We live in confusing times. The world has never been more complex or more complicated. Information overload is all around us, overwhelming our senses and making it hard to find a center of gravity. Separating real news from fake news is an all-encompassing task, making it hard for people to figure out what it is that they really think. Say, for instance, that you are a Diaspora Jew who is feeling disaffected from Israel, and you think it is because of actions being taken by the Israeli government or what Israel has come to represent through its policies. Unbeknownst to you, however, you are wrong. Luckily for you, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett knows that you are wrong and is delighted to tell you what is really bothering you (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the Israeli government). Thank God we Diaspora Jews have such a wonderful guide to lead us out of the desert of our addled minds and into the promised land of objective truth!
At Sunday’s Israeli cabinet meeting, Bennett spoke about the crisis between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and insisted that, despite what Diaspora Jews say, discontent toward Israel has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israeli attitudes toward Jewish pluralism. Instead, according to Bennett, it stems from assimilation and apathy about Jewish identity and connection to Israel. In other words, the Israeli government is a passive bystander when it comes to the cause and effect relationship; Israel has done nothing to weaken its own standing among Diaspora Jews, but is suffering the fallout of Jews not taking their Jewishness seriously enough. Assimilated Jews do not care about their Judaism and do not feel any natural connection to Israel, and that is what is driving the rift. It is no accident that Bennett uses the term apathy to describe what he sees as the independent variable, since describing Diaspora Jews as apathetic necessarily writes any Israeli agency out of this story, whereas using more actively emotional terms – anger, sadness, betrayal, opposition – would be to suggest that perhaps Israel’s actions have played a role in this divide. So there you go, dear Diaspora Jewish readers: you are not taking your Jewish identity and Jewish practice seriously enough. And really, who is better placed to diagnose this problem than the Israeli minister assigned to oversee affairs relating to you, despite the fact that he does not share the general values or political beliefs of an overwhelming majority of you and seems to have little respect for or understanding of the diaspora at all?
It is by now de rigeur to see these types of statements from Bennett, but what makes it particularly fascinating this time is that Bennett has spent the past week warding off personal attacks constructed around the same faulty premise of Jewish identity that he is himself employing. In the course of reporting on the Case 4000 bribery affair into Prime Minister Netanyahu, it emerged that Netanyahu sought to have the Walla news portal report that Bennett’s wife Gilat had worked as a chef at a non-kosher restaurant. The reasoning for doing so was obvious; it would be an attempt to politically damage a Netanyahu rival by planting the idea in the public’s perception that Bennett’s family – and by extension Bennett himself – does not take its Judaism seriously. Bennett’s understandably furious response was to describe his wife as coming from a secular and principled family and to emphasize that they have together built a wonderful Zionist and religious home. But the takeaway here is that immediately after his wife was attacked for being insufficiently Jewish based on a subjective and arbitrary standard, Bennett turned around and did the exact same thing to half of the world’s Jews. If anyone should know that there is no arbiter of what it means to have a Jewish identity – something that is intensely personal and subject to completely different interpretations on a case-by-case basis – and that weaponizing behavior to cast aspersions on others’ Jewish identity is out of bounds, it is Bennett.
The bigger problem here though is that Bennett is simply wrong. It blows apart the bounds of credulity to argue that the Israel-Diaspora divide is not at all driven by Israeli actions on a variety of fronts. Bennett wants to remove all politics from this equation, when in fact it is being driven in a major way by politics in the Israeli and American Jewish context. Not only is it being driven by politics, but Bennett has been at the forefront of embracing the politics of this relationship and doing his utmost best to politicize everything. To act as he has while simultaneously rejecting any role that Israeli policy has played in furthering the intercontinental divide is either sinisterly cynical or stunningly obtuse.
It is no secret that Israel’s relationship to President Trump has acted to disaffect many American Jews from Israel, and Bennett has led the charge in driving this relationship forward in a way that is maximally alienating on this side of the ocean. To take the most recent example, Bennett came to the U.S. after the Tree of Life shooting, an event that did more to unify American Jews in a common sense of identity and trajectory than any other. It was a stark example of David Myers’ argument that anti-Semitism is actually a key to Jewish survival and continuity by strengthening collective identity, and was reminiscent of how Israelis react to terrorism through a sense of shared community. Instead of recognizing this searing moment in the American Jewish consciousness for what it was, Bennett immediately turned it into an opportunity to stand up in defense of Trump and insert Israel into American Jewish politics in a completely unnecessary way. He then went to the Council on Foreign Relations and waved away American Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism. It all amounted to a jaw-dropping display of precisely how not to behave and how to alienate American Jews from Israel even further by putting Israel squarely on the record in ways that are noxious and offensive to most of them. Yet Bennett with a straight face now says that it has nothing to do with Israel – and this is before we even get to discussing Israeli government policies, rather than sticking to Israeli government rhetoric and politicking – and the Bayit Yehudi head wants to lay this all at the feet of insufficiently committed Jews.
It was reported on Tuesday that Birthright has experienced an unprecedented drop in participation rates this winter of 20 to 50 percent that is being driven by Americans not going on the trips. As with most things in life, this is undoubtedly multi-causal and cannot be attributed to only one single variable, but I do not think it is an accident that this is taking place in the midst of the Israeli government locking Trump in a bear hug and serving as his most ardent defender to American Jews. Perhaps Bennett is right that the problem between Israel and American Jews is one of apathy surrounding identity, but he has misidentified the culprit. So long as Bennett is apathetic to American Jewish identity and what American Jews hold dear, and refuses to take American Judaism seriously as an entity that exists independently, then he is right that apathy about identity is going to continue eating away at the bonds between American Jews and Israel.