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Can Ayelet Shaked Sell (Secular) Israel on the Far Right?

Outspoken: Ayelet Shaked speaks during a meeting of Israel’s Knesset, where she has been a member since 2013. Image by Flash90

On a Tuesday in December, Ayelet Shaked sat on the stage of a reception center in an urban stretch of the Israel National Trail in north Tel Aviv. The room was full of bearded and clean-shaven men all wearing white button-down shirts and knitted yarmulkes, the uniform of the Orthodox settler movement. Shaked, one of the few women there, was wearing a formfitting black-and-white shift with a geometric pattern; her long black hair hung in waves over her shoulders. If it weren’t for her posters lining the wall behind the podium it would be easy to confuse her for a secular Tel Avivian who just happened to wander into the campaign event.

But that was the point. Shaked, 38, is the young, secular face of the Jewish Home, known in Hebrew as HaBayit HaYehudi, the far-right Orthodox nationalist group. Currently the fifth-largest faction in the Israeli Knesset, Jewish Home is poised to make a major showing in Israel’s March elections. Shaked, first elected to the Knesset in 2013, has been an integral part of the Jewish Home’s project to bring secular and non-Orthodox voters — whom Israelis call “traditional” — into pro-settler politics. At the heart of the Jewish Home’s platform is its plan to impose a non-state solution on the Palestinians, which would involve partial annexation of the occupied West Bank, Israeli citizenship for Palestinians who live near settlements, and limited autonomy under Israeli rule for millions of other Palestinians.

After speeches by Shaked and several other Jewish Home candidates — including Naftali Bennett, party chairman and current minister of the economy — the lights in the conference hall dimmed and Shaked’s campaign video played on a white screen. There was a TV clip of her debating Stav Shaffir, the Labor lawmaker who rose to prominence after organizing the 2011 social justice protest movement. Other clips showed her going head to head with Ahmed Tibi and Haneen Zoabi, two Palestinian-Israeli members of the Knesset.

Two weeks later, Shaked received the highest number of votes in the party primary, placing her behind only Bennett and Construction Minister Uri Ariel on the Jewish Home’s electoral list, and positioning her as a probable cabinet minister in the next Israeli government.

In a group that makes no attempt to hide its disdain for both the Israeli left and the Palestinian national movement, Shaked has established herself as the party polemicist. On June 30, the day that the bodies of three yeshiva boys kidnapped and killed by Palestinians were located in the West Bank — and two days before Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir was killed by Israeli Jews in an apparent revenge attack — Shaked posted an article on her Facebook page calling the Palestinian people “the enemy.” Written by the late settler advocate Uri Elitzur at the height of the second intifada, the article argued that bombing a civilian population is justified when those civilians give shelter to “evil.”

“Now this includes also the mothers of the shahids who send them off to hell with flowers and kisses,” the article read. “They need to go and so does the physical house in which they raised the snake, or else they will raise there more little snakes.”

The article, which Shaked asked her assistant to type up for Facebook after it was mailed to her by Elitzur’s son, received thousands of “likes” by Shaked’s online followers. It was translated into English by the anti-Zionist web site Electronic Intifada — which deemed it a “call for genocide”— and soon went viral with a high-profile pickup in the Daily Beast. Shaked distanced herself from its message by saying she didn’t agree with everything in the piece, and eventually deleted the post. But by that point it had become a weapon in the diplomatic arsenal of Israel’s foes. In a speech condemning Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited the article, saying Shaked’s mentality is “no different to that of Hitler.”

Now, five months after the summertime war that killed 72 Israelis and more than 2,100 Gazans, Shaked and the Jewish Home are capitalizing on the postwar sentiment that Israel stands alone against a hostile world.

Image by HaBayit HaYehudi

“In the last Gaza war there seems to be a shift to the right of the population,” said Bobby Brown, a longtime political observer and former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa. “They feel the world is forcing us to make deals with people who want to kill us.”

