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Naftali Bennett Is First a Rightist, Then a Jew

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Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset meeting, October 15, 2018.
Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset meeting, October 15, 2018. Credit: Emil Salman

It was very important to Diaspora Affairs and Education Minister Naftali Bennett to question the credibility of Anti-Defamation League figures indicating a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, the greatest single-year increase since the organization began tracking such data, in 1979. Speaking at a public discussion in New York held in the wake of the October 27 massacre in Pittsburgh, Bennett said he was “not sure there’s a surge in anti-Semitism in the United States.”

The reason for Bennett’s denial of the rise in right-wing anti-Semitism in the United States is simple: Bennett is first a rightist and only after that a Jew.

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There is no reason to think anyone in the Israeli might rejoiced over the terror attack or the tragic deaths of 11 innocent Jews. But it appears that underneath the expressions of shock and condemnation, an understanding is emerging of the complexity behind the hatred of Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, irrespective of their affiliation with Conservative Judaism. It seems that he right recognized that it was not only an anti-Semitic hate crime, or a spontaneous pogrom, but also an act of terrorism directed at Jews as leftist, globalist, human rights activists who love Syrian refugees.

As the social-media posts of the murderer, Robert Bowers, make clear, he associates Jews with the global Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS. One can only imagine the online comments from Israeli right-wingers if, heaven forbid, a bomb were to explode in the offices of the Israeli anti-occupation organization B’Tselem.

That could also be why this time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues did not issue their Pavlovian call for Jews to immigrate to Israel, as they did with French Jews after the terror attacks in Paris. After all, why would Israel’s right-wing government want those leftists from the United States in Israel?

On the surface, one might suspect that this is a case of political maturation. Finally, Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues realized that such calls only play into the hands of anti-Semites who seek to cleanse their country of Jews. Finally, they understood completely that such calls could serve to reanimate the old anti-Semitic charge of dual loyalty, thereby further endangering Diaspora Jews.

But it’s hard to believe that’s the reason. Netanyahu’s government is cozying up to illiberal regimes and flirting with the far right, which is on the rise throughout the world. Under Netanyahu, Israel is strengthening its ties with the Visegrad Group — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Netanyahu cooperated with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, issuing a controversial joint statement validating the Polish Holocaust narrative, which differs with that of many historians, including experts at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial.

But the rise of the far right in Europe and the United States (and now in Latin America as well) does not, to put it mildly, benefit the Jews in these countries. In creating warmer relations with right-wing regimes, Israel gives them a seal of approval, reinforces this global trend and participates in it. As a result, Israel is putting the lives of Diaspora Jews in jeopardy.

Netanyahu took Israel on a dangerous ride. He is betting on the strong side of the world, in the belief that the growing global ultranationalism he is encouraging won’t backfire on the Jews, in the Diaspora or in their homeland. Whether it pays off or not, Israel’s mere willingness to join this coalition of ultranationalist, populist regimes — only because the coalition’s declared target isn’t the Jews this time — retroactively justifies this kind of determination by states and people throughout history.

It’s not only in Pittsburgh that the Jews have been identified as the enemies of nationalism. Anti-Semitic hatred has always been complex. The right wing in Israel is starting down the path that many anti-Semites have tread before it. It will be very interesting to see what it ultimately discovers.

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