Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be married to Hagai Ben-Artzi's sister Sara, but Ben-Artzi still refuses to get excited about the prime minister’s July 29 announcement approving the immediate construction of 300 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Ben-Artzi considers it a meaningless promise. Netanyahu made the announcement to placate his coalition partners in HaBayit HaYehudi who were outraged when bulldozers complied that day with a Supreme Court ruling and began demolishing the so-called Dreinoff Houses on the outskirts of the settlement of Beit El. The two buildings had been constructed by settlers on private Palestinian land. Violent clashes broke out between the police, soldiers and settlers at the site.
Ben-Artzi went so far as to accuse Netanyahu of acting with evil intent when, the night before the demolition, he allowed the forced eviction of a group of young men who had barricaded themselves in the contested buildings. According to Ben-Artzi, there was no need to take such a drastic measure on that particular evening, when the young settlers were celebrating the traditional Tu Be'Av feast, commemorating the day of love.
Ties between Ben-Artzi and his sister and her husband have been severed for several years now. During this time, Ben-Artzi has become one of the most outspoken critics of Netanyahu and secular society in general. An educator who lectures on Jewish philosophy and the Bible, Ben-Artzi claims that there is no such thing as a secular right. The real right, he contends, is religious, and he believes the Israeli public is ready for a religious prime minister.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ben-Artzi sharply criticized the residents of the southern communities near the Gaza Strip. He said “they deserved to get hit” by rocket fire from Gaza because “they’re the ones who expelled the settlers from Gush Katif” by supporting the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.
Al-Monitor: After the two buildings were torn down, you were immediately compensated: The prime minister approved building 300 new housing units in Beit El. Do you think you succeeded in pressuring Netanyahu?
Ben-Artzi: I no longer trust his promises. Three years ago, it was announced that the government would do everything it could to rezone the Dreinoff Houses, and for three years it did nothing. If it failed to keep its promise about the Dreinoff Houses, it is hard to believe that it will keep the second part of the agreement. These are usually meaningless promises that reveal the culture of lies characteristic of the government in general and of Netanyahu personally.
Al-Monitor: But it is still a right-wing government. As far as you are concerned, isn't that an ideal situation?
Ben-Artzi: The religious public believes that the secular right is not a genuine right, so the current situation is not ideal. From our perspective, the only real right is the religious right, because today it is only the religious community that has a deep connection to the Bible. In our opinion, there can be no genuine nationalism without a deep connection to the Bible. Take [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben Gurion, for example. Although he wasn’t a religious person, he was a nationalist, because he grew up as a religious young man in the diaspora. He received a genuine, deep-rooted Jewish education, and the Bible accompanied him throughout his life.
The generation that grew up in Israel, and which I have the privilege of teaching, has absolutely no knowledge of the Bible or Jewish history. The result of that is that this generation’s affinity to the country is very meager and weak, lacking any real basis. Because the true basis of Zionism is the Bible. Without the Bible, we really are imperialists who should be kicked out of here. Our goal is to have a religious prime minister here.
Al-Monitor: Isn’t Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon far enough to the right?
Ben-Artzi: I am not denigrating anyone, but as far as I am concerned, anyone who is not religious or who did not receive a deep religious education is not right-wing. Ya’alon grew up in Kiryat Haim and received a meager Israeli education. Then he went to Kibbutz Grofit with the socialist HaNoar HaOved youth movement. Without a deep connection to the Bible, you simply can’t be on the right. The right is an ideological position that stems from a very deep-rooted cultural background.
Al-Monitor: And what about Prime Minister Netanyahu?
Ben-Artzi: Netanyahu hardly learned any Bible whatsoever. He grew up in the US and went to an American school in Pennsylvania. Besides, his home wasn’t devoted to the Bible. His father was a historian. My father was a man of the Bible. Bibi Netanyahu loved to talk about the Bible with my father. He felt that my father fulfilled some part of him.
