The Hi-Tech Traditionalist: Can An Observant Jew Lead Israel?

Ha’Yamin Ha’Hadash, the New Right party under the leadership of the Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked sure hopes so! 

Ayelet Shaked
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ניצן חרמוני

Perhaps this is not something that is immediately obvious to most folks, but an observant Jew has never held any of the three positions at the top of the Israeli leadership: Prime Minister, Minster of Defense, or Foreign Minister. To understand the significance of this, we must first define the concept of observant and non-observant Israeli Jews and understand its historical origins. The more common name used in both Hebrew and English to define the second biggest split in the Israeli society after the Jewish/Arab one is religious-secular, but this is highly misleading language. The religiousness versus secularism of an Israeli Jew is a continuous sliding scale, with the vast majority of folks occupying its center. In Israel, it is common to find Jews who routinely eat pork and shrimp in Chinese restaurants, but who at the same time have mezuzot (small boxes with passages from the Torah written on parchment) on their doors and who attend Synagogue on the high holidays and build a Sukkah (tabernacle) on their balcony for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. On the far religious end of the scale are Jewish communities that reject the concept of Israel as an abomination and for whom Naftali Bennett, the supposedly “religious” Minister of Education and erstwhile leader of the religious Bait Yehudi party, is as secular as a Tel-Aviv drag queen, his infinitesimally small knit kippah (cap) notwithstanding. It is difficult to see how a sharp divide can be founded on such an imprecise definition, which is why it is important to understand that it hides a different, much clearer one that I like to call “observant” or shomer mitzvot in Hebrew. This definition makes things much easier to follow: do you maintain a fully kosher kitchen in your home with separation between dairy and meat products including two separate sinks? Do you avoid driving or traveling in a vehicle on Sabbath for all but life threatening emergencies? Are all your electronics shut down between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday? If yes, you, like Naftali Bennett are an observant Israeli Jew. Do you drive your kids to violin lessons on Saturday morning? Do you find yourself eating platters of fried shrimp in a pub on Friday night? Do you shop in the many non-kosher food emporia that have recently sprung up all across the country? If yes, you, like Ayelet Shaked, are a non-observant Jew.

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Naftali Bennett 

Copryright: Dovereconomy at Hebrew Wikipedia, The Spokesperson of The Ministry of Economy

Israel was founded by pioneers who came from the outer reaches of the Russian Empire, whose act of joining the Zionist movement was an act of rebellion against their parents’ pacifism, caution, submissiveness, and above all religiousness. During the long centuries of life in the diaspora, among the three foundations of being a Jew: the Torah, the Nation, and the Land, the first reigned supreme, while the two others atrophied like unused muscles. The early 20th century pioneers, following the great thinkers of the Zionist movement, sought to rebuild Jewish nationalism and take control of the Land of Israel, even if it meant that the Torah would take, at least for a while, a back seat. The response by observant Jews, those residing in Israel and abroad, ranged from enthusiastic acceptance of Zionism and expanding its ideological basis to give it both Divine sanction and Divine origin, to its complete rejection as a dangerous heresy that would bring down Divine retribution upon the nation of Israel wherever it may reside. Today, observant Jews in Israel fall into one of three categories: a small cult-like minority still rejects the state and chooses not to participate in its institutions and even align with its enemies, while receiving the welfare checks and the free health care that it provides. A much larger group chooses to only partially participate in the civil political life of the country. They run for and get elected to local and state government, where they exert substantial, sometimes decisive influence. However, they eschew service in the military, a sore point and one that is the subject of another column. The final and largest group are the so-called “religious Zionists”. This group is muscularly Zionist, excelling in military service and often choosing to live in the politically disputed territories of Judea and Samaria at no small personal risk. Naftali Bennett is among the leaders of this group and sees his historical and perhaps even Divine destiny as leading this group out of the political wilderness where they have exerted a limited influence to the mainstream where they can viably strive for top leadership positions including the prime minister’s office. Notably, all observant groups combined number significantly less than the non-observant Jewish population, which is why they have at times been king makers in the Israeli coalition government system, but never kings.

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It is in search of this destiny of top leadership that the observant Bennett and his partner, the non-observant Shaked left the Bait Yehudi party, which they led, but which came with the imprimatur of being “religious” and thus excluded from top leadership, to form the New Right party, a party that would transcend the observant/non-observant divide in Israeli society and finally and fully integrate the two parts of the Zionist movement. It is clear that history is on their side. In the military, in hi-tech, in the corporate world, and in the government, observant and non-observant Israelis work side by side and strive towards the same goals. There should be no reason why they wouldn’t be able to coexist inside of a single political party. And yet differences abound. Outside of work and military service, the two communities lead drastically different lives. They do not meet on the beaches (too immodest), in the movie theaters (same reason), in restaurants (most non-observant Israelis prefer non-Kosher food), and in the national parks and recreation areas to which most non-observant Israelis drive on their days off that more often than not coincide with the Sabbath or religious holidays to which Sabbath rules apply. The rules for dating and courtship vary drastically between the two communities and thus intermarriage is virtually non-existent. In many ways that count, observant and non-observant Israelis are fully unified. In many others, no less deep, they could as well be from different planets.

There is also a deep mistrust among the communities who routinely question each other motives. Non-observant Israelis fear and resent further encroachment of the Jewish religious legal and behavioral codex, the Halachah into the rules and regulations that govern Israeli society. They want public transport to run on the Sabbath and the holidays because that’s when they travel for pleasure (it mostly doesn’t now). They want stores to be open on these days (many currently are). They want to be left alone to realize themselves as Jews in a way of their choosing, not one that is imposed on them from above. Opposite them, the Zionist observant community firmly believes that an Israel that is not fully harmonized with its Jewishness, expressed not only as ethnicity (the nation leg of the Jewish trifecta), but also religiously, or more precisely Halachically (the Torah leg), is not the culmination of the Zionist ideal and is not worth fighting for. They fear that without a strong religious counterbalance to the thriving secular Israeli society and culture, Israel will lose its identity as the Jewish state and will become foreign to them.

It is difficult to know if Bennett’s and Shaked’s vision of a unified observant/non-observant front in Israeli politics will gain the support of sufficient number of Israelis of both stripes to vie for leadership positions. Current polling does not support this notion. The mere fact that, as has been reported, the new movement sought and obtained the blessing of leading Zionist rabbis is off putting to non-observant Israelis such as yours truly. We try to avoid getting political advice from religious leaders. And yet, there is something magical about these two. Seeing them together on the podium, one cannot but recognize the glory that is the Zionist movement. Bennett, a warrior in Israel’s most storied commando unit and a wildly successful hi-tech entrepreneur and Shaked the stunningly beautiful computer engineer married to a fighter pilot, there is something in these two that embodies the ultimate success story of Zionism, of Israel, and the hope that one day the deep fissures that have plagued them for so long yet have a chance to heal bringing us all up to a higher plane; one of unity, of success, of peace, and yes, of Godliness.

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