Pundits have got the Naftali Bennett story wrong. The rise of HaBayit Hayehudi is not really about nationalist politics. It is more a social-communal awakening, a re-emergence of the Religious Zionist tribe, with a younger a more self-confident voice.
Naftali Bennett’s misspoken comment regarding disobedience in the army has buttressed the emerging media story line about his political party: That the surge of HaBayit HaYehudi (the ‘Jewish Home’) in the polls reflects the rightward shift of the Israeli public.
I say that pundits have got the story all wrong. The rise of HaBayit HaYehudi is not really about nationalist politics. The emergence of Bennett is better described as a social-communal awakening, a re-emergence of the Religious Zionist public. The benefit of Bennett is not mainly a clear statement against Palestinian statehood – although such clarity is refreshing – but the vehicle he has recreated for giving Religious Zionists a renewed and unified voice in national affairs.
For the last twenty years, the Religious Zionist (or Modern Orthodox) community in Israel, and its political representative, the National Religious Party, has been crushed by Oslo-era diplomatic policies and Ultra-Orthodox political gains. The Left-Haredi juggernaut brought about confusion, dispirit, division and despair within the Modern Orthodox world. The grey group of functionaries and rabbis that led Religious Zionist factions in Knesset was not up to the challenge. Religious Zionist voters gravitated unexcitedly to other parties, including the Likud.
As a result, the drive, commitment, contribution and the voice of this very broad swath of Israeli society was lost. Community self-pride eroded. Community institutions began to starve. Schools and yeshivot associated with Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy, in particular, were hard hit, as massive government funding was shifted to Haredi institutions.
The so-very-impressive youth of the community chafed at the downtrodden status and poor self-image of the community. Why should they – young men and women who are devoted to military service and academic excellence, to traditional values and modern culture, to both the spiritual and economic advancement of the country – be considered the “friers” (the suckers) of Israeli society? Why should they – the “real Zionists” – be the “defookim” (the disenfranchised) of the Israeli political game?
Naftali Bennett stepped into this vacuum, and boldly led a revolution within the community by forcing the National Religious Party’s first ever open primaries. Fifty-five thousand people registered as members of the rejuvenated “New NRP-Jewish Home” party, and they elected a very impressive slate of young educators and former IDF officers to lead the party, with Bennett at its head. The old guard was swept away.
Bennett has managed to strike a chord across a wide spectrum of Religious Zionist voters, from the semi-Haredi ultra-nationalists and hard-core settler types, to bourgeoisie middle class liberal Orthodox businessmen and hi-tech workers in Petach Tikva and Raanana, to Sephardic traditionalists in Netivot and Beersheba. Bennett’s main draw: A pose that is proud and unbowed, self-confident and assertive, both modern and traditional. A sense of belonging and self-worth. A new opportunity to speak as one unified community, and reap the gains that rightfully accrue to this community in government funding and representation. A gust of renewal and youthful enthusiasm swept has across the community.
Nevertheless, many analysts persist in describing the Jewish Home party as “the young Israeli hard-liners’ party, the refuge for those who mistrust both Palestinian professions of seeking peace and Netanyahu’s commitment to settlement.” (This is how the usually keen David Horovitz described HaBayit haYehudi in widely-read column  last week).
This misses the mark. The party is more a societal phenomena (an important one!) than a diplomatic statement. It’s not necessarily an ideological choice but identification with the tribe, which is now speaking with a younger a more self-confident voice.
Bennett’s incautious remark making it sound like he condones disobeying military orders (– he doesn’t) is juicy stuff for Likud’s campaign against HaBayait HaYehudi. But the Religious Zionist public isn’t going to be dissuaded from supporting Bennett. His voice is theirs, discovered anew.