Smaller Than the Sum of Its Parts?

Religious Zionists wonder what the future holds now that the NRP has been absorbed by the National Union.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The political merger of the National Religious Party and the National Union, announced last week, set off nostalgic yearnings among many people who are not necessarily in the religious Zionist community or the NRP constituency. On the face of it, the merger marks the end of a party that has played a significant role in the Zionist movement practically since its formation (the Mizrachi movement was founded in 1902, five years after the First Zionist Congress).

In point of fact, the supposition that old-time religious Zionism was more moderate than that of the present generation is inexact. Throughout its history, religious Zionism moved between two streams of thought - one that held a moderate position in comparison with the Zionist mainstream and one that advocated more extreme positions than those of the mainstream. But until recent years, at least on the political plane - as opposed to the rabbinic - the moderates held the advantage. Nevertheless, the definition of what constitutes moderation has changed. Each era's moderates have, to all intents and purposes, been more extreme than their predecessors.

At the start, religious Zionism was a distinctly dovish movement, devoid of any messianic constituent, which simply wanted to rescue the Jews from anti-Semitic persecution. To that end, it was even prepared to back the Uganda Plan. In debates over the UN partition plan, the camp was divided between those who favored the plan, headed by Moshe Shapira, and the plan's opponents, headed by Rabbi Yehuda Maimon and Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan.

Shapira's dominant leadership of the NRP in the 1950s and '60s led to the party's across-the-board identification with dovish positions. Before the Six-Day War, Shapira was among the fiercest objectors to going to war, and after it he was against imposing Israeli law on the West Bank (except for East Jerusalem). This caused Moshe Dayan to publicly express his incredulity, saying: "I cannot understand how a religious Jew can be so ready to make concessions on territories and borders."

At the time, there were those in the NRP who charged that Shapira did not represent them, especially the Young Guard faction, led by Zevulun Hammer and Yehuda Ben-Meir. At the NRP conference in 1969, Ben-Meir tabled a proposal entitled, "There is no right to forfeit the entirety of the land, which was given us through acts of bravery." When the proposal was rejected, the Young Guard disrupted the conference until agreement was reached on a compromise formula, according to which "The right over the Promised Land is religious and historic in nature."

Similarly, the Young Guard presented radical stands on the religious front. Dr. Yoni Garb of Hebrew University, who has researched the Young Guard of the NRP, writes that until the Six-Day War, their anti-establishment views were expressed mainly in the religious sphere, not the diplomatic one. Until 1967, the Young Guard did not engage in Land of Israel issues at all. Only after the war did the NRP begin to transfer its radicalism from the religious to the diplomatic plane. Perhaps now, when the leader of the united party, Benny Elon, has defiantly challenged the elites, the two radical positions are combining into one.

Replacing the elites

In conversation with Haaretz, Elon wishes to sound a more moderate tone than the one he expressed two weeks ago in Zion Square. Rather than talking about "replacement of the elites," he prefers to call for averting the exclusion of the public he represents. "Religious Zionism is a leading elite in Israeli society, and does not have to have any feelings of inferiority toward any other sector," says Elon. "I don't have any problem cooperating with anyone else, but I do not accept the haughtiness of the Palmach generation, which thinks that it founded the state and is therefore also authorized to close it down, because the state belongs to it."

In his vision, religious Zionism would be the dominant elite in Israeli society. "But I do not rule out coalitions," he adds. According to the political scenario mapped out by Elon, "The goal in the upcoming election is to create a bloc that would prevent a Kadima-led coalition, in turn leading to the formation of a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, in which we would have high-ranking positions, such as the justice portfolio or the foreign portfolio, aside from the education portfolio. This would give our people the stamp of approval, in which they would be considered to possess higher-ranking governmental standing. At that point, by the next round of elections it would possibly seem quite natural for us to put up a candidate of our own as prime minister."

He seeks to allay the fears of those who are frightened by such a scenario, by presenting a "pragmatic" approach in both the diplomatic and the cultural arenas. In the diplomatic field, he surprises the interviewer by looking back with yearning to the "Jordanian option" (a compromise with Jordan, without an independent Palestinian state) and the belief that it would be possible to revive this option on the basis of a division of authority without a division of territory. He is aware of the need for a strategic alliance with the United States, but wants to build it, not with liberal circles there, but with "60 million evangelicals" who believe in the Jews' right to the land.

