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Can The Occupation’s Cheerleader Win Over American Jews? Q&A With Naftali Bennett

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 dismissing 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.

“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.

Batya Ungar-Sargon interviews Naftali Bennett Image by Courtesy of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs

Batya Ungar-Sargon: In 2017, you said that your peace plan, the Stability Plan, would offer Palestinians all rights except when it comes to security and the right of return for Palestinians. You said it was “unrealistic” to offer them full self-determination.

Assuming you haven’t changed your position since last year, and please correct me if you have, it seems to me that perpetually denying a population full civil rights, such as the right to vote for a government that exercises state power against you, is not merely compromising the basis of democracy. It is anathema to the lessons of Jewish history and Jewish values from our Torah like justice, equality before the law, ethics, even civil rights.

How can you ask Jews to stand against those values or to support a government that ratifies a situation where they are permanently denied to a minority?

Naftali Bennett: The minority is the Jewish people in the Middle East. We are surrounded by 22 Arab states and hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims. Many of them want to annihilate the Jewish State. And ultimately, founding another Palestinian state like the one we founded in Gaza would mean the end of the Jewish state.

Because a full-blown state in Judea and Samaria would mean that they would be able to bring in millions of descendants of 1948 Palestinian refugees. So in one fell swoop — there’s about seven million of them in Syria and Lebanon — you’d hear this big sucking sound and we’d have a huge majority of Palestinians between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean. It would create a demographic disaster.

There is no perfect solution. Ultimately, what I suggested is that we apply Israeli law on Area C and offer full Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in Area C. And in terms of A and B, they would govern themselves.

They could become citizens of Jordan if they want, or citizens of the PA, and vote for the PA. The PA has elections. Unfortunately, they’ve decided not to run elections for many years. But it’s a democracy.

But yes, it’s less than a state in only two senses: They cannot have an influx of Palestinians into that PA, and they can’t have an army. Having an army and having an influx of Palestinians from all around the world into the land of Israel is not a fundamental civil right. Freedom of movement, freedom to vote, all of those are civil rights, and they would enjoy 100% civil rights.

But the civil right is not freedom to vote period. The civil right is freedom to vote for the government that has the right to exercise state power against you.

So they have state power barring a military. Barring the military, they run everything, they run education, they run water, electricity, everything, you name it, everything but having an army — yes — that can hurt us.

And if they so seek to be citizens of an Arab country, there’s 22 countries out there; all of them are less democratic than Israel, alright? Make your choice.

Ultimately, Jordan has a huge majority of Palestinians. They could become citizens of Jordan, that’s fine, living in Judea and Samaria.

My problem is more with the fact that it would be the Israeli government exercising state power against people who don’t have the right to vote for that government. That is the crux.

But we don’t exercise any state power except for security.

But just calling it security doesn’t make it not state power, right?

I know, but we have to defend ourselves. The alternative is a third intifada and a fourth intifada and a fifth intifada.

So your answer is that American Jews like myself for whom these values are core, we should accept that Israel cannot extend these rights to people because of the threat it would pose?

I think ultimately, they can become citizens of Jordan and vote for the Jordanian government, but unfortunately, Jordan is not offering it.

Right, which comes back to the problem of Israel’s army exercising state power against a people who don’t vote for the Israeli government, right?

We also exercise against Hezbollah.

They are outside the borders of what we consider to be the country of Israel.

Yes, but still, at the end of the day, we need to continue defending ourselves and it’s an extraordinary situation Americans are not used to.

When you grow up in New Jersey or California, you don’t really realize what it is to live next to Hezbollah, ISIS — we have ISIS in Sinai — or Hamas, so sometimes it becomes this theoretical debate utterly disconnected from the reality on the ground. By the way, the biggest victims of the Palestinian state are in Gaza.

Let’s put Gaza aside.

I don’t want to put Gaza aside.

Gaza has sovereignty, because Israel’s soldiers cannot go in there, and when they do go in there and get caught, that’s cause for a war.