It is my aspiration to have a religious political leadership here. I want there to be a religious prime minister. It will happen, too. Patience. It is a process. Until the Six-Day War, the settlement enterprise in the country was affiliated with the kibbutz movement. Most of the settlements established in the country since then are affiliated with the religious Zionist movement. Religious settlements are being established in Judea and Samaria, and even in the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley, the Galilee and the Negev. It’s remarkable.
The kibbutz movement once led the army, but it has since lost its connection to the land. The kibbutz members are now in Los Angeles, making money. That’s what interests them. There are hardly any of them in [Israel Defense Forces] officer training courses today. The religious are in leadership positions in the army and in education. It is inevitable that this will extend to the political arena, too. There must be a religious prime minister who will not be afraid, like Netanyahu, to declare that Judea and Samaria is not occupied territory and adhere to the findings of the Edmund Levy Report [Report on the Legal Status of Building in Judea and Samaria]. What kind of right-wing government won’t even adopt the findings of a legal report?
Al-Monitor: If the government is that bad, why doesn’t HaBayit HaYehudi, which represents you, pull out of the coalition?
Ben-Artzi: The question that always comes up is, “If you take it apart, what do you get in exchange?” The only justification for taking apart the government would be if you withdraw from it, announce your candidacy for prime minister and go to elections. Then you can say, “We brought down the government because we didn’t want to be a satellite of the Likud. We wanted the Likud to be a satellite of ours.”
I think that the public is very ready for a religious prime minister. The public actually realizes that the leading ideological force in this country is the religious community. It sees this in the army, in education and in the settlement enterprise. It is all part of a process where the public becomes more mature and prepared for such a possibility. Who will make the breakthrough that will surprise everyone? I don’t know. Maybe [Naftali] Bennett.
By now, I expect nothing from Netanyahu. He lacks the necessary set of ideological values. And he lacks the emotional capacity too. He’ll build another two houses here, then tear down three more houses there, all in an attempt to maintain the status quo. He thinks that it is his historic mission to maintain the status quo, but I think it’s not. That is why people are hoping for Bennett. The next Zionist leadership must come from the religious community, and it will. It just requires patience. If Bennett has the courage, I will be the first person to stand beside him with everything I have.
Al-Monitor: You said that whoever ordered the evacuation of the settlers on Tu Be'Av eve, be it the defense minister or the prime minister, is evil. Do you really think that Netanyahu is evil?
Ben-Artzi: I claim that there is something structurally evil in the attitude of the secular community toward the ultra-Orthodox in general and the settlers in particular. How is it expressed? Take, for example, the celebrations that Beit El planned to mark Tu Be’Av [traditionally celebrating love and marriage]. We invested 1 million shekels [about $260,000] in shows. It was supposed to be a huge event. But then the security forces acted quickly to evict the boys. It ruined the celebration. What would have happened if all the preparations to evict them had been postponed for a day? Why ruin our celebration? It was wickedness, and it is imprinted in the secular nature. It hurts me to say it, but people without faith and without a god are evil.
What happened in Gush Katif 10 years ago showed the world how wicked secular society really is. Thousands of people were expelled from their homes, and no one gave them as much as a cup of water except for the religious kibbutzim. The secular kibbutzim just shouted, “Get out! Get out!” and demonstrated against them. They deserve to get hit by all the Grad and Qassam rockets, because they’re the ones who expelled the settlers from Gush Katif. We warned them, but they just laughed at us.
God manages the world with wisdom. What happened in Gush Katif was actually a big step forward. It exposed the general public to the beautiful and idealistic religious public. The main contribution of the disengagement was bringing Hamas to Gaza. The IDF fled and thousands of missiles were fired at the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi and Rehovot. The public then realized that evicting the settlers is not the solution. Gush Katif saved Judea and Samaria, because [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s plan, and later [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s plan, was to continue with this momentum.