Save for six years (1999-2005) as CEO of Cyote Corp., the technology-based anti-fraud company he co-founded and subsequently sold for $145 million, Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett has been in combat mode ever since the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal tabbed him at 19 for a role in its elite reconnaissance operations.
At 43, the national-religious product of a San Francisco Zionist coupling has faced down some of the toughest interrogators in international television – CNN’s Chistiane Amanpour, Bloomberg News’ Charlie Rose, BBC Hardtalk’s Steven Sackur and Conflict Zone’s Tim Sebastian in Germany, among others – on everything from PA-inspired terrorism to his case for Israel’s annexation of the Gush Etzion bedroom communities outside Jerusalem. While his Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party’s eight Knesset seats in a two-seat Likud coalition majority, fell short of gaining him the Foreign Ministry portfolio on which he’d set his sights (Netanyahu is a holding it as a prize for a Zionist Union entry into the coalition) Bennett is packing a wallop rarely seen in the Education Ministry and never witnessed in the recently minted Diaspora Affairs Ministry. It has put him in combat on four fronts: with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, the secular portion of the state public school system, the powerful Council for Higher Education and the IDF head-hunting NGO “Breaking the Silence.”
Illustrative of the religio-political black hole shadowing any attempt to synchronize portfolios as ideologically loaded as public education and Diaspora relations is the one-two punch Bennett received from Rabbi Lau for having the temerity to stop by the Conservative Movement’s Solomon Schechter Day School on a recent visit to New York and from the “progressive” Hebrew daily Ha’aretz for perpetrating a “religious assault on public education.” Bennett, of course, gives as well as he gets. To Lau’s contention that he should have sought “the advice of a [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi“ before exposing himself to a Movement that “distances Jews from the past and the future of the Jewish people,” he replied “I consult with rabbis on halachic questions; I don’t consult with rabbis on my political actions or policies. As Israel’s representative to the Diaspora I will continue to meet with Jews of all denominations.”
Choosing to respond only indirectly to Ha’aretz’s charge that the 19 million-shekel budget of the Education Ministry-related “Centers for Jewish Identity” is earmarked for “a well-organized attempt to ‘proselytize’ secular students,” Bennett was offering no apologies for his effort to mainstream “Torah and Jewish values” into the curriculum of an Israeli school network. Those values have “decisive importance at a time when children are exposed to a shallow culture and in strengthening the ‘Jewish spark’ in all of us,” averred a Centers spokesman. Ha’aretz’s concession that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to cleanse the secular school division of “Bennett’s emissaries” and their “missionary activities” speaks more to the impact they are making on public education than to the power of the Education Ministry.
The latter’s sting, however, has been keenly felt in recent months by the professorial Pooh Bahs who stand guard over what is still a predominantly left-liberal higher education establishment in Israel. That Bennett is undaunted by them was illustrated in his “summary dismissal,” in the words of Ben-Gurion University Humanities Faculty Dean Dr. David Newman, of Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron from her post as vice chair of the powerful Council of Higher Education (CHE). Granting that it is entirely within the Education Minister’s rights as CHE chairman to choose his second in command, Newman used his weekly Jerusalem Post column to excoriate Bennett for having broken protocol with his intervention “in the running of the universities and other institutes of higher education” which has heretofore proceeded “without any undue interference from politicians.”
Bennett has not, at this writing, named a successor to the CHE vice chairmanship but he’s made it clear that “interference” in an Old Boy/Girl bureaucratic machine that has informed Israel’s academic course for lo these many years is precisely what he’s about. Within a week of Messer-Yaron’s dismissal, he appointed, per Newman, a “relatively unknown professor of law from Bar Ilan University, an institution with which he [Bennett] shares obvious political affiliations,” to the chairmanship of the University Budget Committee (VATAT), a body second only in power to the Committee for Higher Education.
“Everyone is waiting with bated breath,” Newman submits, “to see who [Bennett] will appoint” as new vice chair of CHE and to what extent the appointee “will be beholden to him for political considerations and will do his bidding.” What, if anything, that might amount to is likely to be small change compared to the “bidding” long accorded to the Left by a university bureaucracy of its peers.
If further evidence of his role as the Likud coalition’s foot soldier was needed, Bennett served it up with a December 15th Education Ministry order banning “Breaking the Silence,” (BtS), a far-left NGO specializing in the collection of statements from mainly anonymous veterans attesting to alleged IDF human rights abuses, from addressing students at any of the Israeli high schools they’ve been trying to infiltrate. The Defense Ministry has barred BtS from all events attended by soldiers after examining its claims and finding them highly questionable. “Those who besmirch the IDF have no place in the educational system,” Bennett asserted in a terse statement, not the one he’s running anyway.
William Mehlman represents AFSI in Israel.