Whom Does Israeli Far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich Really Represent?

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Bezalel Smotrich speaking to legislators of his Religious Zionism party this week.
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

It’s not the horrible things said by Bezalel Smotrich that are odd – this time he hurled the statement “you’re here by mistake because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.” Instead, it’s the amazement they stir each time around.

Smotrich merely repeated things he said in an interview with Haaretz six years ago, when he was still a new legislator. He has said it in the Knesset and in one form or another every time he has clashed with Arab MKs.

These ideas – among them “voluntary transfer” and the forced expulsion of Arab Israelis – appear in his plan that draws inspiration from Joshua’s conquests in the Bible. The difference, then, isn’t in the message but in Smotrich’s stature, as he now heads a party named Religious Zionism. That is, he’s vying for the leadership of that community, which numbers some 700,000 voters, according to the Miskar polling institute in 2017.

When Naftali Bennett entered politics, leftists were appalled by the religious man with the tiny skullcap. They called him a fascist and considered him a frightening, threatening figure. A few years later Bennett introduced Israeli voters to the new MK from his slate, Smotrich, who reported to the Knesset with a larger skullcap and ritual fringes hanging from under his shirt, and a record as a detainee of the Shin Bet security service during the 2005 Gaza pullout.

Bennett defended Smotrich despite the latter’s “parade of beasts” comment, as he called the Pride Parade. Bennett called Smotrich “a hell of a guy.” For most of the time the two were in the same party, the official united home of religious Zionism, with style more than substance distinguishing them. But in the April 2019 election they split. Bennett had created the Hayamin Hehadash party, New Right, while Smotrich joined forces with the Kahanists. Today they’re bitter enemies.

Bennett, as seen in the diverse government he heads, seeks to return religious Zionism to the bosom of the way of Mapai, the precursor to the Labor Party. Until the 1967 conquests, that way was the comfort zone of the National Religious Party, the moderate precursor of today’s religious Zionist parties. Smotrich represents the purest distillation of those claiming to be “the real religious Zionism,” hence the pretentious party name.

Their ideology rests on two main pillars: a belief in redemption and a desire to see the land between the river and the sea free of Arabs. The solution for achieving the second goal ranges from the hope that “God will help” (when He sees fit) to concrete action. Is this the real essence of religious Zionism, with everything else merely a ploy to make it easier to settle in the general public’s hearts? It’s not clear.

According to the Miskar poll, about one-quarter of religious Zionists define themselves as liberal-religious. Their numbers are growing, the diameter of their skullcaps is shrinking, the women have dropped their head coverings (or are sufficing with a symbolic ribbon), and some women have adopted practices considered progressive such as reading from the Torah at synagogue. Culturally it’s not baseless to assume that most people in this constituency would find Yair Lapid more congenial than Avi Maoz or even Arye Dery.

Most are right-wing but less so than one would imagine; most religious Zionists (of all streams) don’t live in the West Bank – only around 20 percent do – but in Jerusalem and other cities such as Givat Shmuel, Ra’anana, Petah Tikva, Rehovot and Netanya. In such places – unlike the settlements – Bennett’s Yamina party holds a clear lead over Smotrich and the Kahanists. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox nationalist hardalim, with their strict religiosity, extremist political opinions and fervent conservative values, expressed in part in homophobia, are growing.

The current government, therefore, was formed not only to unite Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents or achieve a renaissance of old elites while marginalizing voters of Likud and Dery’s Shas party. It was also formed to respond to the schism within religious Zionism, which above all indicates the movement's growth and political success.

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