Of the many events that I’ve attended since landing in Israel about a month ago, most have been focused on center-left or left-wing politics, in a milieu in which I always felt relatively comfortable. But I find that it’s doubly important to attend events of those whose views you are diametrically opposed to, if for no other reason than to be in a better position to challenge them in the future. This was of little comfort sitting at an event in which Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home appeared to discuss his party platform and take questions from an English-speaking audience. I have no qualms in using words like ‘fascist’ when describing the man, nor do I find them hyperbolic. But Bennett is a highly dangerous figure not because of what he says, but rather, what he chooses not to reveal.
He’s been successful, in both this campaign and last, at hiding the more religious and extremist of his party members away from the public eye. He’s also succeeded in painting himself as a quintessential type of Israeli, one whose profile many hope to emulate: the son of immigrants who left the comforts of America but succeeded in integrating into Israeli society, a combat soldier in an elite unit, and a wealthy businessmen who became rich from the high-tech industry.
Bennett is nothing if not a populist: he spent much of the time talking about “breaking monopolies”, referred to the audience as his “brothers and sisters” and taking his place as a link in long chain of Jewish history stretching from the far past to the future. When asked about his opinion vis-a-vis the Palestinians, he laid out his tired “Stability Plan” which would include annexing Area C, granting Palestinians living there citizenship, and giving Areas A and B “autonomy on steroids”–in other words, a glorified Bantustan. His discussion regarding the housing crisis and Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s attempts to rectify the situation was just as opaque, conveniently leaving out the fact that most new housing was built beyond the Green Line. All of this delivered in perfect English.
In short, Bennett is a master of the most shallow form of subterfuge, one marketed towards the lazy; dig a little deeper, and his party’s anti-democratic, racist tendencies are on full display. Unfortunately, one does not win votes or elections with highly intricate explanations about what one thinks about issue a or b, but with sound-bytes and catchy slogans. Bennett understands this, which is why his shiny veneer has gotten him so far. But, as is the case with many of the other events that I attended during this election cycle, it’s not always what’s being said (or in this case, not said), by the politicians that makes for the most memorable moments.
Gay rights activists, hoping to bring to light Jewish Home’s views on gay marriage in particular, and gay rights in general (spoiler: they’re pretty dismal and highly offensive), have regularly crashed Bennett’s speaking engagements in the hopes of drawing attention to this issue. I happened to be sitting directly in back of two activists who, after standing up and waving an LGBT flag, were scolded by participants and events organizers and promptly escorted out the hall. During this altercation, Bennett stood on stage smiling and complained, without a hint of irony, of the continuing assault against him by the left and its attempts to silence him. Never mind his own colleagues repeated attempts in the Knesset to pass libel laws stifling freedom of expression, its targeting of NGOs labeled as anti-Israel, and its demonization of Arab politicians. No: the real casualty was his right to address the voters. The applause from the audience, sadly, only galvanized him further.
When I spoke to activists waiting outside handing out fliers, they told me that their plan was to appear at as many events as possible to draw attention to their cause. But it’s hard to see how such a strategy is paying off; indeed, every one of these simply strengthens the idea that Bennett is really the victim of some sort of left-wing plot. Nor is this the first time that he’s exploited a situation in which he felt under attack. During the Haaretz Peace Conference held this summer, he made headlines with the accusation that he was physically accosted by a member of the audience. That accusation may have been exaggerated (or falsified completely), but there’s no doubt that it was given credence by the very real fact that Bennett was heckled by left-wing activists during his talk. Of course, he has a wonderful teacher in a sitting Prime Minister who has become an expert in deflecting any criticism or charge of corruption leveled at him, successfully painting himself as the scourge of a left-wing media.
But as I wrote before, Bibi’s indiscretions, however repulsive they are, are excused to a certain degree, a price that the public is willing to pay in order to keep in office a Prime Minster whom they believe will competently protect them. Not so with Bennett; his odious views, especially regarding gay rights, are not shared by large swathes of the Israeli public, and as such, he’s more vulnerable to criticism. Activists showing up to disturb Jewish Home-sponsored events aren’t going to convince anyone of this; Bennett will always have the high ground, and will always successfully make the case that his views (and by extension that of his constituents) are being stifled.
Those who are in a real position of power–politicians and party heads–have challenged figures like Bennett about their diplomatic and economic stances. But in a country that has all but given up hope that a peace deal is in the offing, they have stopped paying attention to these types of discussion. Instead, Livni, Herzog, and other members of the center and center-left, who have prided themselves on support of the gay community, must speak out against Bennett and his MKs whenever possible. Bennett may be able to hide his party’s racism and messianism behind shallow euphemisms, but there is little he can do to protect himself from the very real, and very explicit homophobia that he preaches.