We have an unmitigated disaster there.

We do, but we don’t have a moral stain on Israel.

Yeah, but I want to live. The life of my kids matters more than a theoretical, philosophical pontification of folks around the world. So anyone who wants to judge us should come to see what it’s like to live in Sderot for one week and then start preaching to us about what we ought to be dong here with the Palestinians.

Because we do not want war but they want to annihilate us. We tried it time and again. How stupid can one be to found a Palestinian state in Gaza that was supposed to be Singapore, they turned it into Afghanistan and then to suggest to found another one, a second Palestinian state? We’re not suicidal.

And this is the real world; this is not a philosophy class in some Ivy League college in the United States.

So you’re saying that the security issues, the threat posed by a potential Palestinian state is such that it’s impossible to grant them full civil rights.

Yeah. And another element is that we just have one tiny home — the land of Israel. They have I believe 200 times the size, the Arab world, the Muslim nation, the Arab nation, has 200 times the size. We don’t have another land. This is our tiny tract of land and I’m not about to sever it or divide Jerusalem, and 90% of Israelis would never do that.

Image by Getty Images

But the alternative to your plan is not only the two state solution. There’s another alternative. In fact, today I was in the Gush and I spoke to at least seven different settlers who all support a one state solution with full rights to all Palestinians in Areas A, B, and C. And when I brought up your plan, they kept saying to me, he means it as an interim plan, because of course, that could never be the final plan, because we cannot live and not give our cousins full civil rights. So I found that very interesting, that these people who live in the settlements found themselves to your left.

Right. There’s the 50-100,000 that live in Area C; I would offer them citizenship. I don’t want to govern those in A and B. I don’t want to govern them. I don’t want to run their education system, I don’t want them to pay me taxes. I don’t want to govern them. They ought to govern themselves. They are doing it.

Why don’t you want to govern them?

Because demographically, it’s a disaster. I don’t want another 1.8 million Arabs within the Jewish state. We could absorb 50,000.

My formula is the maximum amount of land with the minimum amount of Palestinians. That’s why I’m focused on Area C.

Why? What threat do they pose if they were to become citizens of Israel?

We’d lose our majority in Israel. I don’t want to absorb them. It took Zionism a solid 120 years to reach a solid Jewish majority. I don’t want to ruin all of that, not by founding a Palestinian state, which would create a disaster, nor by creating one state. I oppose both of those approaches.

My next question is about BDS (the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel). You and other Israeli ministers ask us American Jews to fight BDS, which, when all is said and done, is about defending Israel’s image. Why should we, who are being murdered in our synagogues, use our political capital defending Israel’s image, instead of Israel spending its energy improving its issues, which would improve its image?

You know, I think all Jews need to take care of one another, and when a Jew is hurt in a synagogue, or murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, as an Israeli, it’s my problem, and that’s why I flew over. When a Jew is murdered or hurt in Paris or in Spain or anywhere around the world, I care, because it’s my brother. It’s a fundamental tenet from my perspective that kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh (all of Israel is responsible for each other).

But the BDS question is not really about Jewish life. It’s about Israel’s image.

BDS ultimately, the goal is to destroy Israel through delegitimization through financial boycott, divestment, to turn Israel into a pariah state and ultimately to destroy it.

Yes, but it will never achieve that goal. Israel will never not exist because of BDS. It can’t fight the [Israeli Defense Forces], right?

It’s not about the IDF. Definitely Israel will prevail. But it’s a battle out there. It’s a battle for what’s right and wrong.

But my question is, we’re literally embattled — physically. You came to Pittsburgh. But you’re asking us to expend our capital to fight this war of perceptions and image.

You know, that reminds me during World War II, when Jews were murdered in Europe, there were some Jews in America who voiced a similar concern; they said, “You know, we have to expend our political capital in America to keep ourselves in a good position.” There were others who stood up and fought.

It’s exactly the opposite though, because there, in Germany, the Jews were being literally killed, whereas my point is that BDS is not literal.

