Is Naftali Bennett Undergoing an Ideological Shift?

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Naftali Bennett at the new government's photo session after taking power on June 13.

“I know Bennett very well. We were very close …. I’m telling you that he’s now going through the same process that [Ehud] Olmert, Tzipi Livni and [Dan] Meridor went through. It’s not a tactical thing. He’s fully switching sides. He’s switching camps, and very soon positions too. Remember this tweet.”

So wrote Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, two weeks ago after Naftali Bennett decided to form the “change” government with Yair Lapid of the center-left.

Smotrich is without question a talented and intelligent politician (“super intelligent,” in the words of Labor chief Merav Michaeli in a preelection interview with Haaretz’s Josh Breiner). But it’s hard to agree with his interpretation of his former political partner’s recent moves.

No, there is no sign that as he takes over as head of the anti-Bibi unity government, Bennett is about to abandon the basic religious-nationalist Greater Israel ideology that Smotrich’s party is also faithful to. But it’s possible that Bennett is undergoing a certain ideological shift, much less drastic than the one Smotrich ascribes to him but still an important change that shouldn’t be made light of. It’s a change that, if he sticks with it, could have significant implications for the future of religious Zionism.

Bennett won’t start supporting the idea of partitioning the land, nor will terms like “occupation,” “the Palestinian people” or “two states for two peoples” cross his lips. But I would venture to say, without raising undue expectations or false illusions, that Bennett might opt to gradually detach religious Zionism from the maximalist Jewish ethno-nationalist racism propounded by Smotrich & Co., bringing religious Zionism back to the moderate political and moral stance that once characterized much of the movement.

In his dissertation “Moderate Political Positions and Their Place in Religious Zionism during the British Mandate Period,” Aryeh Bernstein of Hebrew University documents a multigenerational moderate school of thought among the religious Zionists both inside and outside the pre-state Jewish community during the Mandate. (Full disclosure: I was the adviser to Bernstein’s doctoral thesis.)

This movement, though in the minority in the institutions of the Mizrachi religious-Zionist movement and the Hapoel Hamizrachi party, was far from a marginal phenomenon. The movement included religious-Zionist figures from diverse ideological and geo-cultural backgrounds such as Moshe Una, Rabbi Moshe Ostrovsky (Hameiri), Haim Ben-Kiki, Yeshayahu Wolfsberg (Aviad), Haim Pick, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Moshe Shapira.

None of them doubted the Jewish people’s religious-national right to the Land of Israel but, according to Bernstein, two trademarks of most of their philosophies let them be classified as moderate politically: an ability to distinguish between the religious vision and reality, while integrating universal and humanist values with the values of Judaism.

One example cited by Bernstein of the early religious Zionists’ commitment to universal values are the words of Una, an educator who served in the various incarnations of the religious Zionist parties in the first six Knessets. “The word ‘humanism’ must be emphasized; it’s not enough to say, ‘According to the Torah,’” Una said at a session of the third Religious Kibbutz Movement Council in late 1945.

Why? “Because many different things can be learned from the Torah, ‘the Torah has seventy faces’…. The word ‘humanism’ comes to interpret and clarify which values of the many values in our literature we aspire to establish our education on.”

The deep contrast is obvious between Una’s conception of religious-Zionist humanism and the total barbarization of religious Zionism à la Smotrich, who from the Torah mainly learns the racist and ethnocentric elements, as well as a strong genocidal dimension originating in the Book of Joshua. Will Bennett, who more than once has shown his aversion to Kahanism, be ready to take another step toward a religious Zionism of a humanistic and liberal shade?

Will he want and will he be able to advance the de-Smotrich-ification of religious Zionism? In so doing, he could end the debasement of the term “religious Zionism,” which once provided an ideological home to a range of nationalist views, many of which sought to combine Zionism with humanism, but today clings to one of the most despicable fascistic political parties in the Western world.

Will Bennett craft the ideological alternative to the Smotrich-type distortion of religious Zionism, reconnecting it to the tradition of moderation, pragmatism and humanism that played a role in the religious Zionism of the past? If he restores to official religious Zionism its lost humanity, he will have assured himself a place of honor in modern Zionist history.

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