Rather than pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the Jewish Home’s answer to Israel’s increasing isolation abroad is, as its campaign slogan says, to “stop apologizing.” While Bennett has taken center stage in the campaign’s recent web videos — in one he plays an overly apologetic, Haaretz-reading Tel Aviv hipster — the fact that the videos are set in the Tel Aviv and not in Orthodox nationalist strongholds in Jerusalem or the West Bank is a kind of nod to Shaked and what she represents within Israeli politics. They imply that it is possible — as Haaretz once described Shaked in a headline — to be a settler in Tel Aviv.

Shaked’s Tel Aviv is the Bavli neighborhood, a tree-lined upper-middle-class enclave near Tel Aviv University where she was raised with her older brother. She still lives there today, with her husband, a pilot, and two young children who attend an elementary school nearby. The morning of Shaked’s campaign event, I met her in her home, which is in a classic hulking white Tel Aviv apartment building. The unit was typical of a young family, with coloring books and crayons scattered on tabletops. The showpiece on the living room wall was a red canvas with cherry blossoms, clouds, planets and a penguin and a robot. Shaked painted it while on maternity leave. Painting is not a hobby, she said curtly. “I did it just once.”

Unlike former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni or many of the Knesset’s male superstars, Shaked does not come from Israeli political or military royalty. Born in 1976, she traces her roots to the earliest Zionist settlers in Ottoman Palestine. Her mother’s ancestors came to what is now Israel from the former Russian Empire and Romania in the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1882, known as the First Aliyah. Her father, an Iraqi Jew, immigrated to Israel in the 1950s by way of Iran. They met in the army.

Shaked said that as a child, politics were rarely discussed in her family home, even though her parents held contrasting political opinions. Her father, an accountant, voted right, typically for Likud, while her mother, a high school Bible instructor, voted center-left, for either Labor or Shinui when it was led by Avraham Poraz, a Knesset member who was a close family friend. Shaked’s defining political inspiration as a youth came from reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” which gave her an appreciation for “capitalism, strong figures and entrepreneurs,” she said. Shaked was active in the Israeli Scouts, a Zionist youth movement, and she graduated from a secular high school with high honors. When she was 23 her mother died of cancer; her father now lives in Herzliya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv.

Rising Star: Shaked’s political awakening happened in the army. Image by Wikimedia Commons/Nitzan Harmoni

Shaked’s right-wing political awakening happened in the army, where she served alongside traditionally observant settlers as an instructor in the Golani Brigade, an elite infantry unit in the Israeli Defense Force. “She was the representative of Tel Aviv society and I was the representative of the mitnachalim,” or the settlers, said Asaf Levi, a close friend who lives in the Eli settlement north of Ramallah. Levi said that Shaked came to the army believing “everything the papers said” about settlers: “They are uneducated, they are not very moral, they are aggressive, they’re not polite, not civilized, they all hate Arabs, they want to eat the Arabs for breakfast and dinner,” he said. “They are like what we say about Islam today.”

But Levi said that Shaked eventually came to respect the settler soldiers, who often followed her orders more closely than their secular counterparts. She began to ask them about their religious observance. “Everybody saw that her best friends became the religious ones, the settlers,” said Levi. “I think she was impressed. She said, ‘I like the way you live, I like the way you think.’”

After her army service, Shaked studied electronic engineering and computer science at Tel Aviv University, and then worked as a software engineer at Texas Instruments. When Netanyahu’s Likud party suffered a major blow in the 2006 elections, Shaked wrote to Netanyahu to offer her services in what she described as his moment of need. She met Bennett, an Orthodox high tech entrepreneur from Ra’anana, when he interviewed for a position on Netanyahu’s team. Bennett later became Netanyahu’s chief of staff. In 2008, Bennett and Shaked left Netanyahu’s office for reasons Shaked would not discuss. (It’s widely believed that they left because of a dispute with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.)

Bennett and Shaked’s joint departure cemented their political relationship, and they went on to found My Israel, an online group aimed at countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The group’s take-no-prisoners approach was a kind of precursor to Shaked’s own Facebook activism as a politician. After Palestinians killed five Israeli Jews in the West Bank settlement of Itamar in 2011, My Israel posted graphic photos of the murder on its page. Shaked defended the group’s decision to publish the post, telling journalists that Palestinians use graphic images in their media and that “it’s time to return the fire.”

