An Hour with Naftali Bennett: Is the Right-Wing Newcomer the New Face of Israel?

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image: Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.
Oded Balilty / AP for TIME

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.

That Israel is becoming, more Jewish, and young people are becoming more right wing, and there’s more of a Jewish identity.  Is that the basis of this?

Yeah. Yeah. There’s sort of a big undercurrent for the past I would say 15 years in this society of returning to the basic Jewish and Zionist values, but it’s not manifested itself yet until these elections in the politics. But in other areas in life, in music, in culture — every Israeli knows the biggest hits of the past decade have been Jewish songs, which was unheard of in the 80s. In the 80s there was not one Jewish song that even entered the hit list. And now, ah, Ana B’Koach [a Kabbalist prayer]. It’s become mainstream. And so Israel is becoming more Jewish.  If you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain something a bit deeper. For the 2000 years we were in the disaspora, et cetera, we were all orthodox. All Jews were orthodox, you know, until the 1800s.  And then a secular intervention of secular Zionism formed the state. Herzl based on an existential Zionism. He saw that Jews were at risk.  He was going to convert them first to Christianity, that was his earlier idea, because he wanted to physically save us. He realized it’s not going to work , and that’s when he came up with the Jewish state.  So it was all about a safe shelter, and certainly after the Holocaust it became more relevant. But now we’re 64 years old and the notion of our raison d’etre being a safe shelter is not sufficient. Israel is not the safest place in the world for Jews. Melbourne in Australia is better. Teaneck, New Jersey  is safer. We won’t be here to stay if it’s only about shelter. Israel is not only a shelter. And what we’re doing is going back to the sources and moving from existential or security-based Zionism to Jewish-based Zionism. And that’s what it’s about in a deeper sense.

Now specifically the younger generation I think  is more – how do you say it?– see things, more, less naïve, whatever the word is, more clear-eyed about reality compared to the older generation that grew up with the peace songs and all of that.

Less idealistic maybe?

No, I wouldn’t say less idealistic.

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Less naïve. And now I’m talking vis a vis the conflict. My generation grew up in the 80s with all the peace songs, and the key ideal was peace and we believed in it. But the younger generation that grew up during the Second Intifada is much more realistic, and harbors less illusions about our neighbors. We understand what’s going on in Egypt. We see what’s going on in Syria. In Egypt, where 75 percent of the voters voted for radical Islamic parties, the moderate of them is the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme is the Salafists, with 35 percent. Syria. Iran. This generation understands we have to be strong to stay here. And they’re opened minded more than the older generation. Our strategy, from the very beginning, from about 8 months ago, when we started this whole journey was going to the under 30, first-time voters. Israel, contrary to most of the West, has a high fertility rate so there’s a lot of young people in Israel. Most families have three kids as opposed to one or two, so a big proportion of the population is under 30.  So while in the general polls we come out as the third largest party, if all voters were under 30 we would be the single biggest party in Israel. Did you know that?  These were polls that were published; it collaborates the internal polls.

And we’re seeing it in universities, one after another, give you an example: Sapir College, which is a secular, traditionally left wing campus, in mock elections we came out first place.  Pretty much all colleges its either first or second place across Israel. Talking about secular. In religious ones, it’s a no brainer. We come out with Soviet-style results: 70 percent and what have you. But secular, we typically get about 35 percent of votes, which in mandates it’s about 40 seats. The campaign has a certain rationale. It’s a tactic. We call it the trickle up factor. Get the kid, and then they talk about it to their parents. So what we did in the campaign is twofold: through Facebook and social networks — and today barring Bibi we have the biggest Facebook page in  Israel, and certainly including Bibi the most active one. Our Facebook page, this one [he swivels the laptop on his desk toward me]. So 85,000 talking about it. There s 116,000 likes, but you can buy likes in Indonesia, but here there’s  85,000 “talking about it”

What does “talking about” mean?

Talking about it means doing something active during the past few days: like, share, or write. So, acted. It’s amazing, 85,000 people did something, did something, pressed a button, besides just viewing. Just to give you a sense, Netanyahu has supposedly 400,000 [likes] but 60,000 talking about it. And he’s prime minister. Yair Lapid has sort of been the most popular, he has 108 [thousand] we have 116, but  he’s got only 21,000 talking about it.

From the TIME Archive: 1967, Israel: A Nation Under Siege 

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