Tuesday, November 26, 2002
I haven't commented recently about the internal struggle in the National Religious Party in Israel, so I'm going to do so now. (Here's an editorial from the Jerusalem Post about it.)
The NRP used to be one of the pillars of the establishment. It was a member of every government in the first 25 years of Israel's life. But it was radicalized in the 1970s and 1980s, turning into a vehicle for the messianic wing of the settler movement. At the same time, Orthodox Jews were making greater and greater strides at integrating themselves into Israel's national life. Most notably, Orthodox Jews now make up something over 25% of Israel's officer corps, and the prospect of an Orthodox Jewish Chief of Staff is no longer remote. (There's a good article about this movement, and the schools that made it possible, in the most recent Jerusalem Report, which unfortunately is not online.) The importation into the NRP of ultra-Orthodox styles of politics - in particular, the reliance on rabbinic blessing for political decisions - further alienated the party from its natural constituency. The result is that modern, centrist Orthodox Jews have increasingly been without a home in Israel at the same time that they have a better claim to represent the "typical" Israeli than ever before.
The recent moderate turn in the NRP is therefore very welcome. But the revolution will not be complete until the NRP reworks its own ideology.
Historically, the NRP represented the religious-Zionist community: Jews who believed that the State of Israel was, in some fashion, of messianic significance. Rav Kook, the father of religious Zionism, believed that it was permissable to cooperate fully with secular Zionism because the secular Zionists were unwitting tools of the divine plan to bring about the messiah, and that G-d would eventually re-establish the Davidic Kingdom and the Third Temple in Jerusalem after the secular state had run its course. The conquests of 1967 radicalized this faction of Jews, but this ideology was never a perfect reflection of the position of religious Jews in Israel or on the subject of the State. Indeed, many Orthodox Jews in Israel and without adhere to no such messianic ideology. The proper question for the NRP to address is not the eschatological significance of the state but what, from a traditional Jewish perspective, is the proper way for a self-governing Jewish commonwealth to conduct itself.
In this sense, the NRP's real mission is to contest with Shas for the votes of Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox but who respond to a message about the Jewish character of the state. There is ample precedent in Jewish history and law for self-governing Jewish commonwealths that are not theocracies. For most of history, the Jewish people either had no central government (which was the case under the Judges), or was not sovereign (during the periods of exile), or had governments that were at least somewhat independent of priestly rule (the First and Second Temple periods). The only exceptions I can think of are under Moses, when the Hebrews were governed by a prophet with direct access to divine revelation, and under the first Hasmoneans, who united the High Priest and King in a single office for a brief period. Shas's notion, therefore, that rabbis should ultimately rule the state - and a similar notion advanced by the radical Jewish Leadership faction within Likud - is a radical innovation which most Jews - including most religious Jews - would heartily reject. But if it is not opposed by a religious voice, it will gain strength, in both the Haredi and the religious-Zionist sectors.
I am not an Orthodox Jew, so I am in no position to express opinion on religious matters. But it does seem to me that this question - what constitutes a Jewish state, and how is it to be governed - is the key question for religious Zionism, and not the question of the redemption of the land. The NRP has three paths before it. It can go the route of the past 3 decades, and become a branch of the far-right, exclusively identified with the radical settlers. That's where Effie Eitam wanted to take the party. Such a move would make the radical right even more radical, split modern Orthodoxy, and damage the cause of Judaism within Israel. The NRP could simply represent the interests of the modern Orthodox around the bargaining table, with no pretention to being an ideological party. This would mean modelling itself on Yisrael B'Aliyah, the immigrant party, or UTJ, the Ashkenazi Haredi party. But any success achieved this way would be short-lived, because the hope is that NRP constituents will be highly integrated into Israeli public and private life, and will not need a party to look out for their parochial interests. The third possibility is to embrace the challenge of providing a religious understanding of the Jewish state that is neither oppressive nor messianic. That would be the most audacious path, but is also the only one that could restore the NRP to its former glory as the natural partner of whichever major party governs.
As an aside, I suspect that the recent change will have little impact on the electoral prospects for the NRP, but might help it slightly. More important, it makes the NRP an easier coalition partner for Likud to woo. Assuming that Sharon heads Likud, and Likud, together with Gesher and the remains of Center, takes 40 seats (1/3 of the Knesset), Yisrael B'Aliyah takes 5 and the NRP takes 5, that's 50 seats for a center-right bloc at the heart of the coalition. Likud could then form a government with any of Shas, Shinui or Labor and clear the 60 seats needed for a government. That puts Likud in a very strong negotiating position indeed.