In 2012, Shaked was awarded a media criticism prize by the right-wing group Israel’s Media Watch for her work with My Israel. At the ceremony, she spelled out her vision for “fair media” in Israel, where the term “‘extreme Left’ would exist alongside the common ‘extreme Right.’ Media that wouldn’t interview our enemies while our soldiers were risking their lives at the front. Media that would call members of our army ‘our forces,’ like you used to.”

Today, Shaked and Bennett remain close. “We complete each other. He is very creative, he is very strong and I am very efficient,” Shaked told me, sitting in her office on the basement floor of the Knesset, where a picture of the pair hangs on a bulletin board near her desk. The room is also adorned by a framed photo of the Star of David-shaped synagogue of the evacuated settlement of Neve Dekalim in Gaza, and dozens of books, including the English title “Financing the Flames” by Edwin Black. The book describes Israeli human rights groups like the New Israel Fund and B’Tselem as forces that seek to destabilize the IDF and erase Israel’s Jewish character. This argument forms the basis for several right-wing Knesset proposals to limit the ability of such NGOs to operate in the state.

Shaked and Bennett were elected on the Jewish Home ticket in 2013. The party is a direct political descendant of the National Religious Party, home of those traditional Jews who, unlike the ultra-Orthodox, saw no contradiction between halachic observance and military service. Originally concerned with strengthening the Jewish institutions of the state, the National Religious Party morphed into a powerful, pro-settler party after the 1967 war, when its adherents, swept up in messianic fervor, established the first settlements in the West Bank. In the mid-2000s, the party experienced an internal rift over Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, from which it never recovered; it eventually merged into Jewish Home.

Under Bennett’s leadership, Jewish Home has sought to take its pro-settler message to the masses. “[Shaked] is important to his message,” said Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israeli Democracy Institute and an expert on the national religious camp. “She proves that the [Jewish Home] wants to be the party of anybody who believes in this combination of Zionism and traditionalism.”

Shaked’s entrance into the Jewish Home wasn’t altogether smooth. From the beginning, she faced questions about her suitability as a secular Jew, especially among traditionally observant women who wanted someone to represent their values in the party. Shaked cut a starkly different silhouette from that of the typical Orthodox woman in long, flowing garb and a head covering. “When she came in, people said it was mas sfatayim,” literally “lip tax,” but meaning “lip service” — an attractive, secular female placeholder to represent the party’s new direction, said Brown, the former Netanyahu advisor.

Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, an arm of Reform Judaism, believes that Shaked’s baptism into the Orthodox nationalist camp — a baptism that was meant to also change the camp itself — is in part responsible for the MK’s famously steely demeanor today. “In that chicken coop, they are sensitive to any bird that is not a chicken,” she said. “[Shaked] probably has quite a few battle scars, and scars are very thick tissue.”

Hoffman often presents to the Knesset about how gender segregation in the public sphere disadvantages women, but she said that her group has been unable to connect with Shaked. “I know in some instances where we brought a real touchy-feely story to the Knesset, we saw [the other MKs] being pulled by their heartstrings,” she said. “We couldn’t get to Shaked.”

Hoffman sees Shaked’s dogmatism reflected in her last name, which means “almond” in English. “It’s not an easy shell to open,” she said. Indeed, when I asked Shaked to put herself in the shoes of the Palestinians who would be forced to give up their national aspirations under her and Bennett’s plan, she refused. “I don’t want to do this game because I’m not there,” she said.

Today, Shaked is sometimes chided for towing the Orthodox line as a secular Israeli. Though she supports the Orthodox ban on public transportation on the Sabbath, she herself travels on Saturdays. When she posted Facebook photos from a recent weekend trip to the Golan Heights, she was panned for flaunting her ability to travel while denying public transportation to others. One activist photoshopped Shaked’s face onto a picture of Marie Antoinette’s body with the words, in Hebrew, “If they don’t have public transportation on Saturday, let them use the car that the people pay for them to use,” referring to cars provided to members of the Knesset.

Yet even Shaked’s opponents agree that the lawmaker has proved herself to be more than a pretty face in the Knesset. “I think that they got more than they bargained for,” said Hoffman. “She is strategic and focused and grounded in what she believes.”