Total political blindness

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is part of the group that spearheaded the political extremism of religious Zionism. He was a member of the Gush Emunim secretariat in its early years, and the founding conference of the movement was held at his home in 1974. Over the years, he has voiced biting internal criticism of the Jewish underground, the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. More recently, he has spoken out against the rejection of any and every diplomatic compromises, even those that could lead to leaving the settlements in place. He himself still believes that such a compromise (continued existence of the settlements without control over the Palestinians) is still possible.

Bin-Nun views Elon's dream of leading Israeli society as total political blindness. "They are still fantasizing that Kadima is a bubble that will burst any minute, and they don't grasp the fact that it is a clone of the historic Mapai party. Kadima will create a situation of a single large party that can put together whatever coalition it wants, and would not need them at all."

Bin-Nun does not regret the conception of a Greater Land of Israel and does not see it in itself as the source of the current process. "From the start," he says, "we did not aspire to full sovereignty over the Greater Land of Israel and the integration of the Palestinians as citizens. The thought was to create Palestinian cantons that would not be contiguous, and it was in this spirit that Ariel Sharon designed the settlement map."

In his estimate, the realization of such a program is still feasible, particularly in light of the ascendance of Hamas, "because when we are faced with the idea of an Islamic empire, the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination becomes a very compelling question."

The red line

Dr. Yehuda Ben-Meir, who was one of the leaders of the Young Guard revolution who were at the forefront of the NRP's more extremist line even before Gush Emunim, ultimately changed his mind. In 1992, he supported the election of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, and later on joined Meimad, a party to which he no longer belongs. He does not view the NRP-National Union merger as the public disappearance of religious Zionism, "but as the disappearance of the NRP. In fact, the perception of integration into Israeli society has led to a situation in which the majority of the religious public has stopped voting for religious parties, and the only people left in the NRP are the Hardalim [acronym for national ultra-Orthodox]. It was therefore natural for the National Union, which is more Hardal in nature, to lead this party. The new merger will lead to a detachment from the central Israeli reality. The mere assumption that the struggle over the Land of Israel justifies all of the means will necessarily lead to such a detachment."

Here, he feels, lies the difference between the united party and the extremism championed by him and his colleagues in their time. "Our clear red line," he says, "which we never crossed, was a refusal to disobey orders or laws, or engage in any harmful disengagement from the state. At the time of the first attempt to settle in Samaria, at Hawara in 1974, people were shouting to the soldiers to refuse orders. When I spoke about the event in the Knesset, I said I was opposed to the evacuation of the settlers, but I added that I was proud of the soldiers who carried out the order to evacuate."

Education in place of settlements

In his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Gideon Aran, of the department of sociology at Hebrew University, traced the spiritual roots of Gush Emunim. He developed the idea that Gush Emunim wanted to shift the "knitted skullcap" public from a religious Zionist identity - in other words, a Zionism of religious people - to a national religiosity - in other words, a national outlook based on religious foundations. The absorption of the NRP into the National Union and the new party's defiant challenge to the elites are seemingly the outcome of the process he described 20 years ago.

Aran analyzes the process mainly in the context of the sense of affront felt by religious Zionism, which was shunted into a corner by the mainstream of society. "In general, when I see any sort of social awakening, I look for the affront that lies behind it. It was the case for the Black Panthers [of the 1970s] who reflected the sense of affront to Sephardim, and it is tru e today for religious Zionism. If, as leaders of the united party are saying, it will foment a social revolution, 20 years from now we will be analyzing the affront of the disengagement and of Amona as the roots of that revolution," he says.

The main question that intrigues him in the new process is whether the positioning of national-religious identity on a religious basis will reach the point of hoping for a division of religion and state, due to a turning away from all of the beliefs of classic religious Zionism. "The question of this public's relations with the Haredim, on the one hand, and the State of Israel, on the other, is the intriguing question. Possibly due to the current mood of disappointment in the state, and due to remembrance of the model put forth in his time by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they will conclude that separation of religion from state could actually be a source of immense strength, both in terms of the stature of religion and its demand for stature in society."

Another question that intrigues him pertains to the future of national-religious education: "The truly grand enterprise of this sector is not the settlements, but religious education. And here will be the interesting test, to see if they do not waste all their energy on the lost fight for the settlements, and in so doing also lose the fight over education, or if they go back to focusing on the educational enterprise."

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