Open Zion

05.20.13

Why Don't Young Diaspora Jews Like Naftali Bennett?

Naftali Bennett was slated to be the keynote speaker at the final event of the year organized by MASA, an extra-governmental organization that seeks to "inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders and strengthen their connection to the Jewish people and to Israel." But soon after Bennett took the podium, albeit a bit late, a group of some thirty young Diaspora Jews shouted him down. The chants went like this: "Diaspora Jews say, No to occupation; Diaspora Jews say, No to annexation; Diaspora Jews say, dai la'kibush"—end the occupation, in Hebrew. It would appear that if Bennett is popular with young Israelis, he may be just the opposite with young Diaspora Jews. They really don't seem to like him.

The group that protested was made up of mainly 19-year-old gap-year students, organized through a new, diverse leftist collective that calls itself All That's Left—with which I have been involved—and members of HaShomer HaTza'ir's World Movement. According to the All That's Left press release disseminated following the hullabaloo, after the students had been escorted out, they sat down outside and started talking. They want to explain to other MASA students why, exactly, Naftali Bennett was so bad. 

That they would want to do this makes a great deal of sense: many Diaspora Jews—particularly American Jews—find Bennett a pill almost too hard to swallow. For one thing, American Jews like Obama's position on Israel—and that means two states. According to recent polling, some 78 percent of Jewish-American voters who saw ads that "criticize President Obama for his positions or actions towards Israel" were either unaffected by the ads or "more likely to support" Obama afterwards. And Bennett, well, he promised to "do everything in [his] power to prevent a Palestinian state."

But it's not just Bennett's "Stability Plan" to make a Palestinian state virtually impossible by annexing some 60 percent of the West Bank that gets under the skin of these young American Jews. I asked Josh Leifer, a friend of mine taking a gap-year at the secular, South Tel Aviv Yeshiva called Bina, what exactly he didn't like about Bennett. Leifer, who helped organize the protest, had a lot to say: Bennet is so insidious because he "manages to put sinister policies in seemingly apolitical language." It's like the clip included in the All That's Left press release, he told me: "He's proposing disenfranchising millions of people and makes it sound like he's fixing a glitch in a computer program."

This ability—Bennett's knack for shifting the right's talking points away from the Greater Land of Israel and messianic language, and towards a more sterile, secular one about security—is actually what made him so popular with young Israelis. It's what won him 12 seats in the Knesset and his Ministerial post. That, and his unwavering rightness. His ability to say, unflinchingly, that he wants to (as I've reported before) “tear Gaza in two," or sanction Iran into paralysis, and—of course—settle Jews from the river to the sea. That bold earnestness is what makes Israelis love him and at the same time terrifies American Jews.

Why does it terrify them? Because most American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. For them, the aforementioned Bennettian rhetoric is anathema. When I asked Molly Kulwin, another gap-year student who participated in the demonstration, what she didn't like about Bennett, she first said that she didn't approve of him at MASA, a joint project of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, "for the obvious reason of his politics." The problem, really, was that "most Americans on MASA programs"—she put the number at 80 percent or more—"probably have no idea of the things [Bennett] stands for. And if they knew," she added, "I don't think they'd want him being the keynote speaker." She's probably right.

According to its Facebook page, All That's Left is dedicated to "to ending the occupation" and "focused on building the diaspora angle of resistance." Of course it's important to let people we disagree with speak, but today, disrupting, heckling and generally attempting to prevent Naftali Bennett from speaking to hundreds, of not thousands, of young Diaspora Jews was a statement about where these folks stand. They stand against Naftali Bennett.

What was particularly important about the action taken today, and perhaps reflects the much broader All That's Left collective in both age and politics, is the fact that after the signs and the chants and the forcible removal was all over, they sat down and held discussion circles. They reminded the American Jewish community that they're not like Bennett, and that he need not represent them.