Exclusive Interview
From 'Peace Now' to the Jewish Home Party

Anat Roth tells of her remarkable journey from the far-left to the nationalist camp, and how she's symbolic of a wider Israeli awakening.

Ari Soffer ,

Dr. Anat Roth
Dr. Anat Roth
Anat Roth

How does a former die hard "Peace Now" activist now find herself standing for election with the Jewish Home party?

Dr. Anat Roth's announcement in December that she had joined the religious-Zionist party and would be standing as a candidate in its primaries - and her subsequently strong showing in the primaries (after being bumped up a place she is now in the realistic number 14 spot) - may have come as a surprise to many. After all, how many former Peace Now and Labor party activists leave to join the Jewish Home?

But Anat's story is, she believes, part of a wider awakening within Israeli society - a particularly radical example perhaps of how Israelis have become increasingly disillusioned with the pipe-dreams of "land for peace" sold to them for decades by the Left.

Indeed, when she first announced her candidacy she was hailed as a symbol of just such a national "awakening" by party leader Naftali Bennett.

"Dr. Anat Roth, who came to us from Peace Now, represents the awakening of the left from the dreams of land for peace - and to a powerful Jewish identity and values of religious Zionism," Bennett declared at the time.

However, she is keen to stress that there was no single "eureka" moment which caused her to abruptly change her course; instead, her ideological transformation was "a journey" which took place over two decades of political activism.

Today a mother and religious educator living in Jerusalem, Roth's first foray into politics began after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Her shock at the murder propelled her into the arms of the extremist Peace Now group, and she immediately began "working against the first Netanyahu government", which lasted from 1996-1999.

Soon after, she joined the Labor party, where she worked alongside three Labor leaders, including Amram Mitzna - who at the time was spearheading the so-called "Geneva Initiative" calling for the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state in Judea-Samaria and the expulsion of the vast majority of Jews living there, among other radical Israeli concessions.

Shaken by the 'Disengagement'

But Roth's disillusionment and subsequent shift rightwards only began in 2005, following Likud (later Kadima) prime minister Ariel Sharon's Disengagement Plan from Gaza and northern Samaria. The "Disengagement" - referred to as "the expulsion" by its opponents - essentially represented the adoption of Labor's position by Sharon, who ironically had been elected (trouncing Mitzna's Labor party) on a platform which rejected any territorial concessions, including a specific pledge against giving up the Gush Katif bloc in Gaza. 

It saw more than 9,000 Jews forced from their homes, in a campaign of internationally-sanctioned ethnic-cleansing which was justified the same way Roth and many of her former Labor party comrades had always justified such "painful concessions": that, painful though it may be, such gestures would ultimately "prove" Israel's dedication to peace and usher in a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinian Authority.

Of course, that's not what happened at all. Instead, after first hailing it as a victory and a vindication of its campaign of "armed struggle", the PA was promptly defeated by Hamas in Gaza's first (and only) free elections. In 2006, the Islamist group consolidated its grip over all of Gaza via a bloody armed coup, violently purging Gaza of the last vestiges of Fatah control and setting up a veritable fortress of terrorism.

Within a remarkably short period of time the grim predictions by right-wing leaders materialized, as the coastal enclave became a base for an unprecedented campaign of rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli civilians in the Negev - with Islamist terrorists honing their skills to the point where they were able to repeatedly reach Israel's major population centers during last summer's war.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the expulsion - when it was "only" the southern communities being mercilessly bombarded - Roth began to question her positions.

'The Left used to love Eretz Yisrael'

She still remained in the Labor party, but her enthusiasm and activism had ebbed considerably following the Disengagement, her faith in Labor's "land for peace" slogan irreparably shaken. Worse still, she could not escape the niggling feeling that Labor - and the wider Israeli Left - "had abandoned the very Zionist values I had joined it for" in three fundamental areas.

First, there was Labor's post-Zionist social agenda. In particular, Roth says she had noted with alarm the way in which Labor administrations and oppositions had worked to "erode Jewish and Zionist" values within the Israeli education system, resulting in a generation of youth graduating from the government-controlled system lacking in any meaningful Jewish identity.

Secondly, there was the growing "divisive rhetoric" and "incitement" from the Left against the religious-Zionist public in general, and against "the settlers" - Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria - in particular, which Roth says she found particularly ironic given the angry accusations against "right-wing incitement" against the Left following the Rabin assassination.

That left-wing incitement "began already after Rabin's murder, but it got really crazy during the expulsion from Gush Katif," when many leftists were whipped up into a frenzy, Roth remembers.

"It was very difficult for me to see what can only be described as a delegitimization campaign against the religious-Zionist public in general and the settlers in particular."

But most critically for Roth was what she describes as a fundamental shift in the Labor party's core values regarding the way it views the Land of Israel and Zionism as a whole.

