Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to American Jewish leaders: “We must rethink our relations”


NEW YORK (JTA) – The first thing Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, facing a room filled with leaders of the American Jewish community: “I wish my mother was here.

The son of American immigrants to Israel, Bennett, like his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks fluent English, almost without an accent, and spent years in the United States as a child and an adult.

But in other crucial respects, Bennett looked different from Netanyahu in his first public address to American Jewish leaders as prime minister. The speech, delivered in Manhattan hours after he addressed the United Nations, was delivered to dozens of leaders of the Jewish federation system, rabbis and other bigwigs of the organization. It was the first time many of them had seen each other since the start of the pandemic.

They received him warmly. In recent years, relations between Netanyahu and major American Jewish groups had deteriorated, especially after he had froze deal to expand unorthodox prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2017. A month before Netanyahu left office, one of his closest collaborators noted during an Israeli conference that Israel “should spend a lot more time educating evangelical Christians than you would with Jews.”

Bennett adopted a different tone. Only as he did at the UN earlier on Monday, The current Israeli prime minister made a stylistic contrast to his predecessor without mentioning his name. He spoke about everything Israel can learn from American Jews and the importance for both poles of the Jewish community to have a mutually respectful conversation.

“You have our back, and that means a lot,” he said. He later added, “That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. Were not. But we are going to talk to each other and we are going to listen to each other.

He also suggested that Israel and American Jews are entering a new era. For decades, American Jews have donated tens of millions of dollars to support Israel’s development. Now, said Bennett, Israel is doing well on its own and should go beyond a simple refuge for persecuted Jews.

“Since the creation of Israel, and in fact before the creation of Israel, Israel has been the project of the Jewish people, but we are doing well,” he said, citing the economy and the tech sector. from Israel. “Now we need to rethink our relationship. “

What this might look like in practice remains unclear. Bennett made no concrete promises when it came to embedding religious pluralism in Israeli politics, an issue that has historically been important to those he spoke to. He struck the same notes on Iran as Netanyahu, vowing to prevent him from obtaining a nuclear bomb and saying that Israel “will not outsource our security to anyone, even our best friends.”

Moreover, as in his speech at the UN, he did not speak about the Palestinians, and has officially opposed, on many occasions, the creation of a Palestinian state, which most American Jews support.

And it was clear that Israel was concerned about its position in the United States. Bennett and Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan mentioned the attempt by a handful of progressive members of Congress to block funding for the House of Representatives by a vote of 420-9, with two members voting ” here “).

While Bennett said the episode was “revealing” and didn’t expand on the flap, Erdan was much harsher, saying members of Congress who opposed Iron Dome were “either ignorant or anti-Semitic.”

For the most part, Bennett seemed happy to forgo political discussions in favor of a charm offensive. He searched for commonalities with the crowd, talking about everything from how his mother couldn’t find American grain when she moved to Israel to how he was in New York City on September 11. At the end of the speech, he repeated an anecdote about Israeli politeness (or lack thereof) that also made an American audience in Tel Aviv laugh in 2012, at the start of his political career.

If he wanted to charm the crowd, it seemed to work. When he finished the speech by saying “I love you” he received a standing ovation.

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