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.
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