"When I joined I felt the people in Labor genuinely loved Eretz Yisrael, and really believed it was our's," she recalls. "They viewed it as one entity - not 'Israel-proper' and 'the West Bank.'

"Rabin didn't see Judea and Samaria as 'occupied territory', and there was no talk of 'returning' land to the Arabs as if it was in fact their's. Rather, Labor advocated giving away land from the perspective that in their view there was no choice - for security reasons, demographic reasons, etc. They viewed it like cutting an off an infected limb to save the whole body.

"Only the extreme-left called Judea and Samaria 'occupied territories' - it wasn't a word used by the left-wing mainstream."

All that changed over the years since the Oslo Accords, the Rabin assassination and Disengagement, says Roth. While many rank-and-file Laborites still cling to such values, the party itself has been largely hijacked by radical post-Zionists with an altogether different outlook and agenda - one which is dismissive at best and openly hostile at worst to the notion of a separate Jewish identity, and which views "the West Bank" as thoroughly "Palestinian".

'A monster you can't satisfy'

But the widening chasm between her former colleagues and herself was not merely the result of their own shift to the left. By now, Roth was not only questioning her party political allegiances, but the very ideological underpinnings of her belief in territorial compromise and the "traditional" Israeli Zionist Left as well.

"Slowly but surely I couldn't help but realize we were heading in totally the wrong direction. There was Camp David [the failed Camp David Summit which helped ignite the Second Intifada - ed.]; the continued and constant Palestinian Authority incitement; the way the are still even now educating their children to destroy Israel and wipe the Jews from map."

"And of course there is the ongoing terrorism" which, far from lessening, became emboldened and strengthened with every Israeli concession.

"Today it is clear that every time we leave territory they use it as base to attack us from," asserts Roth.

"Even if in some fantasy Fatah would to teshuva, Hamas or another Islamist group will simply take over the territory from them, just like what happened in Gaza."

Today, she believes any talk of establishing a "Palestinian state" is not only delusional but dangerous.

"We need to stop even talking about a 'Palestinian state', because it is a monster you will never be able to satisfy - even talking about it just whets its appetite."

At the same time as she was reexamining her political beliefs, Roth began exploring her Jewish identity more intensely, eventually becoming a fully-observant religious Jew and teacher. She has been active for many years now Megalim – The City of David Institute for Jerusalem Studies, as well as at the Center for Jewish Identity.

Again, Roth stresses that her religious "awakening", like her political one, was a gradual process. In fact the two went hand-in-hand. Roth was already religious by the time she severed her last ties with Labor and formally renounced her party membership; as late as 2010 she had set up a short-lived "beit midrash" (Torah study hall) for Labor party activists.

Although her journey is fairly unique in terms of the ideological distance traveled, Roth says she is not alone. During the Jewish Home party primaries campaign she notes how many former leftists told her of their own similar experiences, to varying degrees.

And while she is alone among her former Labor comrades - many of whom she is still close with on a personal basis - in taking such a radical leap to the Jewish Home party, many of them have simply "stopped being active" in the party, concerned over its gradual takeover by radical left-wing elements - a trend clearly illustrated by the recent Labor primaries which saw several particularly radical leftists elected as potential MKs.

What next?

Still, they certainly don't agree with many of her current positions - so how did they react to her standing as an MK for the Jewish Home?

"Actually I got a lot of good reactions from them. They don't agree with me ideologically but they respect my principles as a Zionist. They said 'we need people like you in the Knesset.'"

Roth's reception among Jewish Home party activists was even warmer, she said. "It's not like I just came out of the blue," she notes. "I'd been involved in religious-Zionist causes for many years, so a lot of them knew me already."

"But even among those who never heard of me before, I was welcomed into the party with great warmth," she adds.

The only negative reactions have been limited to online trolls "who hide behind Facebook to say either 'she's a traitor' (to the Left) or 'how do we know she's really sincere and not just tricking us?' (from the Right)."

So what does Anat Roth hope to achieve in the 20th Knesset?

"First of all, I want to strengthen the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, and prevent the partition of Israel into two states, which will be a real disaster," she states.

Apart from that, education and social justice figure high in her list of priorities.

"We need to strengthen Jewish identity in the schools, particularly via the curriculum. 

"So many kids grow up not knowing anything about their own roots, about Jewish history - even recent history like the modern Zionist movement and the founding of the State of Israel," she says.

"I myself grew up like that, as a graduate of the state school system, and I want to make sure that today's generation don't have the same problems as I had."

It's a battle Roth has already been waging for many years as part of the Center for Jewish Identity, which works with Israeli state schools to tackle that very problem.

Roth also aspires to "heal Israeli society" in areas such as economic disparity and the inflated cost of living. "It's an issue very close to my heart."

"As a society we need to make sure that even those people who don't have money are able to receive things like basic foods and medical treatment that they deserve."