How Ayelet Shaked, a secular woman, come to dominate the right-wing religious camp in Israel

Sam Sokol

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Late last month, as Israel prepared for yet another round of elections, Ayelet Shaked ascended to the leadership of the United Right, a joint list comprising the primary factions representing the nation’s religious Zionist community.

While women have led Israeli political parties, none has ever risen to the pinnacle of political power in a bloc representing the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox community.

And even more remarkable, the 43-year-old mother of two is a secular Jew from Tel Aviv.

So who is Ayelet Shaked and how did she overcome decades of political tradition?

Growing up as a middle-class child in the Tel Aviv of the 1980s, Shaked could have been expected to develop into a left-leaning Labor or Meretz voter, a proponent of two states and liberal policies. But as Shaked told The New York Times in 2015, she experienced a personal revelation at the age of 8 when she watched Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir debate an opponent on television: She was swayed by his nationalistic perspective.

During their mandatory military service, some Israelis tend to shift to the right, at least for a while, and a stint as an instructor in the storied Golani infantry brigade helped Shaked strengthen her conservative political outlook.

“I just realized there will not be a solution right now,” she told The Times.

Like the coalition she represents, Shaked is staunchly pro-settlement and hawkish on defense.

Although she studied computer engineering and began her career working for Texas Instruments, Shaked pivoted to politics in 2006, going to work for then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as his bureau chief. She brought along with her the future Jewish Home party head and frequent collaborator Naftali Bennett, helping him make a similar transition from high tech to the dog-eat-dog world of Israeli parliamentary politics.

The two worked for Netanyahu for four years but left following a reported falling-out with his wife, Sara. In 2012, Bennett and Shaked entered the world of right-wing, pro-settlement politics. That was the year that Jewish Home — a party composed of the old National Religious Party and several smaller right-wing factions — held its first open primaries. Bennett, religiously modern Orthodox and politically hawkish, entered the Knesset in 2013 at the top of its list. Shaked took its fifth seat. 

By the 2015 primary Shaked, having only finished her first term in the Knesset, was popular enough with the party base that she came in second behind Bennett, establishing her position as a leader of the nationalist camp. In a party traditionally led by older, gray-haired men, Shaked at 39 not only was an ideological torchbearer but literally a fresh face: a young, stylish woman.

A stint as the country’s justice minister under Netanyahu further cemented her popularity. With mixed success, Shaked sought to overhaul an activist judiciary that in her view handcuffed the military and undermined the right-wing elected government. She also helped pass a controversial bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Supporters said it made an obvious reality into law, while opponents attacked it for prioritizing an ethnic identity over democracy.

Her critics say she is a threat to that democracy.

“While Shaked was ‘polite,’ she was also a bulldozer that would run roughshod over liberal democracy,” Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker representing the liberal Meretz party, said in a Facebook post. Her attempt to remake the judiciary is “not a misunderstanding of what democracy is, it is a desire to destroy it and establish the Jewish state, the settlements, and Jewish supremacy instead of the state of equality.”

In March, Shaked’s team produced a mock perfume ad featuring “Fascism by Ayelet Shaked” in which she posed like a model while a narrator taunted her liberal critics.

Whatever it takes to win

Both her effectiveness as a politician and Jewish Home’s move toward open primaries helped Shaked advance in the religious sector, according to Yair Sheleg, who researches the religious Zionist sector at the Israel Democracy Institute.

In many ways, he said, its followers consider the nationalist aspect of religious Zionism — settling all of biblical Israel, asserting Israel’s Jewish character — as more fundamental than the religious aspect. Many leaders in the community “can live with Shaked as the leader because she brings many more voters” than other politicians.

Shaked and Naftali Bennett, shown together in 2015, split off from Jewish Home to form the New Right party, a secular-religious-nationalist faction. It failed to pass the electoral threshold in Israel’s last election. (Flash90)

“They are nationalists. They want a right-wing camp to win in the elections and if a secular woman can bring these results, so let it be a secular woman in the leadership,” Sheleg said, adding that since the United Right is technically a bloc and not a united party, it is easier for many Orthodox politicians to see Shaked’s role in pragmatic terms. After all, they retain control of their factions.

The more moderate religious sectors of Israeli society have increasingly supported a greater role for women in national life. A more traditionalist faction called Chardal, or Zionist ultra-Orthodox, comprises only about 12-15 percent of the national religious community. And some of that group may very well end up voting for smaller arch-nationalist factions like Jewish Power.

Sheleg said that the traditionalist Chardal sector doesn’t represent the mainstream. Shaked got an opening, he said, once the average voter, rather than the rabbis and older generation of religiously conservative activists, could vote for party leaders.

“The answer depends on who you ask, but Ayelet Shaked seems to have a good deal of acceptance across much of the national religious sector,” agreed Yehoshua Oz, senior adviser at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. 

“Of course, the national religious camp is far more complex than some assume,” he continued, citing a 2014 Israel Democracy Institute study showing that “21 percent of Israelis identify as part of the national-religious sector, and that group has a lot of variety in their views and beliefs across a number of issues.”

“What does seem to unite the national religious are political issues, such as considering themselves right-of -center and believing the Law of Return should [extend citizenship only] to those who are Jewish according to Jewish law,” or halacha, he said.

Shaked declined an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But one source close to Shaked’s inner circle agreed with Sheleg, saying that Shaked is “very focused and productive,” and worked hard to become “a consensus figure between the parties” in her political camp.

“A lot of people see it as a paradox,” the source said. “You see this secular woman from Tel Aviv as the head of a list by and large filled with religious Zionists, but if you speak to each and every one of these people you’ll see they have a great deal of respect for her and, if anything, feel more comfortable with her at No. 1 than many of the alternatives.”

Conversations with people close to Shaked painted a picture of a woman willing to listen to the unique ideological needs and demands of her constituents, and respect their unique sensibilities. For instance, while she is not personally religious, Shaked makes a point of not giving interviews on Shabbat or publicly eating in non-kosher restaurants.

Shaked “believes in [creating] connections and quiet and thorough work behind the scenes,” another source who used to work closely with Shaked told JTA. “Although Ayelet is secular in her personal life, she has great respect for Judaism and rabbis, and she has fought for these values, certainly in the context of the settlement of the Land of Israel.”

New elections, a second chance

After the Knesset elections in April, however, Shaked’s star appeared to be falling. She and Bennett had split off from Jewish Home to form the New Right party, a secular-religious-nationalist faction. It failed to pass the electoral threshold and gain seats in the parliament. 

But after Netanyahu failed to build a governing coalition and new elections were called, Bennett and Shaked threw themselves into rebuilding the right-wing coalition they had abandoned. Despite opposition from the national religious sector’s more conservative quarters (one prominent rabbi publicly asserted that “the complex world of politics is no place” for a woman), polling showed she was the most popular of the candidates to lead the new reunited right. After tough negotiations, Jewish Home leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz stepped aside.

“We agreed that out of national responsibility and concern for a right wing government and the religious-Zionist [community] Ayelet will head” the United Right, Peretz explained in a tweet.

Shaked’s ascent seems to working its magic for the right: A recent poll shows the United Right winning 12-13 seats in the next Knesset.

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