Myrna Bennett, the (Jewish) mother of Israel's ex-prime minister - opinion

Mother Myrna, who traditionally has shied away from publicity, has suddenly found herself wooed by major news outlets wanting her take.

 MYRNA BENNETT with son Naftali. (photo credit: Courtesy Bennett family)
MYRNA BENNETT with son Naftali.
(photo credit: Courtesy Bennett family)

When Myrna Lefko applied to University of California, Berkeley in San Francisco in the early 1960s, her mother had some stark words of warning: “Don’t marry a non-Jewish boy. When you fight, he’ll call you a ‘Jewish bitch,’ and that won’t be nice.” 

Myrna’s mom had reason to fear. Born Michle Sheff in the Novogrudok area of Poland, she reached America just in time; many of her family perished in the Holocaust. Safe in California, Michle married Yisrael Levkovitz, also from Poland. Despite becoming Irwin Lefko, he continued to speak Yiddish at home. 

“I was always embarrassed by my mom’s thick accent,” laughs daughter Myrna, today a beautiful grandmother of 11 and great-granny of three little girls. She heeded the maternal advice and in 1966 married a nice Jewish boy. Jim Bennett was working at the time for the Anti-Defamation League, a position that temporarily exempted him from being drafted to Vietnam. When the Six Day War broke out in ‘67, the young couple “became obsessed” with the future of Israel (where Jim later served for many years in the army); they packed up their lives posthaste and boarded the first civilian plane to Lod to help in any way possible. 

“We were sent to Kibbutz Dafna,” recalls Myrna, “where we worked in the kitchen, picked fruit and lay on top of cotton to stop it falling off the truck.” Apart from learning that every family needs its own stove, the Bennetts learned to love the land that they were tilling. They settled in Haifa, raised three sons and, apart from a couple of two-year stints on shlichut (emissary work) in North America (where they embraced a shomer-Shabbat and kashrut lifestyle), they lived here ever since. Jim died eight years ago, and Myrna, may she thrive til 120, is still rocking Haifa.

 MYRNA BENNETT with son Naftali. (credit: Courtesy Bennett family) MYRNA BENNETT with son Naftali. (credit: Courtesy Bennett family)
 

The youngest Bennett son grew up to be Israel’s 13th prime minister.

Naftali Bennett ran the fragile, dedicated, sane Coalition for Change for 12 hopeful months. Yet his swearing-in day “was the worst of my life,” confides his mother, as one by one opposition members jeered and yelled, turning the ceremony into what appeared to be a well-orchestrated circus. 

Thus began the craziest year. The government, cobbled together with parties from the Left and Right, Arabs, religious and secular, settlers and anti-settlers, agreed to work on the 70% of issues that share the consensus of 70% of the population of the Holy Land. Laws were passed allocating billions to people with disabilities; raising the salaries of social workers; and increasing old age benefits. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.6%; exports increased by 25%. A free-trade agreement was signed with the Emirates; the Negev Forum was launched; NIS 200 million were channeled to a program to prevent and address domestic violence; and stipends to Holocaust survivors were significantly increased. A law allowing same-sex couples and single fathers to have children via surrogacy in Israel was passed; salaries of soldiers were raised by 50%; a five-year NIS 30 billion plan for Arab society was approved; and much, much more.

For a few blessed months, we didn’t open daily newspapers to hideous headlines of Knesset corruption and incitement to hatred. A budget was passed because the prime minister was not trying to stay out of jail; a kosher certification revolution was brought in, for the same reason. 

And the opposition, especially its head, panicked. A successful government equals a satisfied public; a satisfied public won’t vote it out of power. A Likud in opposition can’t change legal checks and balances; the opposition can’t stop anybody’s trial. Anything is possible when you are desperate: Israelis watched in disbelief as an opposition voted against its own bills and thought nothing of sacrificing soldiers’ welfare. Miri Regev, who’s being touted as the next education minister, trumpeted that they’d stop at nothing – trampling on soldiers, widows, orphans – to bring down the coalition. 

The ninth of the Ten Commandments prohibits bearing false witness against a neighbor. Yet many religious extremists in long scraggly beards chimed along with all manner of hooligans as they brandished their weapon of choice: slander. Suddenly Bennett was accused of willfully dipping into state coffers to upgrade his house (the official residence on Balfour Street is undergoing renovations; the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) insisted that he make his Ra’anana home more secure. A very long-bearded, black-coated rabbi compared Bennett to a dog, and later apologized for insulting the dog. Even more astonishingly, rumors began circulating that Bennett wasn’t Jewish – although maybe it’s not so astonishing. The same has been said of Lihi Lapid, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s wife, whose grandfather Rabbi Avigdor Amiel was the chief rabbi of Antwerp and then of Tel Aviv. Lapid is suing American Rabbi Tovia Singer for libel; the Bennetts initially chose to ignore the madness.

“But recently, a family member was accosted at university and accused of marrying into a family of non-Jews,” says Myrna, “and we’d just had enough.” Her son agrees. “I’m sorry, Dad and Mom,” goes a post on his Facebook page. “The poison machine has been operating against me.” Bennett itemizes the slander, including that his mother is a convert, and explains that he “had to act on the spot.” So now he’s acting. The ex-(Jewish) prime minister is suing anyone who defamed him for a million shekels each – which he has pledged to donate to bereaved parents.

Suddenly, apologies are popping up all over. Moshe Reiner, earlocks swaying, greets his TikTok fans with an awesome mea culpa for disseminating a clip of Rabbi Shaulov claiming that Naftali Bennett, and his mother, are not Jewish. With a smile and a cute heart-from-hands gesture, he proclaims to “love everyone” and to feel sad about causing any pain. He neglects to mention the pain he thereby avoided, to the tune of a million-shekel payout, but at least he admitted his slander. 

Mother Myrna, who traditionally has shied away from publicity, has suddenly found herself wooed by major news outlets wanting her take. “I’m getting emails praising me for coming a long way as a convert,” she confides, with a sigh of disbelief. “It’s just mad. I have to admit to being pretty exhausted by it all.” Then she thinks of her quintessentially Yiddishe mama, takes a deep breath, and gives another interview. “The Jewish people have gone through worse than this,” she says. “We’ll be okay. Good times and sanity will return; I’m convinced of that.”

From your gentle mouth, Mrs. Bennett. Straight into the ears of the Lord above. 

The writer lectures at Reichman University and Beit Berl. [email protected]