Look, I didn’t come to this interview to pitch and ask for specific help. When a Jew needs help, when the Jewish state needs help, when a Jew abroad needs help, we’re there. We’re always going to be there. Every Jew in the world needs to know that when push comes to shove, there’s always a Jewish state that will be there for you. That’s what Jews do. They help each other.

You oppose BDS on the grounds that it’s anti-Semitic because it opposes self-determination for Jews, and you want American Jews to oppose BDS on these grounds. Isn’t it hypocritical to oppose self-determination for Palestinians?

The only determination that the Palestinians have shown to date is the determination to annihilate Israel.

Again, we’re not in a theoretical room. We have a laboratory, a real life situation where we did everything by the book in Gaza. We pulled out all the Jews, forcefully, pulled out the army, went back to the 67 borders, gave the keys to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians chose to turn it to an enemy base in the heart of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, during the weekly cabinet meeting on August 30, 2016 at his office in Jerusalem. Image by Getty Images

So there is a Palestinian state. It’s wrong to say there is no Palestinian state. The whole debate now is whether we found a second Palestinian state and I’m vehemently against that.

Arabs have many, many countries and they can have also self-determination in the PA. What they can’t have is an army, because as we saw in the year 2000 when 1,300 Israelis lost their lives, the army we allowed them to build fought us in the Second Intifada. So it would be profoundly immoral to do that again and to allow thousands of Jews and Palestinians get killed because we allow another terror state to develop.

I have to just come back to these settlers who I met today who very much disagree that even if the wall came down, that there would be a significant uptick in violence. A lot of them opposed the building of the security fence.

I didn’t talk about the wall. I talked about building a Palestinian military.

So again, instead of speaking to the two-state solution, to come back to the one-state solution, they were saying they don’t feel that there would be rabid violence if Palestinians in Nablus for example became citizens of Israel and were able to travel freely into Israel.

That’s a different discussion. You’re not talking about arming them, you’re talking about having them become Israeli citizens.


I think that would be a demographic mistake.

But not a security threat. A demographic threat.

A demographic threat, as long as they don’t carry arms. And in terms of freedom of movement, I think we should allow freedom of movement.

How do you see your role as Diaspora Affairs Minister? How do you intend to implement it?

Well, we have a huge challenge. We have two major Jewish centers in the world, Israel and America. They are in many ways different. The opinions, the values in many cases are similar but also different, but we’re Jews, we’re brothers and sisters. And the big challenge is how do we stay one nation, one people.

My parents grew up in San Francisco; they were secular but made aliya. They were connected to Zionism.

I think that is not enough in this generation. I think we’re going to need to figure out ways how to continue being one people, even though things look very different sometimes from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.

We’re doing a lot of activity. It’s mostly getting American Jews over here and getting Israelis over there to talk, to meet, to see each other.

If we want to remain one people for the next 100 years, we have to do a lot of significant stuff. So we’re working on campuses, Birthright; I’m chairman of Birthright Taglit Masa. And talk talk talk. Be together. Be together.

What do you see as the major differences between the two communities?

Well, for example, in Israel there’s a big secular community, many secular Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews and Haredi. There’s very few Reform and Conservative, whereas in America, it’s Reform and Conservative who are a big group, also Modern Orthodox and Haredi but much larger.

And so that’s a huge disconnect, where the way they view things and the way Israelis view things in many cases differ.

Clearly, among some younger American Jews, there’s significant criticism of Israel on its policies vis-a-vis the Arab world, the Palestinians, etc., stuff we talked about, where I think, again, we need to see the world the way you do and you need to see the world the way we do.

It’s a very different childhood for someone who grows up five minutes away from Hamas and someone who sees wars only in movies. And that shapes the ethos and shapes the way you view the world, and it’s tough. It’s tough to be Israel.

We’re trying to be a good, a moral, a democratic state, but in the midst of an ocean of folks who simply wake up in the morning and want to destroy Israel. Hezbollah has no territorial claim. They’re not saying, give us this tract of land. Hamas has no territorial claim. ISIS has no territorial claim. They all want to annihilate Israel.

