Naftali Bennett and mystical Jewish nationalism: Part 1
Naftali Bennett has achieved a dream that many ultra-nationalist religious Zionists have had before him. He has become the first Israeli head of government to come neither from the "socialist" movement that dominated Zionism from the beginning of the 20th century and went on to rule the state of Israel until 1977, nor from the traditional, "revisionist" Zionist right that has unified conservatives and ultra-nationalists and held political power for 40 of the last 44 years.
After leading an offshoot from the National Religious Party (which changed its name several times and was known by the Hebrew acronym Mafdal), Naftali Bennett became leader of the Yamina ("rightwards") party, an association of ultra-nationalist religious Jews and equally nationalist secular Jews. He himself belongs to the first group: he not only wears a kippah but wears the signature embroidered kippah belonging to one of the most ancient and militant religious Zionist nationalist factions.
"He not only wears a kippah, but wears the signature embroidered kippah belonging to one of the most ancient and militant religious Zionist nationalist factions"
Bennett owes his spiritual and political direction of travel to the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement. Its activists first emerged from the ranks of the National Religious Party after the June 1967 war and played a key role in Israel's securing of the territories it has occupied since then, particularly those in the West Bank. Gush Emunim no longer exists, but its influence over several political movements persists today and has led directly to the continued appropriation of the 'Land of Israel' in the territories conquered since 1967, and its corollary, the expulsion of Palestinians from those territories.
'You were still swinging in trees'
Given the hazardous labyrinth that is Israeli institutional politics, and the improbability of a government that allies Bennett with the Zionist left, it is impossible to predict what direction the coalition will take in the immediate term, or how long it will remain in place. There is no such uncertainty about where Bennett comes from or where he hopes to get to. He is the product of a school of thought that yokes mysticism about the land to a racist and colonialist mentality. His aim is to entrench this worldview even more deeply than it already is.
What you’re not seeing in the media today hailing a “vibrant democracy”: The new PM of Israel, Naftali Bennett, is an open far-right racist who has described Arabs as animals swinging from trees & boasted about killing them. Today he promised to strengthen illegal settlements. pic.twitter.com/KI5d8pJSPz— Dr. Omar Suleiman (@omarsuleiman504) June 13, 2021
In September 2010, as president of Yesha, the representative body for Israeli colonists in the occupied Palestinian territories, Bennett took part in a televised debate with the Palestinian politician Ahmed Tibi. Tibi lost his temper and called Bennett a "colonialist". Bennett remained calm at first, replying, "I'll say it loud and clear: The land of Israel is ours, and it was ours long before Islam was even created." Tibi stayed on the attack, calling Bennett a "usurper". Bennett then retorted, "The Jewish State existed here when you were still swinging in trees."
That was one occasion on which Bennett lost his composure. His likening of Arabs to monkeys, much as white supremacists did with black people in the American South, was entirely in keeping with his beliefs. But unlike a large number of rabbis in the Jewish colonies and activists in Israel's colonialist extreme right - many of them deeply religious and many possessed of an apparently limitless racist aggression - Bennett generally attempts to embody a restrained, modern, almost rational version of what the Israeli human rights association B'Tselem has called "Jewish supremacism" towards Palestinians.
That said, he also favours the disinhibited freedom of tone that is becoming an increasingly dominant feature of Israeli politics, and now and then gives unfiltered expression to his views. In August 2012 he declared, "I've killed a lot of Arabs in my life, and I don't have a problem with that." Announcing this in public seemed to pose no problems for him either."
Bennett was born in 1972 into a Californian Jewish family who moved to Israel a month after the June 1967 war. His early childhood was spent travelling between Israel, the US, and Canada, following his father's work as a fundraiser. His parents were initially moderately practising Jews, but Bennett quickly became involved in the Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, which was to play a key role in the shake-up of religious Zionism.
The leadership of the National Religious Party initially belonged to the moderate fringe of Zionism on issues of territory and relations with Arabs. Its support of the 1967 war was reluctant, and it was opposed to the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But, following the victory of 1967, a wind of mystical nationalism blew through its ranks: the youth of Mafdal rose up against an old guard they perceived as timid and began to embrace the project of colonising the conquered Palestinian territories. Bnei Akiva, the youth movement the adolescent Bennett belonged to, was part of this new wave.
"'His likening of Arabs to monkeys, much as white supremacists did with black people in the American South, was entirely in keeping with his beliefs"
The real meaning of 'pioneer'
In 1974, this movement founded Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), which formed around the yeshiva (Talmudic school) Mercaz HaRav ("the centre of the rabbi"), the core of an ideologically militant fringe fiercely committed to colonisation and opposition to any territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
Hanan Porat, one of the movement's best-known leaders, had cried before the Wailing Wall in 1967, "Here I am - for the priesthood, for the kingdom, to kill, to be killed. Oh Lord, here I am… this is how I understand the real meaning of the word pioneer!"
"Bennett and his fellow Mercaz HaRav protégés did not just aim to conquer the land, but also to enshrine this ambition at the ideological and spiritual heart of the Israeli nation"
This was the atmosphere in which Bennet came of age, seeing himself as one of the "new pioneers" who would achieve the goal the previous generation had failed to commit to: the possession of "Greater Israel" - the whole of the Palestinian mandate.
Bennett and his fellow Mercaz HaRav protégés did not just aim to conquer the land, but also to enshrine this ambition at the ideological and spiritual heart of the Israeli nation. They were pioneers for the kingdom of God on earth, on a path towards redemption. They combined messianic faith with elaborate investment strategies intended to strengthen state structures and fight a "culture war" against the old socialist elites, whom they considered cowardly and ideologically bankrupt.
This is Part I. Read Part II here.
Sylvain Cypel has been a chief editor of Le Monde and editorial director of Courier International. He is the author of the books Les emmurés. La société israélienne dans l'impasse (La Découverte, 2006) and L'État d'Israël contre les Juifs (La Découverte, 2020).
This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.
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