David Remnick’s recent New Yorker article reporting on the seemingly surprising rise of Naftali Bennett and his nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi, into mainstream Israeli politics surely made many liberal American Jews want to run and hide under their covers. However, to those of us currently in Israel, the rise of Naftali Bennett has been anything but surprising, even if equally depressing. For the past four months I have been participating in one of those Israeli Mechina (pre-army preparation) programs, which Remnick briefly mentioned, as one of four college-bound Americans in a group of 50. Since I arrived, I have been repeatedly shocked to see how far to the right the political discourse in Israel has gone.
While many American liberal Jews are wondering worriedly about the myopia of Naftali Bennett and his party, I have witnessed firsthand how my Israeli peers have celebrated that myopia and its standard bearer. Last week, when a guest speaker came to give an overview of the numerous political parties in Israel, the only one that received applause when mentioned was Bennett’s warmly received Habayit Hayehudi.
That makes a lot of sense when understood through the findings of recent polls, which show that contributing to Bennett’s meteoric rise is the fact that he is the most popular candidate in the 18- to 30-year-old demographic. To put it simply, Bennett, a right-wing nationalist, is the 2008 Barack Obama of Israel’s upcoming election. Bennett, a hi-tech entrepreneur, even spurred the amusing rise of Naftali Bennett Internet memes on social media websites, replacing Bennett’s name in the popular Chuck Norris jokes that give the action movie star incredible, and hilarious, powers. Friends post these pictures almost daily.
Many American liberals are worrying what Bennett’s long-term plan is and how he can possibly imagine that it is sustainable. What I have noticed amongst my peers is that the reason such an unreasonable plan like his has become increasingly accepted by Israeli society is because Israeli society has become increasingly unreasonable as well as pessimistic about the possibility of peace.
It cannot be stated enough that the newest generation of voters is the generation of the Second Intifada. Friends my age have never witnessed firsthand the prospect of peace. They have repeatedly witnessed the horror of suicide bombings and the fall of Gaza into the hands of rocket-firing Hamas. This generation, and Israeli society as a whole, has lost hope in peace and has begun searching for other solutions, even ones as unviable as Bennett’s.
An October 2012, a Haaretz study found that 40 percent of Israelis support annexation of the West Bank and that a majority of Israelis believe that if the West Bank were to be annexed, Palestinians should not be given the right to vote. At a more basic level, I have repeatedly witnessed the effects of the normalization of occupation in Israeli society. Some of my peers do not know that there is an occupation at all, and many who do don't understand its illegality. For example, a 2011 poll done by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that 64 percent of Israelis were not aware that the Jordan Valley, part of the West Bank, is occupied territory. Additionally, more than 80 percent thought that the Jordan Valley’s population is primarily or only Israeli Jewish even though Jews are outnumbered there six to one by Palestinians.
And while many people, myself included, worry daily about the possibility of a pariah apartheid state in Israel, many Israelis are either in denial or ignorant of that potential. Last week, Aryeh Eldad, one of the leaders of Otzmah L’Yisrael (Strength to Israel), a nationalist party even farther to the right than Bennett’s—yes, that exists and it will most likely break the threshold and sit in the next Knesset—responded to the question of Israel’s future if it does lose its international credibility and the support of the United States. Eldad quickly analogized that possibility to the situation Israel faced before the Six Day War in 1967, when Lyndon B. Johnson warned the Israeli Prime Minister that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.”
As Eldad pointed out, Israel survived that existential threat alone. He went on to predict that Israel would be able to survive alone as the Jewish people have survived persecution for the past 3,000 years. The analogy, of course, is flawed. But Israelis may need to cling to another false analogy if they intend for their state to survive: Bennett better really possess Chuck Norris's supernatural powers.