Israel. Q&A With Naftali Bennett – The Forward
It’s no secret that American Jews and their Israeli counterparts have less in common with every passing day. But where you locate the source of that chasm depends on which side of the Atlantic you’re standing on.
For American Jews, Israel’s dispossession of Palestinian civil rights, the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox over religious matters, and the increasing commitment to ethno-nationalism over civil rights have chipped away at erstwhile unconditional support for the Jewish State.
Not so for Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. “Israel-Diaspora relations are in an unprecedented crisis,” he said recently. “We’re often told this is because of the Western Wall and because of the Palestinian issue and because of other ideological disagreements. That’s not true. There’s a dire assimilation crisis and growing apathy among Jews in the Diaspora toward their Judaism and toward Israel.”
The tactic of disparaging Diaspora Jews in order to fend off criticism is by now routine among Israeli politicians. Bennett’s analysis seems wrong to me on two counts. Not only are two-thirds of intermarried couples raising their children Jewish, but young Jews are far from apathetic about Israel; they are passionate in their criticism of its failures to ensure religious liberty and civil rights, a passion that stems directly from what they see as their Jewish values.
But Bennett, the head of the national religious Jewish Home party, was always a curious choice for Diaspora Affairs Minister. With his us-versus-them attitude to Palestinians, he epitomizes the kind of ethno-nationalist view of Judaism that American Jews have moved away from — and are increasingly eager to criticize.
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“My formula is the maximum amount of land with the minimum amount of Palestinians,” Bennett told me when we spoke in late November. As for the value of liberal democracy that American Jews hold so dear, “This is not a philosophy class in some Ivy League college in the United States.”
Our meeting took place on a Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. Wearing his trademark coin-sized knitted yarmulka and a navy suit, Bennett was friendly, even patient as I asked him the same questions over and over, living up to his reputation as a “bro” and setting aside his usual approach of belittling Diaspora Jews in favor of a more conciliatory one.
It brought home the fact that his two roles — as head of the Jewish Home and Diaspora Affairs Minister — were in tension with each other; those of Bennett’s views which were most anathema to me are the very ones most likely to help him politically at home, something I was keenly aware of throughout our interview.
The following transcript has been very slightly edited for clarity. You can find a key to some of the terms at the bottom.