Thursday, November 20, 2008

Israel's National Religious Party, of Blessed Memory

Israel's National Religious Party died this past Tuesday after a long illness. Its demise was almost unnoticed. The once powerful Israeli political party that represented the philosophy of Religious Zionism, the Miflaga Datit Leumi (its Hebrew name, commonly abbrieviated as "Mafdal," the word emblazoned on the election poster pictured above right), was created in 1956 and participated in every Israeli government coalition between that year and 1992, regardless of whether Labor or Likud led the government. Its importance as a coalition partner was attributable to the roughly 12 Knesset seats it won in every election from 1956 through 1981.

The long decline and eventual death of the NRP began in 1981, when Sephardi members left to join a new, ethnically oriented religious party, the Sephardic Torah Guardians (abbrieviated in Hebrew as "SHAS"). Sephardic and mizrachi (eastern) Jews are Jews that come from the Mediterranean countries, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, the Arab countries, and Iran. They are called Sephardic because many (but by no means all) of them trace their ancestry to Jews expelled from Spain (in Hebrew, "Sepharad") in 1492. The departing Sephardic and mizrachi members of the NRP felt that Ashkenazi Jews, of German, Eastern European and Russian ancestry, unduly dominated the outlook and affairs of NRP.

From then on NRP struggled to hold onto 4 or 5 Knesset seats. It splintered again and again, with the left-wing faction forming a party called Meimad, and many of its right-wing nationalist voters deserting it for Likud or other nationalist parties. Some critics also point to the party's fixation with the settling and retention of territory captured in the 1967 as underlying reasons for its loss of popular support.

The philosophy of NRP, and of the Religious Zionist movement is general, was described in the motto created by one of Religious Zionism's early leaders,
Rabbi Meir Berlin (later Bar-Ilan), around a century ago: "The Land of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel." It was at Bar-Ilan University, named for Rabbi Bar-Ilan, that the Central Committee of the NRP voted this week to disband the party, and join the new Jewish Home party (in Hebrew "HaBayit HaYehudi").

Despite its sad demise, the NRP leaves behind a considerable legacy. That the official day of rest in Israel is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and not Sunday; that state functions in Israel are not held on the Jewish Sabbath or religious holidays; that public transportation does not run on Friday nights and Saturdays; that kosher food is standard in the Israeli Defense Forces; and that marriage, divorce and burial of Israel's Jewish citizens fall under the purview of Orthodox Jewish rabbinical authorities--all these facets of Israeli life are largely attributable, for better or for worse, to the influence of the National Religious Party.

As pointed out in this editorial in the Jerusalem Post, the National Religious Party saw itself as a political movement by which Modern Orthodox Judaism would serve as the bridge between the secular and religious in Israel. That ideal seems nearly as dead today as the NRP, but the Religious Zionist movement--Mizrachi--lives on and still pursues that noble objective, and hopefully this seemingly tarnished ideal will ultimately prove more enduring than the National Religious Party itself.


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