Lectures on the lunch menu for Naftali Bennett

When Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, entered the Drawing Room at the Harold Pratt House in New York City for lunch on Wednesday, he was not in familiar territory. Yes, to Bennett’s right sat the bow tie-clad conservative philanthropist Roger Hertog and across the table a friend in financier and Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt. However, for Bennett, the other dozen Jewish Americans at the Council on Foreign Relations represented views that rarely share the same tent as his own.

On Bennett’s literal and figurative left sat the event’s moderator Martin Indyk. Acknowledging the starkly differing political views, Bennett compared the roundtable conversation to a Passover Seder among family members who don’t see eye to eye. “You and I view many things differently but I am not giving up,” Bennett declared. “I am not giving up on the future of our relationship.”

During his introductory remarks, Bennett — who travelled to Pittsburgh on Sunday to express the Israeli government’s solidarity with the families of the victims and the local Jewish community — put into doubt the perception that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. has increased under President Trump, an issue brought into sharp relief by what has been described as the worst and deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. “I am not sure at all that there’s a surge in anti-Semitism in America,” Bennett mused.

Bennett also doubled down on a series of tweets in which he praised President Trump as “a true friend of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people,” and criticized those “using the horrific anti-Semitic massacre to attack President Trump” as “unfair and wrong.”

Henry Siegman was not impressed. Born in Germany in 1930, Siegman noted that as a survivor of the Nazi era he “knows something about anti-Semitism.” Siegman, a critic of certain Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, proceeded to lecture Bennett for failing to acknowledge that Trump has fostered an atmosphere that allows hate and anti-Semitism to flourish. “The problem for me in Germany was never whether Hitler was an anti-Semite,” he told Bennett. “Rather it was that the German people, who were known as the most advanced and sophisticated culturally liberal people, allowed this monster to come to power and that’s the problem is this country.”

“The discussion about whether Trump is an anti-Semite or not is not important,” Siegman continued. “The issue is that he’s sowing hatred and divisiveness in this country that will allow the kind of people who supported Hitler to also take action.”

Siegman pointed out that a vast majority of American Jews are worried and concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and policies. “It is not very wise of you coming to tell us that this is not your problem just because he’s helping Israel,” he warned Bennett.

Bennett defended himself, saying he wouldn’t hold back from expressing what he thinks is right for Israel even if it doesn’t always ingratiate himself with many American Jews. “I am not going to voice what I think just to be liked. I gave up that business when I entered politics.”

The senior Israeli official also cautioned against an overreaction to the Pittsburgh attack, urging “common sense measures” rather than ratcheting up security in an extreme manner. “We don’t want to move from zero to a hundred and turn every shul and every school into Fort Knox,” he said.

“I am not at all dismissing the importance and the severity of the worst and deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of America. I am just saying that we have to look at the numbers and the facts themselves and adopt common sense measures.”

Citing the ADL’s report detailing a surge in anti-Semitism in America, Bennett cautioned, “I am not sure those are the facts. I am not saying they are not, but I have not been convinced that they are.” (Bennett later clarified his remarks at the end of the lunch, saying that he was not dismissing the ADL study but calling for further inquiry. “I am just saying we need to look at the facts. We need to learn it.”)

The Israeli Minister added, “This is not in any sense Germany of the 30’s, it doesn’t resemble that in any possible way.”

That was enough for Edward Bleier, a former Warner Bros. president, to reach for the gooseneck microphone in front of him. “Some of us are older than you are and we recall the pre-war period in America when the Nazis convened in Madison Square Garden and paraded on 96th street with brown shirts and swastikas,” Bleier told Bennett. “And the rallying cry of the anti-Semites was ‘America First.’ So my hair stands on end when I hear an American president invoke that line.”

“I think as a senior leader in Israel, it’s important to state our gratitude to President Trump,” Bennett declared. “The guy has been, factually, a huge friend of the Jewish state. He’s done what no one else has done — he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, he recognized Jerusalem [as Israel’s capital]. What could be more pro-Jewish, more pro-Israel than that? His son-in-law, his daughter are Jewish. His grandchildren are Jewish. Many of his advisors are Jewish. So it just seems crazy to call this guy an anti-Semite.”

Bennett further suggested that the media and the Jewish community are eager to criticize Trump but fail to speak out against anti-Semitism on the left, citing a recent video of Louis Farrakhan in which the controversial Nation of Islam leader compared Jews to termites and earned cheers from his audience.

“I dived into this world of anti-Semitism in America over the past few days,” Bennett said. “I saw — I couldn’t believe it — this video of just a week ago of Louis Farrakhan who compared Jews to termites. It was horrible what this guy said. But what was more horrible is how the audience responded. He got a standing ovation for comparing Jews to termites, for heaven’s sake. I think this should have opened all TV shows, all news. This guy is not a meaningless person in the U.S. He compared Jews to termites and he got a round of applause.”

“It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not an issue of Republicans or Democrats, or Left or Right,” Bennett remarked. “We have to condemn the David Dukes of the world, the Louis Farrakhans of this world. We have to stand up to anti-Semitism whenever it’s there.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.