Future of U.S. Jews 'Keeps Me Up at Night,' Israeli Minister Tells Jewish Gathering

Naftali Bennett tells AJC conference that his main goal as diaspora affairs minister is 'saving the Jews' and warns of 'losing millions of Jews to assimilation'

Naftali Bennett speaks at Tel Aviv University, February 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett told a large Jewish gathering in Jerusalem on Tuesday that he feared for the future of the American-Jewish community because it was losing its connection to both Israel and Judaism.

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Addressing the annual conference of the American Jewish Committee, he said: “If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s not Iran but the future of the Jews in America, and we have to fix this together.”

Bennett, who heads the right-wing, mostly Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party, said he viewed his main goal as minister of diaspora affairs as “saving the Jews.” (Bennett also serves as education minister.)

“If we don’t act urgently, we’re going to be losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he told more than 2,400 AJC delegates from six continents around the globe who were attending the conference. It was the first time in its 112-year history that the AJC – one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world – held its large annual event outside the United States.

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He told the crowd that his parents, Jim and Myrna Bennett, were completely secular Jews, living in San Francisco, before they moved to Israel 50 years ago. “I’m thinking of all the Jims and Myrnas – and there are millions of them in America – and we have to be there for them,” he said. “This is an urgent mission.” Bennett’s parents became Orthodox after they moved to Israel.

He was asked to comment on an AJC poll published earlier this week, which illustrated the great divide between Israeli and American Jews on issues ranging from the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem to prayer at the Western Wall.

“What the poll reflects is that Israelis are going more rightward and favoring more traditional Judaism, as opposed to secularism, whereas American Jewry are more to the left and more liberal,” he said. “I’m not going to whitewash that, but it shouldn’t be the reason for us to fall apart. So we don’t agree on everything, but we are all Jews, for heaven’s sake. We’re all one family.”

He said that differences between Israeli and American Jews on political and religious issues concerned him less than “the three or four million American Jews who have no idea what we’re talking about and don’t care about Israel because they’re drifting away.”

Bennett said he was committed to using Israeli taxpayer money to support Jewish communities abroad because “for Israel’s future and its strategic standing across the world, we need a strong Jewish Diaspora.”

He said he was “all for” Christian evangelical support, “but it’s not instead of maintaining the bonds between us.”