Growing up at Temple Beth Shalom, I often heard Rabbi Lewis lament over the division between the religious and the secular in Israel. It was one of the central messages he broadcasted from the podium, reminding us of the need and the importance of compromise between extremes, of dialogue and of the unity of the Jewish people.
In Israel, the religious Zionists seem to have become more and more extreme in politics, identifying with religious settlements in the territories, launching political protests against the government’s disengagement from Gaza and alienating much of the Israeli public. While most of Israel is secular and the nation was founded by staunchly secular Zionists, there are many Israelis who believe in God and consider themselves traditional. Religious Judaism is not foreign to them, but they do not want to live in a ghetto (or settlements) separated from the modern world.
As the National Religious Party (today formed into The Jewish Home, Habayit HaYehudi) historically identified itself with the West Bank settlers of Gush Emunim and the Zionist teachings of Rav Kook, they alienated themselves from the modern Israeli. However, in the party primaries which took place in November, the party leadership was taken by the personification of the modern religious Israeli, someone whom many Israelis can identify with and even admire.
Naftali Bennet is the son of Americans who immigrated to Israel from the Bay Area after the Six Day War. He did not grow up in a settlement and after finishing a religious high school, he did not go to the hesder yeshiva army program but into the regular army like a “normal” Israeli. There he served as an officer in the most elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. After earning a law degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Bennet co-founded an anti-fraud software company which was later sold for 145 million dollars. He entered politics, serving as, then opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff and later as the head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria, although he, himself, lives in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana.
Married to a secular Israeli, an officer in the elite forces and one of the Start-Up Nation’s millionaires, kipah-wearing Naftali Bennet seems to be a modern-day Zionist icon – The best of both worlds. After so many years of not having a national hero, Bennet could be Israel’s poster-boy.
What is more, his message seems to articulate what many Israelis feel. He has said that he does not believe that there will be peace in his lifetime, but this does not mean that he advocates war. He feels that the old way of looking for a perfect solution is misguided, but this does not mean he has abandoned ideals. His attitude broadcasts strength, stating firmly that Israel is here to stay with no apologetics, but he proposes solutions based in reality and choices instead of pipedreams and illusions.
Bennet led Netanyahu’s educational reform and has proposed a solution for one of Israel’s largest dilemmas. Bennet advocates annexing most of the West Bank, just as Israel annexed the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. This is a move which generations of Israeli leaders have avoided. Bennet counters that this would give Arabs living there the option for citizenship and abolish many of the hardships imposed on them such as the roadblocks which limit their freedom of movement. Many Israelis would love to resolve this issue one way or another. Few Israeli leaders have proposed such a bold solution.
However, Bennet’s main message is that of idealism. While the State was founded in secular idealism and as a refuge for the Jewish people, Naftali Bennet, who spent several years living in America before selling his start-up, says that Jews are safer in New Jersey where there are no missiles targeting them and where they do not have to serve in the army than living in Israel. However, for Bennet, religious Zionism is the reason behind the Jewish State. It provides the “why.”
The party’s new name “The Jewish Home” (Bayit Yehudi) echoes this sentiment with its motto “Because Israel is our Jewish home.” In a video posted on YouTube <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiWvN-Jr_Js>, the party targets hundreds of thousands of American Israeli voters. As their Facebook ad reads, “Anglos in Israel: Do you want a voice in the Knesset? Join the Jewish Home today!” In the video, Bennet connects with his audience telling them that his parents made aliyah from California because of Zionism and their love for Israel. He says that “It is time to take the message of your aliyah to the entire country.” It is a message which calls for Jewish values and ideals balanced with equality and unity. “It does not matter how you dress, if you want to bring Jewish values and Zionist ideals to Israel, the Bayit Yehudi is your home.”
Jeremy Gimpel, an American-born candidate on the list, appears in the video with the message of bringing a quality Jewish education to every Israeli. Gimpel, one of the co-founders of TheLandOfIsrael.com has been bringing a positive message from Israel to the English-speaking world via the cable television show Tuesday Nights Live. He is now leveraging his American ethnicity to target American Israeli voters who through their idealism have chosen to live in Israel.
Young charismatic leaders like Bennet and Gimpel are a refreshing addition to the Israeli political scene. Like the secular mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who entered politics after his success in the IDF and as a high-tech entrepreneur, these candidates seek to bring a bold new type of leadership to government. They bring new vision based on idealism, yet with abilities and experience anchored in the modern world of high-tech business and military leadership. So far, Israel’s left has not been able to deliver the same type of people around which their constituency can rally. The Israeli elections, which are to take place on January 22, will demonstrate if Bennet’s modern religious Zionist agenda will be an influential new voice in Israeli policy and politics.