Brian Burke
Brian Burke

The unlikely ally American Jews need

Naftali Bennett speaking at the 2016 Herzliya Conference (photo credit Wikimedia Commons, author: Adi Cohen Zedek; source: המכון למדיניות ואסטרטגיה במרכז הבינתחומי הרצליה)

For the first time since 2009, Israel has a prime minister not named Benjamin Netanyahu. Nearly three months after the March 23 election, a new government was approved in the Knesset by a razor-thin 60-59 vote on June 13 (one Knesset member abstained). 

At the head of the new government is forty-nine-year-old Naftali Bennett. A right-wing religious Zionist, Bennett is Israel’s first kippah-wearing and religiously observant prime minister. 

Born in Haifa, Bennett spent part of his childhood in North America. He served as an officer in two Israeli commando units. He later moved to New York and made millions from a cybersecurity start-up he founded. 

 Bennett worked as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and served as CEO of the Yesha Council, an organization representing settlements in the West Bank. He eventually became leader of the Jewish Home party and entered the Knesset in 2013, serving in a number of ministerial positions in Netanyahu-led coalitions until the formation of last year’s dysfunctional unity government. 

The story of how the new government came into being is a long one, but there are a few basics. The “change government” Bennett heads spans the political spectrum, and includes three right wing parties, two centrist parties, two left-wing parties, and an Islamist party. 

Bennett’s Yamina party only has six seats in the coalition, but Yair Lapid, leader of the seventeen-seat centrist Yesh Atid, agreed to a rotation agreement with Bennett (Lapid will serve as foreign minister and alternate prime minister for two years before taking over from Bennett). 

Back to the new prime minister. Contrary to claims from the pro-Netanyahu camp, Bennett is on the political right. He opposes a two-state solution to the conflict, instead calling for Israeli sovereignty over Area C of the West Bank and Palestinian autonomy “on steroids” in Areas A and B, though not an independent state. He supports conservative jurisprudence. He has a largely neoliberal economic outlook. 

While clearly pragmatic and open about the fact that many of his ideas will not come to fruition due to the makeup of the coalition, it is nevertheless important to understand Bennett’s ideology. 

Most American Jews do not share Bennett’s politics or religiosity. While Bennett is modern Orthodox (but definitely on the modern end of the modern Orthodox spectrum), Pew’s 2020 survey on American Jews shows 37% are Reform, 17% Conservative, 32% “no particular branch,” and 4% “other branch,” with just 9% being Orthodox (however, this demographic is of course growing). 

It is hard to do a direct partisan comparison since political parties in Israel and the U.S. are very different, but the Pew data shows a strong majority of American Jews are on the political center-left. 71% of American Jews are Democrats or lean Democratic, while just 26% are Republicans or lean Republican. The only exception is among Orthodox American Jews, among whom 75% support the GOP and only 20% the Democratic Party. 

Regarding the conflict, 63% of American Jews believe a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, a position Bennett does not hold (numerically, most of the parties in the coalition support some kind of two-state solution, even if it is not on the horizon anytime soon). 

On the face of it, then, how on earth could the hawkish Naftali Bennett be an ally of a largely left of center and politically moderate non-Orthodox American Jewry? The answer is pretty simple: because he listens, cares, and is pragmatic. 

Bennett’s own life is a helpful window into his views on Jewish peoplehood. His San Francisco-born parents became religious after he was born. There were periods in his life when he did not always wear a kippah. His wife comes from a secular family. 

Bennett’s Jewish peoplehood bona fides have been on display since he entered the Knesset. In December 2015, while serving as minister of education and minister of diaspora affairs, Bennett visited the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan and tweeted “Meeting with the pupils of the wonderful Conservative school ‘Solomon Schechter’ in New York. So much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.” 

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau attacked Bennett for visiting the non-Orthodox school. Bennett’s office responded, “Minister Bennett is proud that he is concerned for all Jews because they are Jewish, and will continue to meet Jews from all denominations.”

In 2013, Bennett spearheaded efforts to expand the small pluralistic plaza at the southern end of the Kotel. He championed the Western Wall compromise, which the Israeli government approved but was later frozen by Netanyahu in June 2017 due to the opposition of the Haredi parties. The new government has expressed its readiness to implement the plan, which includes building a permanent egalitarian section, joint entrance with the main plaza, and a managing council made up of members from the non-Orthodox denominations and government.

Much has been written about the divides between diaspora Jewry, particularly non-Orthodox American Jews, and Israel. The new government will not solve all of these issues or spearhead a dramatic change in the religion and state status quo in Israel.

Nevertheless, there are signs of genuine progress on the horizon. According to Pew, over eighty percent of American Jews believe that caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what it means to be Jewish to them. 

American Jews need more partners in Israel to make the Jewish state more welcoming to all the Jewish people. Between his own familiarity with diaspora Jewry and political partners truly dedicated to Jewish peoplehood, Naftali Bennett might just be the unlikely ally we need.

About the Author
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.
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