The Bennett Phenomenon

      The new star of the Israeli election season (mercifully short, at approximately three months) is Naftali Bennett, leader of the “Bayit Hayehudi,” the Jewish Home. That party, a merger of the old National Religious Party and a break-away, the Ichud Haleumi, National Union Party, itself is an accomplishment that ranks as a minor miracle: for the first time in memory, religious right-wing Israelis have a united home and need not split their votes among splinter parties, and for the first time ever, such a party has natural appeal even to Israelis who are not necessarily right-wing or religious. The ever-fickle polls still show that Habayit Hayehudi is poised to become Israel’s third-largest political party after these elections, and possibly even the second largest party. How did this happen?

     Bennett himself is that rare politician who combines background and attributes that make him appealing to large sectors of the population. Born in California, he spent his early years here in Teaneck, with his family proud members of our own Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. (On a visit here just two months ago, he stopped by his old house and spoke in shul as well). His parents made aliya while he was still a child, he studied in the Israeli educational system, and served 22 years in the IDF including a long stint as an officer in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. He is religious, but married a woman from a secular family. He is independently wealthy, having co-founded and then sold a high-tech company specializing in anti-fraud software. He served as chief-of-staff to Binyamin Netanyahu (before the latter returned to high office) and head of the YESHA Council. He is fiercely pro-settlement, but lives in tony Raanana.

Think of the demographics targeted: New immigrants, veteran Israeli fighters, religious Jews, secular Jews, settlers and entrepreneurs, i.e., almost everyone who votes. And his party includes representatives of those groups, as well as municipal leaders from struggling communities who can be the voice of Israelis who have not yet been lifted up by the waves of prosperity in Israel. For the first time, a so-called “religious-Zionist” party has a Knesset candidate – Ayelet Shaked – who describes herself as “secular,” based on the sensible and compelling premise that the “Jewish Home” includes as well non-observant Jews and Israelis who care deeply about Jewish life and continuity. It is composed of Ashkenazim and Sefaradim. It is a far cry from the NRP of old, which saw itself essentially as primarily responsible for religious life and therefore served (with some exceptions) as religious functionaries, “kashrut supervisors in the Socialist government.” Bennett aspires to more – leadership, and national leadership at that – and why not? He has more life experience in a variety of fields at age 40 than did a certain community organizer who himself rode the perfect political storm to victory in the United States.

The credibility of Bennett’s challenge to the political establishment and the possibility that this election cycle could be the beginning of a new revolution in Israeli politics has, of course, frightened that very establishment which has attempted to discredit Bennett in a number of typically cynical ways. Most recently, Bennett was accused of fomenting a mutiny in the IDF by calling on soldiers to refuse orders to expel Jews from settlements. That accusation was blatently false.

Said charges grew out of an interview that Bennett gave in the Israeli TV hot box known as Mish’al Ham (Hot Mish’al) presided over by veteran Israeli reporter Nissim Mish’al. Mish’al provokes, antagonizes and tries to bully his interviewees, unabashedly distorts their words, cuts them off mid-sentence –and achieves high ratings in the process. Israelis love it. I watch it, and it must be like watching a mud wrestling match in which the viewers themselves are splattered with mud, and emerge exhausted and sweaty.

For example, after the contretemps over refusal of orders, Mish’al asked Bennett (translation mine): “Your primary concern is the settlements. But 800,000 Israeli children live below the poverty line. Why doesn’t that interest you?” And that was followed by this journalistic doozy: “Why do you hate Arabs?” (Hmmm… and when did you stop beating your wife?) Mish’al’s style evokes that of the relentless attack dog Mike Wallace, but Mish’al is an attack dog with rabies. When one of Mish’al’s panelists – more like a cheering squad of fellow journalists – began to explain that Bennett has to encourage refusal and must hate Arabs “because he leads a party of extremists” – and Bennett started to protest – he was interrupted by Misha’l who explained “that was a statement, not a question; there is no need for you to respond.” To be fair to Mish’al, he torments and abuses all his guests, not just the right-wingers.

That background is useful in understanding what preceded it: Mish’al’s question: “what would you do as a soldier if you were told to evacuate Jews from their homes.” Bennett answered that he would be incapable of carrying out such an assignment in good conscience, and would ask his commander to be excused from it.

Well, that unleashed a torrent of criticism that Bennett was inciting refusal, which would cause anarchy, provoke a civil war and lead to the destruction of the Jewish state and an end to the Zionist dream – all, probably, within a few minutes of each other. When Bennett insisted he was not calling for refusal but conscientious objection – and reiterated that several times – the distinction was lost on his interviewer, the panel, and the gaggle of squealing politicians across the landscape who immediately heaped abuse upon him.

Shame on them, and not only because anarchy, civil war and self-destruction will result from further expulsions of Jews and not because of the conscientious objection of soldiers who joined the IDF to defend Jews rather than persecute them, but rather because the nuance of Bennett’s reasonable response was either intentionally or unintentionally missed in the intense atmosphere of the program and the campaign.

On a practical level, soldiers have frequently opted out of participating in these violent acts against fellow Jews; that is why one rarely sees a kipa-wearing soldier among the expelling forces either in Gush Katif or some outposts in Judea and Samaria. Intelligent commanders have respected that and not placed their soldiers in the awkward positions of having to expel their parents and friends from their homes.

