What kind of Diaspora minister was Naftali Bennett?

Under his auspices, the Israeli government invested millions in Jewish communities around the world.

NAFTALI BENNETT: Trump plan is a ‘key issue in the campaign’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT: Trump plan is a ‘key issue in the campaign’
Up until six years ago, the Israeli government kept on saying how important it was to connect to millions of Jews outside of Israel, but the Jewish world wasn’t really taken seriously. I won’t ignore the fact that the Israeli government invested millions in projects such as Birthright and Masa, but the average Knesset member or official had no real conception that there actually is a rich Jewish life overseas. When speaking about “Diaspora issues,” most Knesset members or ministers would really mean to focus on aliyah.
But six years ago, something changed: Naftali Bennett was elected as chairman of the Bayit Yehudi, a National Religious political party, and decided to ask for the Diaspora Ministry. Even though most of Bennett’s voters didn’t really care about Jews around the world (who are not considering aliyah), he stuck to it. He insisted on investing in the Jewish world because it was something that he totally believed in, something that was in his kishke. As a son of North American olim who were not even close to being right-wing, he really got it: he understood the Jewish world; and what he understood before all of the other ministers is the following: Most Diaspora Jews are not considering aliyah to Israel, therefore Israel needs to change the current paradigm. The term Bennett used in all of his speeches about this shift was the “Wallet”: if once Jews around the world were Israel’s “wallet,” raising money to establish a Jewish state, now the roles have reversed, and Israel should be the Jewish world’s “wallet.”
He indeed stepped up to the plate: under his auspices, the Israeli government invested millions in Jewish communities around the world. I can’t claim that every project he invested in was successful or wise – but the good intentions were there. Media outlets such as Haaretz criticized his work every few weeks, but what they didn’t understand is that Bennett was actually one of the best friends and allies of liberal and progressive Judaism: He actually built the platform for the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, he supported the compromise and tried to convince the government to withdraw from canceling it. Bennett was close to the heads of the Reform and Conservative movements, something that most of his constituents were not happy about. Right-wing Orthodox organizations ran an entire campaign during this past election criticizing Bennett for assisting these movements.
WHEN BENNETT visited the US, he made a point of meeting students and faculty at the Conservative Solomon Schechter School in Manhattan. He tweeted a video of his visit afterwards, saying, “Meeting with the pupils of the wonderful Conservative school ‘Solomon Schechter’ in New York. So much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.” He was then criticized deeply by Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Bennett wouldn’t budge and his office publicized the following statement, “Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to draw Jews close and not to excommunicate them... Minister Bennett is proud that he is concerned for all Jews because they are Jewish and will continue to meet Jews from all denominations.”
He was then supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, “By connecting and learning about Jewish educational experiences in the Diaspora, Mr. Bennett is doing exactly what is appropriate... In fact, Mr. Bennett should be recognized for his leadership with these efforts, not criticized.”
One of his initiatives, Mosaic United, was not as successful as he and his team would have hoped: They were able to establish a fund that would invest hundreds of millions of shekels in Jewish communities across the world, together with leading philanthropists. But most of the prominent philanthropists didn’t join; the money was invested in three Jewish campus organizations, two of them Orthodox. Recently, after finally hiring a new CEO, they were finally able to launch the second initiative, Shalom Corps, which will focus on tikkun olam.
But what Bennett truly should be credited for is investing millions in Israeli society to strengthen the knowledge and connections between Israelis and their counterparts in the Diaspora. He launched a successful “Reverse Birthright” for Israeli VIP’s: Journalists, heads of ministries, actors, businessmen and women, artists and heads of prominent organizations. Two hundred influential Israelis went on a journey to Jewish communities abroad and finally started “getting it.” All of them had been to these countries for work or vacation, but never took the time to invest in learning about their brothers and sisters outside of Israel.
The Diaspora Ministry isn’t one of the most popular government offices for politicians that aim to get more public support, but it can thrive if the right person takes lead. That’s what happened for the past six years, and what will hopefully continue in the upcoming new government.
There is just one more message I wish to portray to Jews in the Diaspora who are reading this column: Israel-Diaspora ties would be so much stronger if we had more “Naftali Bennetts” in key positions in Israeli government and society. Don’t believe organizations or leaders who are trying to portray Bennett as someone who wants all Jews around the world to be Orthodox – because that’s just not the same guy I’ve been telling you about. We need many more leaders from Israel’s right-wing parties to think and act exactly like Bennett. So thank you, Minister Bennett for all that you did for the Jewish world, it is not taken for granted.
The writer is an award-winning journalist, covering Jewish Diaspora Affairs for Makor Rishon newspaper in Israel.