive to Peretz’s call that “we have a home, now we’re returning to it.”

According to a Haaretz poll from that same Monday, the party would win six Knesset seats in the April 9 election. Most probably, half of these votes would come from the nationalist ultra-Orthodox community – the hardalim – with the rest coming from voters with roots in the more moderate National Religious Party – a forerunner of Habayit Hayehudi – who can’t bring themselves to vote for any other party.

The party’s top candidates will include MKs Moti Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich, marking the right-wing camp’s boundary on the right on diplomacy-defense matters and religious issues. It’s doubtful whether this party will be able to flip Likud voters on all issues, but in the right-wing coalition that polls show will form the next government, Habayit Hayehudi, along with Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s new right-wing party, Hayamin Hehadash, will have significant clout.

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Religious Zionism has undergone a complete transformation since the founding of the state. Its representative in the 1948 provisional government voted against David Ben-Gurion’s intention to declare a state. The reason was that the Arab states, which had threatened to invade if the declaration went ahead, would probably defeat the Jewish forces. Only three years after the Holocaust, they would annihilate what was left.

Nineteen years later, cabinet members from the National Religious Party opposed the launching of the Six-Day War. Even when the extent of the victory was becoming clear, they opposed a campaign to liberate Jerusalem. But today, following a long process, representatives of religious Zionism in the Knesset and cabinet are spearheading the most right-wing positions. This turnaround has accompanied another significant change: a decline in the power of political leaders and a rise in that of rabbis and yeshiva heads.

Rabbi Eli Sadan, a yeshiva head, led a committee that chose Peretz, a yeshiva head, as the new party leader. This is a totally new phenomenon in the religious-Zionist world. Both of these rabbis, it should be mentioned, are students of Rabbi Zvi Thau, the most influential person in the hardal wing of the religious-Zionist camp.

Moreover, two rabbis, Peretz and Eli Ben-Dahan, may represent Habayit Hayehudi in the next Knesset. This is unusual even in the ultra-Orthodox parties. This significant turn to the right has made the party of religious Zionism a significant player in the political arena. It’s stressing both politics and its old sectorial interests.

Due to its transformation from a religious-Zionist party to a Haredi-Zionist party, many if not most of the people defining themselves as religious Zionists no longer vote for Habayit Hayehudi. Whereas in the past these people had one political home, they’re now welcomed in other quarters as well.

The leaders of these other homes are happy to install their representatives (and the ideology they bring with them) on Knesset slates. This is happening with Likud, to its benefit, as with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu. Following suit is former military chief Benny Gantz's new party, and obviously and foremost, Bennett and Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash.

In contrast to the continued dispiritedness of the Zionist left, religious Zionists are expressing increasing optimism and faith in the Jewish people and the State of Israel. If this phenomenon continues, and all signs show that it will, this optimism will inspire a new spirit, a healthy and optimistic one, among the dispirited ones as well.