You may or may not like Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home Party. But even if he’s far from your cup of tea politically, even if you think he’s the embodiment of everything bad and dangerous in Israel and scary ideas lurk behind his baby face, there’s one thing about him that can’t help but make you smile.
- Politics and the English language: What we can learn from Naftali Bennett’s international interviews
Watch this video, taken by Israel National News on the night he won his party’s leadership in November as his parents glow and kvell with pride. Bennett may portray himself as the all-Israeli Orthodox poster boy, but with Mom and Dad around, he can’t escape his American Jewish roots.
Lit up on victory night by their son’s success, the Bennetts come off as classic proud American Jewish parents: his mother telling the interviewer what a “good person” her kid is, and how she had worried that he might not get the position he had given ‘years of his life’ to achieve, how she had thought ‘if he doesn’t get it, it will break my heart’ couldn’t relax until “it was official, and finally exults:
“You see that your child is able to get what fits him and what he wants, there’s nothing better in the world as a parent.”
His father speaks admiringly of how his son “planned and worked hard and sees the big picture” and declares “he’ll go far.” (When he said those words, he probably didn’t have a clue as to how fast it would happen.)
American Jews who immigrated to Israel, no matter what their political orientation may be can’t help but be fascinated by Myrna and Jim Bennett and wonder what it feels like to watch a son like Naftali navigate the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics.
We know that by U.S. law, our Israeli-born children, though they may be American citizens, can never be President of the United States. It’s one thing to joke “Oh well, at least they can become Prime Minister.” - it’s another to see a kid like this, the son of a fifth-generation San Franciscan, actually try to make this happen.
According to this 2010 JTA profile, Bennett:
“Grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in Haifa. He wears a small, black kippah, just like his father, Jim Bennett, who traces his family’s Bay Area origins back to the Gold Rush days. Jim Bennett and his wife, Myrna, were longtime members of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the couple took an extended vacation to Israel. They decided to make the vacation permanent. They settled in Haifa and had three sons, one of them Naftali.”
The story of the Bennett family certainly sounds interesting. On the political front, it’s clear they share their son’s right-wing orientation - at least his mother appears to. In the INN video she celebrates Naftali’s victory, saying: “I think it’s a political achievement, but it’s in order to make an ideological change. If it was just for politics, I wouldn’t be so excited. But you need politics to change things or at least guide things to the right direction.” Presumably, she believes the “right” direction is, well, RIGHT.
Though his parents have pretty much stayed in the background of his campaign, Bennett proudly evokes them in a new video aimed at English-speaking Israeli voters in which his party promises to bring “Zionist ideals” and “Jewish values” to Israel: “My parents are from California. They chose Zionism out of love for Israel. The Bayit HaYehudi is your home because it represents the values and ideals that led you to make Aliyah. It’s time to take the message of your Aliyah to the entire country.”
On the religion front, as Bennett’s success increases the force of the microscope focused on him, it’s clear that his family’s relationship to religion is one that has evolved. While the JTA article characterizes Bennett’s family as “Modern Orthodox” while he was growing up in Haifa - the synagogue his parents affiliated with in San Francisco - Congregation Emanu-El is Reform.
A Reform Jewish couple from the most left-wing city in America most likely underwent some major changes to produce a son like Naftali Bennett.
The candidate’s current family also appears to defy labeling. After staying in the background, his wife Gilat was interviewed on Israeli television twice in the past week. Bennett told the New York Timesthat he “lives in the affluent town of Raanana, north of Tel Aviv — and not in a West Bank settlement — because, he said, his wife is secular.”
But Gilat Bennett showed up for both television interviews modestly clad in long sleeves and a knee-length skirt, and thick tights and boots, and in one of them, described herself as living an Orthodox life. In one of them, she discussed religion - very carefully. “I came from a secular family when I met Naftali I saw him with a kippa, it was built-in, it was just a part of him. I don’t know how to define myself. I feel that there is something in me from all of the places I have been, all of the experiences I have had in life. I ...” She paused. “You can say that I’m Orthodox.”
The second ‘up close and personal’ interview was filmed in her kitchen, where in one case she won over the interviewer with a mouth-watering dessert - she is a professional pastry chef.
A son who serves in an elite IDF unit, then makes a $154 million fortune in high tech, marries a girl who can bake, and is now on such a meteoric political rocket ride that even Bibi Netanyahu - who, ironically was once was viewed as being ‘too American’for Israeli voters - feels threatened by him. What else could a Jewish mother - or father - ask for?