Shaked has been in office for just two years, but already counts one major accomplishment in the passage of a highly controversial bill — laden with exemptions — to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army. Shaked said that her “pluralism” as a secular woman in an Orthodox party allowed her to cross sectarian lines. “It was very sensitive work to combine the ultra-Orthodox and the secular and the national religious all in one committee,” she said.

If Shaked hasn’t managed to fully implement her vision in this Knesset, it’s not for lack of trying. One recent Shaked initiative — which stalled in committee — was a Basic Law amendment that would allow the Knesset to overturn a High Court of Justice ruling to cancel a law. The proposal was a direct response to the High Court’s order to shutter Holot, a facility for African migrants in the Negev. In the majority opinion, High Court Justice Uzi Vogelman described Holot as “wretched,” saying that Israel’s policies of detention without trial “violate human rights in an essential, deep and fundamental way.”

Shaked has called the 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel — whom human rights groups say are fleeing state repression and inter-communal violence — a threat to the Jewish character of the state. “It’s totally a lie that they are running from genocide,” she told me. “If they are refugees they need to look like refugees in Syria or Iraq with their children and women and their belongings on them.” Shaked said there are two options for the migrants: either leave Israel or stay in Holot. “I have been to Holot,” she said. “I think it’s a very good place, very dignified with very good conditions.”

Shaked also threw her hat into the ring in the debate over the controversial Jewish nation-state bill, a proposal to cement Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which critics say would disenfranchise the state’s Arab minority. Shaked produced a version of the legislation with several other MKs that calls Israeli democracy a “form of government” rather than a central component of the state.

Another Shaked initiative would have extended Israeli law to the settlements, a step short of annexing them, sidelining current procedure under which the Israeli military commander in the West Bank must piecemeal accept or reject new laws. This too stalled in committee. Shaked has fought to obtain plenty of other trinkets for the settlers, including a $3.3 million fund transfer for a tourist center in the northern West Bank that she voted to approve in the Knesset’s finance committee the day of our first interview. (The status of the transfer is on hold as Israel’s attorney general looks into whether it was a legal transfer in light of the upcoming elections.) Out of curiosity, I asked Shaked if she remembered her first trip to a settlement. She looked at me blankly: “That’s like asking ‘When was the first time you went to Netanya or Hadera?’” — two cities in northern Israel — “I don’t know the difference.’”

After Shaked’s campaign event in North Tel Aviv, the yarmulke-clad men in the audience streamed out of the room as young Jewish Home activists in purple shirts — most still beneath voting age — passed out notebooks with Shaked’s photo printed on the bottom.

I decided to seek out a secular person to understand whether Shaked had the broad appeal her party saw in her.

Soon, I met Ilana Laitman, a 30-something lawyer with a mane of curly, uncovered hair. Laitman said that she identified as Masorti, or traditional in Israeli terms, and that she was already an activist for Jewish Home in Lod, just south of Tel Aviv. She saw Shaked as a perfect fit with the party.

“What is beautiful about this party and what unites this party is Zionism and Judaism,” she told me. “If you feel like a Jew and you act like a Jew and your ideology is based on Zionism, you can feel at home in this party.”

We talked about her party’s proposal for the West Bank, and I asked her what she thought of the fact that under the plan, most Palestinians would be denied the right to vote in Israeli elections. “People that don’t support the country that they live in shouldn’t be able to vote,” she said. That included the legislator Haneen Zoabi, whom she called an “anti-Zionist element.”

“The state is so democratic it is masochistically democratic,” she said. “Sometimes democracy is the enemy of the state.”

I asked her what she thought of Shaked’s record. “I think Ayelet is one of the most excellent parliamentarians in Israel today,” she said. “She is young and ambitious and very Zionist. She is not afraid to say what she thinks and what she believes. We see the results.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter @naomizeveloff

This article has been changed to reflect the fact that the $3.3 million for a tourist center in the Northern West Bank, which was a fund transfer, has been put on hold as the Israeli attorney general investigates whether it was a legal transfer in light of the upcoming elections.

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