Behind all the pretty words, Bennett’s speech at the Israel Prize ceremony reveals exactly what he’s after: a Jewish nationalist theocracy.
By Gil Gertel
During last Thursday’s annual Israel Prize ceremony, Education Minister Naftali Bennett gave a speech laying out his vision. He called for the establishment of a national, Jewish state, and in order to justify his outlook he used a history that doesn’t even exist in the bible, scorned diaspora Jews, and promised equality for all through Jewish supremacy. “This is the only way,” he summarized his speech in support of Jewish theocracy, to the applause of those in attendance.
First let us summarize Bennett’s speech, which opened with a question: “What is the next stage of Zionism?” Bennett then responded to himself: “To enrich Judaism and lift it up”; later on he would expand on the idea: “To grant an equal opportunity to every child in the State of Israel, regardless of origin, skin color, tendency, or place of residence.”
From there Bennett went on to look into the necessary conditions for reaching that “next stage.” This required an interrogation of history, in which the education minister established: “Throughout ancient history Judaism contributed to the world three big ideas that changed the face of humanity.” According to Bennett, those three ideas are: monotheism, according to which every human was born in the Image of God, and thus are equal; Sabbath, according to which rest from labor is a right accorded even to the weak; education and erudition, according to which knowledge and wisdom belong to everyone.
Then came the heart of Bennett’s argument: “Back then, when we were a sovereign power in our land — there was a Jewish state here — Judaism contributed to entire world. But when there was no Jewish state, when we weren’t sovereigns, Judaism did not contribute to humanity.” Bennett’s conclusion is that we must adopt the national-religious outlook: “Only a combination between Judaism, nationalism, and universalism will lift up our people toward our goal […] this way, and only this way, will we be able to be a light unto the entire world.”
Inventing a new history
Bennett’s speech is based on an imaginary history. Even those who have as simplistic a reading of the bible as Bennett, there is no connection between his three “big” ideas and the concept of a Jewish state. Monotheism, according to tradition, was adopted by Abraham. No connection to sovereignty there. The Sabbath was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, as part of the Ten Commandments. Nothing having to do with sovereignty. If by erudition Bennett means the learning that took place in the Beit Midrash (ancient houses of Jewish study), well that began in the first century, following the destruction of the Holy Temple. No connection to sovereignty.
Those who are willing to read the bible with an open mind, as well as to read into the history of other nations — even a cursory glance through Wikipedia — will discover that monotheism developed in Ancient Egypt, and the idea of the Sabbath has its origins in Babylon. Both these ideas were adopted by Judaism, that is, they helped create Judaism rather than the other way around. As for education, Bennett would likely be interested to find out that education began in pre-historic societies, even before the development of writing and reading.
Negating the diaspora — to the point of anti-Semitism
The second part of Bennett’s main claim is disturbing: “When there was no Jewish state, when we weren’t sovereigns, Judaism did not contribute to humanity.” Has Bennett heard of the Mishnah? What about the Toseftah? The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha? The Jerusalem Talmud? The Babylonian Talmud? The Golden Age? Rambam? Rashi? None of these contributed to Judaism?
The peak of Jewish creation was not set by the Zealots (a political movement in 1st century Second Temple Judaism that sought to incite the people of Judaea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land), but after they were suppressed by the empire. But Bennett cannot stand pragmatists such as Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai or Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. In order to convince us of of the significance of sovereign Judaism, Bennett must erase all those who proved that Judaism can flourish alongside members of other cultures. Bennett is not the first to negate the Jewish diaspora — this has been the modus operandi of secular Zionism since its founding. We often accuse the world of anti-Semitism; Bennett’s argument is itself based in the very same kind of anti-Semitic thinking.
Only nationalist Jews count
Bennett is mixing up his terms, and not by accident. He gave his speech during the Israel Prize ceremony on Independence Day. But why must we “enrich Judaism and lift it up?” For many Israeli citizens, such as the ultra-Orthodox, Judaism is much more than Zionism. For others, secular Israelis for example, Zionism is more than just Judaism. And there are many Israeli citizens, in whose name the Israel Prize ceremony is held, who are neither Jewish nor Zionists. And let’s not forget the millions of people living under Israeli military rule — they are not citizens, Jews, or Zionists.
Israel’s education minister does not recognize these people. Only nationalist Jews such as himself count. And all this is taking place during a speech on equality.
Equality through Jewish supremacy
At a certain point, Bennett’s entire idea begins collapsing into itself. He claims that he is the supreme nation, since we brought equality to the world. Supremacy or equality? In the name of equality, we must establish a Jewish state that privileges Jews at the expense of non-Jews. And the next goal of Zionism is to lift up the principle of equality, through strengthening Jewish sovereignty (Jewish, not Israeli) — that is, stark separation between Jews and non-Jews.
If Judaism truly did contribute the message of equality to the world, how is it that even today, in a country such as Israel (and in the words of Bennett himself) there is a “connection between a child’s place of residence and his parents’ level of income and between his ability to choose his future and succeed?”
Time to rise up
Bennett’s response is that we will have equal opportunity after establishing a Jewish state. Jewish-only, that is. He even says that we mustn’t worry: “As if Jewish contradicts democratic.” Not in his opinion, at least.
Let’s be clear: Bennett’s vision is one of Jewish theocratic-nationalism. For this end he invents a history, draws baseless conclusions, scorns the Jewish diaspora, ignores the existence of non-Jewish or non-nationalist citizens, all while decorating his racism in false promises of equal opportunity.
Bennett received a round of applause at the end of his speech. I truly hope that among the hundreds invited to the ceremony there were a few who moved uncomfortably in their seats. We must rise up against our education minister’s lack of culture and education. Fearlessly.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.