"Israel-Diaspora relations are in an unprecedented crisis," Bennett said. He dismissed the idea that the disconnect is due to "the Palestinian issue" or because of a conflict over the rights of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Rather, he said, it's because "there's a dire assimilation crisis and growing apathy among Jews in the Diaspora toward their Judaism and toward Israel. That’s the whole story." In those few sentences, the man managed to show how thoroughly disconnected he is from the people with whom he's supposed to work.
Bennett is right about this much: The conversation between Israel and diaspora Jews — especially American Jews, and especially younger ones — sounds more and more like one of those family gatherings that makes you wish you had the flu so you didn’t have to show up.
But Bennett is either fooling himself or trying to fool the rest of Israel about the reasons for the rift with the diaspora.
To start, yes, one cause is the government's offensive behavior toward Reform and Conservative Judaism, and Bennett semi-admitted this in the past. Over half of American Jews identify with those denominations; only a tenth identify as Orthodox. America is the largest Diaspora Jewish community by far. The tension didn't start under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. But this government decided in June 2017 to renege on an agreement that an area for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall holy site would share equal status with the existing area for Orthodox prayer.
The most extreme faction in Bennet’s party played a central role in pressuring the government to back out of the agreement. At that time, Bennett said the decision was causing “a real crisis” with American Jewish leaders - but also described as “subjective” and “incorrect” their feeling “that they are not wanted in Israel.” In reality, the backtracking was the latest in a long line of affronts to the non-Orthodox denominations.
Older American Jews, especially from establishment Jewish organizations, have quarreled for years with the Israeli government over religious pluralism. What upsets younger Jews is Israel's political direction. It's the occupation, and how the occupation has changed Israel.
It’s not just that a lopsided majority of American Jews consistently consider themselves liberals. For a large portion of American Jews, the values of human freedom, of human equality, of standing against bigotry are essential to being Jewish — whether they express that in religious or secular language. (That’s also true for many Israeli Jews who oppose the Netanyahu government, but that’s a separate story.)
Those values don't fit well with Israel's rule over the West Bank, to put it mildly. If one can believe that the occupation is a matter of duress, a temporary situation until Israel can make a peace agreement, it's easier to handle the dissonance. The Netanyahu government makes it hard to believe this.
Bennett makes it even harder. The difference between him and Netanyahu is largely tactical, but he calls for doing things explicitly when Netanyahu would like to maintain a shred of deniability. Bennett and his party call for annexation of the West Bank settlements and land around them amounting to more than half the West Bank. Bennett and Jewish Home have also been at the forefront of anti-democratic changes inside Israel. They pushed for the recent Nation-State Law, which harms the status of non-Jewish citizens. They’ve led attempts to hamstring the Supreme Court to prevent it from overturning laws that violate human rights.
Another element of Jewish diaspora identity, unfortunately, is facing anti-Semitism and its resurgence in the age of illiberalism. Israel should be a source of support; ultimately, it should be an available refuge. Instead, Netanyahu has tied himself to President Trump, and courted European rightists. And Bennett? After the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Bennett came to the city in supposed solidarity, insisted that Trump’s rhetoric had no role in inspiring the crime and cast doubt on figures showing a rise in hate crime against Jews in the United States.
As a Jew and an Israeli, I find all this agonizing. I’d like the family to get along. I want Israel to be a country where diaspora Jews can again feel pride. And when Western society is showing that it has not cured itself of hatred toward Jews, it would be best if we all had each other’s back.
But Naftali Bennett isn’t the man to explain the crisis in Israel-diaspora relations, or to solve it. He’s the walking, loudly talking embodiment of why it’s happening.