Israel’s Education Minister Is Pushing American Jews Away From Israel

Earlier this week in Jerusalem, Naftali Bennett, who serves as both Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Minster of Education, told delegates to an American Jewish Committee conference that the future of the US Jewish community “keeps me up at night.” Warning that “If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” Bennett said that his goal as Minister for Diaspora Affairs was “saving the Jews.”

I understand Bennett’s insomnia well.

Except the thing that keeps me up at night is not the fate of the American Jewish community he says he’s so worried about. I know our community is strong and resilient. Rather, it is Bennett — and the frightening vision for Israel that he and his allies in Israel’s ruling coalition are pursuing — that disturbs my sleep. I worry about what it means for Israel, and about what it is going to do to the relationship that American Jews have with Israel.

Bennett’s vision — of an increasingly undemocratic, illiberal and xenophobic country — is pushing American Jews away from Israel. And this is a much more immediate threat than the assimilation that people like him have been warning about for the past hundred years or so. Bennett is the founder of the pro-settler “Jewish Home” Party. The last thing we need is for him to try and “save the Jews” of America. Instead, the Jews of America should worry about what he’s doing to Israel.

Over the past three years, Israel’s ruling coalition — led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Bennett, and his fellow Jewish Home leader Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — have put forward a legislative agenda that would no doubt shock many American Jews, even ardent supporters of Israel. A number of these bad bills have passed into law; even worse ones are in the pipeline. One such bill, a special priority of Justice Minister Shaked’s, would circumscribe the independence of the High Court of Justice by crippling its power of judicial review. Another, the so-called “nation-state bill,” which last month passed the first of three Knesset hearings, would establish mechanisms to deny equal rights to non-Jewish citizens of Israel and other minorities in land and housing policies, would allow discrimination against women and LGBTQ Israelis based on archaic religious concepts, and would undo Israeli court precedents that barred discrimination along religious, ethnic, gender and socio-economic lines. It would also strip Arabic of its current status as an official state language. And on Sunday, the ruling coalition is considering a law that would ban human rights activists from filming or distributing on social media recordings of Israeli soldiers in confrontations with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. They claim that such videos are bad for the soldiers’ “morale,” and anyone violating the proposed law could get up to ten years in prison.

But the threat to Israel’s democratic character go well beyond these bad bills and laws. Remember: Bennett also serves as Israel’s Education Minister. During his tenure, the Ministry introduced a new civics textbook widely criticized for promoting a right-wing, religious, exclusively Jewish notion of Israeli identity (more than 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab, though none participated in writing the textbook). It also banned a novel about an Arab-Jewish romance from the curriculum of Israeli high schools for “threatening Jewish identity.” And, of course, Bennett has declared his opposition to the two-state solution, still the official policy of the government of Israel. This is the Education Minister who is shaping the minds of Israel’s students. Is it any wonder that recent polls show a precipitous drop in support for coexistence and equality between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens?

This is not what democracy looks like. And when the fundaments of democracy – its guarantees of equality for all citizens, its protections of freedom of expression, its respect for the rights of the individual in the face of the power of the state – are threatened, so are we all.

This is something American Jews understand well. It’s fundamental to our experience. But Naftali Bennett doesn’t seem to understand us. The more American Jews understand who Naftali Bennett really is, the less they will want to have anything to do with him, or the Israel he is crafting in his image. This portends an ever-growing rift between American and Israeli Jews. When we overwhelmingly reject the politics of xenophobic populism and ethnic supremacy here at home, why on earth we would support it in Israel?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Israel’s Education Minister Is Pushing American Jews Away From Israel

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