And there is a profound difference between conscientious objection and insubordination. A refusal of orders challenges the authority of the entity that gave the order, and delegitimizes it; a conscientious objection accepts the legitimacy of the order, but declares that that recipient of the order, on a personal level, is unable to carry it out and wishes to be excused. That distinction should be patently clear, even in the heart of an obsessive election season, but for the barefaced hypocrisy that abounds.

How reasonable is conscientious objection, aside from the fact that every military among the world’s functioning democracies recognizes it?  No less an “authority” than Ariel Sharon said on July 13, 1995 that a soldier who is called upon the act against his conscience (and he meant the expulsion of Jews from their homes) “should turn to his commander personally, say that he cannot carry out such an order, and pay the price for it.” That Sharon later changed his opinion, among other changes in his life, should be attributed to nothing less than crass politics. A 2004 proclamation calling the expulsion of Jews “ethnic cleansing” and a “crime against humanity,” and imploring the government not to issue such orders and for the soldiers to “listen to the voice of their consciences – national and human – and not participate in activities that will stain them,” was signed by hundreds of prominent Israelis from across the political and religious spectrum – including Benzion Netanyahu (the PM’s late father), Shmuel ben Arzi (the PM’s late father-in-law) and Ido Netanyahu, the PM’s brother. Yet, PM Netanyahu chose here to excoriate Bennett.

Was Bennett’s statement so extreme? On the contrary, it was reasoned, principled, moral and just – none of which have anything in the slightest to do with politics, and hence the ferocious and contrived overreaction. Bennett’s response – read and heard unfiltered, and without the caustic, duplicitous commentary of the chattering classes and their political patrons – struck the electorate as so balanced and decent that, almost immediately, Habayit Hayehudi gained several seats in the polls, and so the issue was dropped, sure to re-surface in distorted form and at a time and place when Bennett cannot respond adequately.

Until then, one can only hope that Bennett’s electoral appeal continues to broaden. He is proudly pro-settlement and firmly against a Palestinian state (for cogent reasons that Likud politicians long advocated but quickly abandon when in power). He advocates cooperation on economic and quality-of-life issues with the Arab leadership that can only improve the conditions under which their residents live, which itself might reduce tensions. He favors strong military responses to attacks on Jews, and, of course, he promotes deepening the Jewish character of the state in a way that most Jews, even those not defined as observant, appreciate and would embrace.

Democracy is a most unwieldy form of government, and the Israeli electorate has a history of bewildering and unpredictable choices. Likud has disappointed in the past, and Netanyahu’s future statecraft is a mystery, both to his party, to his voters, and maybe even to himself. His party will win a plurality of the votes and he will again serve as Prime Minister (although the merger with Likud Beiteinu is shaping up as a colossal blunder that will cost them seats).

The natural home for fearful Likud voters, and for so-called secular Israelis who cherish tradition and want to safeguard the Jewishness of the State of Israel, is the Jewish Home, which, together with its leaders and its platform, has a beautiful ring to its name.

7 responses to “The Bennett Phenomenon

  1. David in Israel

    Yasher koach. The Likud’s disgraceful campaign against Bennet is quite fascinating. They really see this guy as a formidable threat. I hope I’m wrong, but I get the impression that Netanyahu is trying to position the Likud in the center so it can once again make a unity government with Labor. If this happens, Bennet would actually be the opposition leader. That itsef would be interesting to see. He’d probably be the most overqualified opposition leader in Israeli history (other than Begin, perhaps).

  2. “but lives in tony Raanana” should be corrected to: “but lives in tiny Raanana.”

  3. Al is right. Rashi is wrong again.

  4. Both are correct–R is tony and tiny. As for the post, news interviewers are supposed to be like attack dogs (l’havdel) when interviewing candidates, because candidates talk in circles, say different things to different audiences, changes their messages more often than change their socks. Bennett is a true Jewish hero and seems like an honest young man–not necessarily common traits these days among our leading politicians. But don’t criticize Mish’al for doing a good job of pressing Bennett on issues. I know what it’s like having worked for 3 U. S. governors; interviews are a cleansing process creating transparency in a world of glittering generalities.
    Bennett issued an apology for what he said about obeying orders, and a clarification; there is no room for c.o’s once one is a soldier. You don’t pick and choose the orders to obey. My fault with Bennett only lies in the fact the neither he nor other candidates have any vision for Israel, what kind of country they want to see it become in 5 years or 10? He is simply siphoning right wing votes from Likud-B., but I don’t see Bennett energizing the populace with new missions and concepts like Pres. Regan, Kennedy and Obama did in their campaigns when America was stagnating.
    Dr. Harold Goldmeier
    Ramat Bet Shemesh
    a business management consultant and writer on social and public policy matters

  5. Does Bibi turn to the right, or to the left? That is the question.

  6. Saying he served 22 years in the IDF is, it seems to me, a bit misleading. If he’s 40 now then those 22 years can’t all have been full-time army service or he wouldn’t have had time to have made his millions.

    • Israelis do military reserve duty, some well into their 40s. Relatively few serve in the military full-time. The citation is accurate.