I was raised believing respect, kavod, was an unbreakable value – that there was no action worse than disrespecting a community leader, elected representative, or religious authority. But yesterday, along with tens of other young diaspora Jews, I participated in a disrespectful act. And I’m proud of it.
The action at the MASA End of Year event in Jerusalem was a success not just because Bennett’s speech was disrupted and his speaking time greatly shortened but because of the dialogue that ensued afterwards. While some MASA participants criticized us, the demonstrators, for being rude, the fact that we were able to hold numerous, critical discussions and confront Israeli political realities in the wake of the protest exemplified the power of the disruption. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Diaspora Jewish communities have been guilty of refusing to hold an honest conversation about the moral cost of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank for far too long. Interrupting Bennett’s speech was a way of building creative tension and catalyzing frank and serious discussions of Israeli policies that do not occur frequently enough in the diaspora Jewish world.
I interrupted Naftali Bennett’s speech because I could not allow him to pass off his fully fleshed-out plan for apartheid as a seemingly benign blueprint for stability. I could not sit idly while MASA Israel hid his insidious intentions to disenfranchise millions behind the smiling apolitical façade of the end of the year event. I could not watch as the organizers of the event portrayed his colonialist, jingoistic, and racist ideology as a mainstream political position.
MASA Israel, without providing an alternative voice or giving context to Bennett’s role in the continuing occupation, shamelessly promoted Bennett as the event’s central speaker. His time as Director of the Yesha Council was listed on the invitation, which was sent out to thousands of diaspora Jews on gap years and study abroad programs, without any mention that the Yesha Council is the organization of settlements in the West Bank. He was introduced as leader of Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party without any allusion to its political orientation. MASA Israel had planned for Bennett to simply ascend to the stage as any other leader, without any mention of the nature of his political commitments.
Bennett represents a dangerous combination of the entrepreneurial, problem-solving ethos of neoliberalism with a totalitarian disregard for civil rights. Failing to bring this to the attention of the hundreds if not thousands of MASA participants who attended the event would have constituted a moral failure. And as someone deeply concerned with the ethical character of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, I felt obligated to speak out in any way I could – not just to voice my opinion, but to finally get the conversation going. In the same essay he penned in a jail cell in Alabama, Dr. King wrote:
We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
Too much time has passed. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank started in 1967 and still hasn’t ended. Israel has exerted military control over a civilian population for 46 of its 65 years of existence. And unless more protests are made against Israeli politicians like Bennett, who disguise their oppressive political visions beneath a patina of high-tech industry accessibility, Israel will soon reach the final stop on the pariah-state train to apartheid.