The big annual event of the Jewish Federations of North America, being held this week in Tel Aviv, is to focus on the crisis threatening Israel-Diaspora relations. But guess who won’t be attending?
Scheduling conflicts, it turns out, will prevent the Israeli government minister with the most relevant portfolio from participating. And not only won’t Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett be there, but neither is anyone representing him or his office scheduled to address the annual General Assembly.
A spokeswoman for the JFNA said that Bennett was invited but that “his schedule didn’t allow him to participate.” The General Assembly takes place over the course of three full days – from Monday through Wednesday – and at last count, was expected to draw close to 2,500 participants. Only once every five years, though, does the event take place in Israel, and this is the first time in history that Tel Aviv will be the venue.
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When asked why Bennett – who also heads the settler-aligned, Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party – would be absenting himself from the event, a spokesman for the minister said that he had planned on addressing the GA but that “sadly, there was a scheduling conflict.”
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Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin are scheduled to speak at the main plenary session. As head of the most right-wing party in the government, Bennett is seen as one of the biggest threats to Netanyahu from within the nationalist camp.
Asked whether it would be correct to conclude that Bennett’s no-show at the biggest Jewish world event of the year meant that he had little desire to be there, the minister’s spokesman said: “Not at all. That was the available time for the JFNA and there were pre-arranged commitments in that time that we couldn’t move.”
Bennett has held the diaspora affairs portfolio for the past five years. Considering his religious and political orientation, he is not particularly popular among large swaths of American Jews, who tend to embrace far more progressive views.
Several years ago, his ministry set up a company called Mosaic United with the declared mission of strengthening the religious identity and connection to Israel of young Jews abroad. Mosaic has partnered with three Jewish organizations in a $66 million initiative on college campuses across America. The initiative drew widespread criticism after it emerged that two of the three partners – Chabad and Olami – focus on Orthodox outreach work.
Bennett also serves as Israel’s minister of education, and in that position as well, he has been criticized for using the power of his office to promote Orthodox Judaism over other streams.