It’s hard to understand as someone who does not live in Israel what it’s like to be surrounded by people who wake up and all they want to do is kill you. It’s a weird thing. At the same time, how do you raise a family, how do you give education and lead productive and good lives. In that sense I think Israel is a true miracle.

The miracle isn’t the security miracle. It’s that while we’re in an impossible situation that, I’m not aware of anyone, any country, in Europe, in the western world certainly, but anywhere, that has neighbors who right now, as we speak, one of their main goals is to annihilate you and your children and yet to build a good and optimistic nation.

And somehow we’re doing it, we’re succeeding. We’re growing, our hi tech is amazing in the midst of this situation.

So in that sense I think Israel can be a light upon nations, to show nations how a country can operate in very adverse circumstances and how do you deal with it? What do you do when your family is being shot at with rockets from a residential home where there are terrorists and civilians mixed together? How do you cope with that? How does a moral nation cope with that?

Those sorts of questions that no one else has to face, but the West is starting to face in all kinds of areas, so we’ve been forced to be the trailblazers of or legoyim (a light unto the nations) in this sense, how can you be a great nation in the midst of really tough conditions.

One great last question.

Oh no! Ok. You said you think we need to learn from each other. You want us to learn about security and to have more respect and humility vis-a-vis that. What do you want to learn from us or about us?

Openness. In Israel, we categorize ourselves. In Israel, you’re Haredi, you’re a knitted yarmulka, you’re a black yarmulka, you’re a black knitted yarmulka, you’re secular, you’re this, you’re that.

My wife grew up secular. We got married in what is called in Israel a mixed marriage. I tried to get her closer to Jewish identity here, and she didn’t really love the synagogues here.

Naftali Bennett arrives for an electoral rally in Jerusalem on March 8, 2015 as part of his campaign ahead of the March 17 general elections. Image by Getty Images

I moved to New York to run my company, my hi tech startup, and we were walking on the Upper East side and saw a sign inviting us to a beginner’s minyan, and my wife and I came to this beginner’s minyan and she felt for the first time accepted for who she is. No one measured the length of her sleeves, and it was in America of all places that my wife Gilat got closer to Judaism.

Mind you, I’m the head of the Modern Orthodox in Israel, of National Zionists. What I learned from it is that we need to import more openness, more listening. I think we Israelis are very forceful about our views and opinions. We should strengthen our listening muscles.

So religious pluralism?

Just, listening. Openness on everything.

Including on the issue of minorities [in Israel], including on the issue of Palestinians and your treatment of them?

It would be a productive dialogue if the discussion would happen after spending a month here and understanding reality and then having a real discussion. Without understanding what goes on here —

So someone like me who grew up here, I would have the ability to influence you?

I’m always open to be influenced about anything, except for my identity as a proud Jew.

But I mean are you open to the idea that there are elements of your plan that are actually legitimately driving away Jews with our history that looks at that and has a legitimate problem with that?

We’re talking here about literally the lives of my four children, Yoni, Michal, Avigayil and David —

But you admitted it was a demographic problem, not a security problem.

Not only. Demography is security because if we don’t have a Jewish state, we lose everything. I care about our image. I care about what people think about us. But by far, I care much more about the lives of my children. They are first. So I’d rather be a bit less loved or less popular but alive than dead and beloved.

Thank you so much.

Thank you. This was good.

A note on terminology: As part of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three different zones: Areas A, B, and C. Area C contains the large settlement blocs of Jews, whereas A and B are solely Palestinian. In Area B, Israel retains control over security and planning, while the Palestinian Authority controls most civil issues; Area A is fully administered by the Palestinian Authority, though Israel’s military carries out arrests there. A security barrier separates most of the West Bank from Israel. The entire Jerusalem urban area, most of the larger settlements and a small number of Palestinian villages are on the Israeli side.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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