NEW YORK — Hours after his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett focused on the theme of national and Jewish unity in a speech to heads of Jewish federations and Jewish leaders in New York City.
“I bring with me a new spirit,” Bennett said at the outset, returning to the theme he rolled out before his August trip to meet with US President Joe Biden.
“I never thought it would work,” he said of the most diverse coalition in Israeli history, adding that he never would have dreamed of sitting in government with his current partners, let alone leading them as prime minister.
The government Bennett heads with Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid includes right-wing, centrist and left-wing Zionist parties, along with the Islamist Ra’am party.
“There was a sense of helplessness and despair in the air,” said Bennett in his address at the Moise Safra Center, referring to the series of four largely inconclusive elections in two years. He said that he made the difficult decision to form a government with left-wing parties in order to give the country a way out of the political impasse.
And the lessons he learned from putting together the coalition are also instructive to the relationship between Israel and US Jewry, argued Bennett.
“If we don’t sit together, this thing is going to tear apart,” he said.
“We have this bug, this legacy of division in our people,” he lamented, before describing the loss of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem.
In the Jewish tradition, the Second Temple is said to have been destroyed because of “baseless hatred” — an internal struggle between various factions of the Jewish people.
“This time, we’re not going to let it fall apart,” Bennett promised to applause, acknowledging that he had in the past demonized some of his coalition partners, and they demonized him, and stressing that the left is no less patriotic than the right. In the serious business of governing Israel, he said, the coalition is working.
He described his ideologically unwieldy government — which he said came together by “accident” — as “beautiful.”
Stressing the unity between Israel and the Diaspora, Bennett continued: “When a Jew in Pennsylvania gets hurt, I hurt. When a Jew in France gets hurt, we feel the pain because we’re one.”
“If there’s one thing I want to import from American Jewry to Israel, it’s the ability to listen, the ability to not put people in a box,” he said. “Here, you’re just a Jew, and you’re welcome.”
Later in the evening, Bennett prayed at the Kehillat Jeshuron synagogue where he used to worship when he lived in the city, using a 15-minute sermon to share his warm reflections on the local Jewish community.
“He said this was where his wife found an attachment to Judaism, not in Israel,” recalled one worshiper. “It was a very homey, feel-good address, but light on the issues,” another worshiper said.
The toughest neighborhood
Bennett then turned to the fact that Israel is in “the toughest neighborhood in the world.”
“That’s why we need to remain strong,” he said, pointing at an impending increase in the defense budget.
He also promised that Israel would prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, alone if necessary.
Bennett emphasized that he was happy with last week’s vote in Congress on funding for Iron Dome that ultimately passed by an overwhelming margin after progressive Democrats known as the “Squad” temporarily held up funding.
Returning to another recurring theme, Bennett argued that Israel is a critical player in the fight against terrorism. “We are nine million boots on the ground,” he said, emphasizing that Israel will never ask the US to send troops to defend it.
Before Bennett’s address to heads of Jewish federations, Israel’s envoy to the US and the UN Gilad Erdan said that the Democratic Party and American people are overwhelmingly pro-Israel.
He then called the “extended Squad” of progressive lawmakers who voted against funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system last week “either ignorant or antisemitic.”
While some in the new coalition, such as Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, have spoken about rifts that were created by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous governments with Diaspora Jewry, Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut on Sunday downplayed the notion that the sides are coming out of a crisis.
“There’s certainly a great appreciation for the outreach that’s come from Prime Minister Bennett and his government,” he told The Times of Israel ahead of Bennett’s speech before Jewish leaders. “Have there been disagreements? Yes, and I’m sure there will be with this government too.”
“We’ve worked well with every government of Israel and will always work well with every government of Israel,” he stressed. “It’s our job to do so and it’s what we will always do. That’s why prime ministers want to come and speak to federations and to the Jewish community because our allegiance is to the State of Israel and whoever is in office.”
Asked about the agreement to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall that was frozen by the previous government, Fingerhut acknowledged that this is a point of contention.
“Jewish Federations were very involved in talks over the Kotel agreement, and we were very disappointed when it didn’t proceed,” he said. “We take it at [the new government’s] word that this is something they intend to work on and we appreciate that.”
The matter was not raised in the prime minister’s remarks to the federation heads.
Fingerhut said that from his conversations with the premier, he knows that Bennett is aware of the challenges facing American Jewish community, notably including rising antisemitism that peaked after the May Gaza war.
Fingerhut stressed Monday’s JFNA event was not about highlighting disputes.
“This occasion overrides issues of disagreement. It’s a point of enormous pride when the prime minister speaks at the UN General Assembly. Yes, this time is particularly significant because it’s Prime Minister Bennett’s first such address. I think there’s enough significance in that for people to focus on.”
“Any time the prime minister of Israel comes to the US is a moment for us to be able to welcome him and show our love and support for Israel and the role it plays on the world stage. If not for COVID and the holiday, I believe [there would’ve been] thousands of people [in attendance],” Fingerhut said.