Naftali Bennett is an honest man. For that he deserves credit. He is also remarkably arrogant and astoundingly ignorant of Diaspora realities, a fact that he has demonstrated not once but twice in recent weeks.
The head of the Jewish Home party and Israel’s Minister of Education, Bennett also serves as Minister of Diaspora Affairs. During his recent trip to the United States, Bennett addressed a gathering sponsored by the settlement movement and Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. It was held alongside, but with no official connection to, AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
Speaking to the overflow right-wing crowd, Bennett noted, in a semi-joking, totally immodest way, that "I am essentially Minister of the Jews." And he then proceeded to share his thoughts, in utter seriousness, about what he sees as the Jewish people’s greatest problem.
And what is it that keeps Naftali Bennett up at night?
It is not the future of Judea and Samaria, Israel’s military capacities, or its economy. No, it is the future of American Jewry, which is in a state of collapse, losing Jews "at an unprecedented pace." American Jews themselves must take the initiative here, he acknowledges, but Israel too has a critical role to play. In fact, Bennett went as far as saying that just as Israel was once “the project of the Jewish world,” now the Jewish world – and American Jewry in particular – is the project of Israel.
Bennett made similar comments Monday night while addressing a conference on anti-Semitism in Israel.
There are several observations to be offered about this extraordinary take on Diaspora Jewish life.
The first thing to be said is: bravo.
Israel’s current leaders are dismissive of American Jews, and as Chemi Shalev notes, Benjamin Netanyahu has actively discouraged Israelis from caring about Diaspora issues. Netanyahu’s cancellation of the Kotel agreement was proof positive of his contempt for American Jewish concerns.
But what happened with the Kotel was not a surprise. It marked the conclusion of a slow, painful process of disengagement by the Prime Minister and his party from the passions and interests of the American Jewish mainstream.
American rabbis of every persuasion, with very few exceptions, teach that to be a Jew is to identify with the State of Israel, attend to its needs, work for its betterment, and learn from its culture. Israel is the historic heart of Judaism. Period.
Meanwhile, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu prefers American Evangelicals to American Jews, Jewish billionaires to the Jewish masses, and the dictates of state-enforced Israeli Orthodoxy to the ideals of American religious pluralism.
But wait. Now, along comes Naftali Bennett with a different view. He insists that he does care about his American Jewish brothers and sisters and their alienation from Jewish tradition. And he thinks that the State of Israel has a responsibility to do something about it.
All of which is to be applauded. There is sincerity in these words, and it is nice to have an Israeli leader who thinks seriously about what is happening to Jews across the sea.
But the second thing to be said is that Bennett’s unremittingly negative view of American Jewry is profoundly flawed.
To be sure, the problems to which he refers are real enough. Ignorance of tradition is widespread, synagogue affiliation is low, and the assimilation of which he speaks has made its way into every crack and crevice of American Jewish life.
But alongside the pockets of dissolution are even larger pockets of Jewish renaissance. Thriving synagogues of all streams are to be found in every large American city and in many small ones. A lively, choice-driven, Torah-centered Jewish tradition has taken hold in America, rooted in the synagogue but bolstered by a boisterous Jewish press, countless advocacy organizations, and a creative cultural life.
Bennett suggests that in 50 years the American Jewish community will be gone. It won’t be. It will be reconfigured and somewhat smaller, and probably both more traditional in its ritual and more radical in its theology. But reorientation and renewal are far more likely than collapse. And by predicting imminent doom, Bennett is feeding into the Netanyahu tendency to dismiss American Jewry rather than to engage with it.
And despite his good intentions, Bennett is missing the central point that American Jewry does not need "saving" by a concerned Israel.
American Jews do need Israel. Her Hebrew language culture rooted in national sovereignty and autonomy will fortify and inspire the American Diaspora. But make no mistake. Israel needs American Jewry as well, and not only for its political advocacy.
American Jews will teach Israeli Jews about egalitarian, inclusionary Judaism, about new approaches to Jewish spirituality and outreach, and about a Jewish mindset that is non-hierarchical and justice-obsessed. In other words, the key to relations between American Jews and Israel will be reciprocity and mutual dependence, concepts that Bennett seems not to understand at all.
And the final thing to be said is that while Bennett is welcome to criticize American Jews, the absence of self-criticism is striking. Jewish life in Israel is impressive in some ways but disastrous in others, and Bennett and his party share much of the responsibility for the disasters. Yet he had not a word to say about cleaning up the mess that is Israel’s religious system.
This system includes subsidies and privileges for Orthodox institutions in Israel that Bennett and his party have supported. And it includes exemptions from taxes and military service that huge numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews enjoy. If Bennett has done nothing significant about these Israeli problems, he has little credibility when preaching to American Jews about their religious issues.
I conclude with a suggestion for Bennett. Work with the Jewish federations in arranging a tour of 10 American cities. Meet in each locale with Jews of different ages and religious outlooks: Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox; Reform and Conservative; Reconstructionist and renewal; secular and cultural; feminist and gay. Forget the uninvolved and those on the periphery. Meet with the activists, the leaders, the davenners, and the rebels - those who do the work and really care.
What you will find, I believe, will be quite different from the American Jewish devastation that you have described. You will hear, I suspect, honest acknowledgment of the challenges American Jews face and a fiery collection of arguments about the meaning of Judaism in their lives.
You will also hear, I am certain, profound love of Israel along with furious anger at her denial of rights and legitimacy to Reform and Conservative Jews. Are you really our Minister, they will ask, or are you just another gutless politician, disappointing those who care most about the Jewish state?
So I thank you, Mr. Bennett, for your honest concern about the American Diaspora. And I am prepared to accept you as "Minister of the Jews," if that’s the title that you want. But it is a title that you will have to earn. And in return, American Jews expect from you not patronizing pieties but partnership.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie
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