Naftali Bennett was born in Haifa in March 1972, the youngest child of Jim and Myrna Bennett. He has two older brothers, Asher, 44, a businessman who lives in England, and Dan, 42, an accountant with Zim, the shipping line.
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Myrna’s parents immigrated to San Francisco from Poland some two decades before World War II; other family members who remained in Poland perished in the Holocaust. Naftali’s maternal grandparents moved to Israel from the United States as senior citizens, and lived out their lives next to their daughter and her family, who had meanwhile immigrated to Israel, on Vitkin Street in Haifa. Jim Bennett’s roots lie in Poland, Germany and
Holland; his forbears, too, immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century.
Active Reform Jews and Zionists, Jim and Myrna, who were married in San Francisco, immigrated the month after the Six-Day War. After a few months of working at Kibbutz Dafna and ulpan, the affluent couple settled in the heart of Haifa’s leafy Ahuza neighborhood. About a year ago, they sold that first home and moved to a spacious villa on the city’s Freud Street, which today is adorned with a Habayit Hayehudi election poster.
When Naftali was 2, Jim was sent on a mission to Montreal by the PR department of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, where he was employed in PR and as a fundraiser. It was then, while in Canada, that the family started to become religiously observant. “We enrolled the children in Jewish schools,” Jim Bennett tells Haaretz. “We needed a kosher kitchen, because other children visited us at home. We started with simple things, like lighting candles on Sabbath eve. One thing led to another, until we also started to attend synagogue and so on.”
At the same time, Myrna registered for courses in Judaism at a Montreal university. Two years later, shortly after returning to Israel, the Bennetts were again sent abroad as emissaries to New York, this time by the immigration department of the Jewish Agency. “We lived amid a religious community there, and that strengthened us much more,” Jim says.
Naftali’s two brothers and their families are also Orthodox and right-wing politically. (Bennett married a secular woman, who now observes the Sabbath and keeps a kosher home).
Upon the family’s return to Israel, Jim Bennett became a successful real-estate broker in Haifa; he closed the business six years ago. Over time he also bought lots that were zoned for construction and became a real-estate entrepreneur. Myrna was deputy director general of the northern district of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.
The three boys attended a coed state-religious school in Haifa, switching to a yeshiva for secondary school in the 7th grade.
“Naftali was an easy child. He didn’t cry, and he made others fall in love with him,” his mother says. “So much so, that a girlfriend of mine gave her son the middle name of Naftali.”
“He was ambitious - finishing second was out of the question,” says Ariel Friedman, a childhood friend. “He didn’t talk about becoming a politician. His dream was to be an army man. His parents didn’t push him. Still, he grew up in a very political home, very Zionist, right-wing. His parents were supporters of Tehiya [a now-defunct ultranationalist party]. You can see that today in the party line [of Habayit Hayehudi]. He was always popular as a boy, among both boys and girls. He was good-looking and self-confident. He always had female friends and today he is absolutely not extreme, but normal in his religious observance.”
“One day the school cleaning staff went on strike,” recalls Miriam, Bennett’s teacher in grades 5 and 6. She requested that her surname not be published. “I brought gloves and asked if anyone would volunteer to clean the washrooms. He was the first. He was a nice boy, the kind everyone wants to be friends with, smiling and mischievous but knowing how to behave in the right places. He didn’t excel in school. You could never say he was a star. Now he is a star.”
As an adolescent, Bennett dreamed of being a violinist but despaired and switched to guitar. He played mostly “Land of Israel” songs and those of iconic singer Arik Einstein. He also wrote songs, among them one about parting from the national-religious Bnei Akiva youth movement, in which framework he was a group leader and member of an urban commune, and another that became the anthem of the army’s elite Maglan unit, in which he was an officer.
The Bennetts have a magnificent collection of books; Myrna still works in a used-book store once a week. Naftali, like his parents, was a bookworm. He adored Asterix comics and books by American children’s writer Beverly Cleary, but above all he loved two books to which he turned on a daily basis. One was a biography of Meir Har-Zion, a legendary Israeli commando of the 1950s. The other was a collection of the letters of Yonatan Netanyahu - the elder brother of the prime minister, who was killed while leading the rescue mission at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, and whom Bennett dreamed of following into the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal unit. Bennett’s firstborn son is named after him.
“He attended all the activities of Bnei Akiva with Yoni Netanyahu’s book and read to the members of his group from it,” recalls Ganit Buganim, a classmate of Bennett’s and Bnei Akiva member. She describes how she recently met up with the rest of the gang at a condolence call. “We all talked about how he always saw ahead of everyone. His brain was 5,000 kilometers ahead of ours ... In sports, too, he always finished the races ahead of everyone.”
Buganim adds, “He was a revered group leader in Bnei Akiva. If he said, ‘Now we will do this,’ everyone did it. He really is a type of person whom people will follow. At the time we didn’t foresee his political leadership, but we knew he had it in him. He’s done something amazing: He’s managed to unite the entire religious spectrum, from the religious-lite to the hardalniks [fusion of ultra-Orthodox and national-religious]. That’s something no one had been able to accomplish.”
Will you vote for him?
“Obviously. People in my family who voted Likud now intend to vote for him.”
‘I was shocked’
“We arrived in Israel as new immigrants and took nothing for granted,” Myrna Bennett tells Haaretz. “Ours was a patriotic home of people who could have lived elsewhere but chose to live here. In the U.S. we were against the Vietnam War, we went to Berkeley, we were automatically like left-wingers. When we came to Israel I felt I loved the place I was living in.
“I remember the point at which I started to think a little more rightward than leftward,” she continues. It was on Independence Day in 1987. “Twenty years after the Six-Day War - which was the most important event in our lives, because it changed them - there was a TV panel with people we didn’t know. They started to talk about the Six-Day War as a tragedy and said it was awful that we had won.
“I was shocked. Suddenly I discover there are people in this country, important people, who view the event that was the most important in my life, and for the whole Jewish people, as something negative. After that I started looking at things a little differently.”
Says her husband: “We had always identified with the Land of Israel, with the State of Israel and didn’t think we were on the right, only that we loved the land and the people. Afterward, we moved more to the right.”
According to Aviad Visoli, a veteran Likud activist in Haifa, Jim and Myrna Bennett took part in all the demonstrations during the period of the Oslo Accords and in those against the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. Haifa residents relate that properties belonging to the family always had posters declaring, “We will not let go of the Golan Heights.”
According to Buganim, “Naftali’s parents were active in the demonstrations during the Rabin period. They stood at street intersections. Naftali identified with that, but we didn’t talk about it. He was definitely always a leader, but I don’t know if he spoke in right-wing terms. The family is right-wing and our group’s orientation was right. We all followed the same line.”