“Hands out of your pockets, sir!” barked a U.S. Secret Service agent at a bewildered pedestrian as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett walked down the Fifth Avenue sidewalk in New York City, accompanied by a large entourage of Secret Service and Shin Bet agents, aides and reporters. A long motorcade of Black Secret Service Suburbans and police cars rolled alongside with blue lights flashing, keeping pace with the walkers.

It was the eve of Shemini Atzeret, and Bennett had just come from the Kehilat Jeshurun Synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 85th Street, where he attended services and also delivered a short speech. He walked the 20-plus blocks from the synagogue back to his hotel on Park Avenue.

This is not the first time the synagogue played host to an Israeli leader.

In 1977, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin addressed the congregation. In 1983, Israeli President Yitzhak Navon also spoke there. And Benjamin Netanyahu attended services there when he was a member of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in the 1980s.

This is not the first time an Israeli prime minister walked on Shabbat instead of driving.

In 1996, Netanyahu, this time as prime minister, walked seven blocks from the Stanhope Hotel on the Upper East Side, where he was staying, to the synagogue.

In October 1981, Begin attended Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s funeral in Cairo, which was held on a Saturday. So as not to desecrate Shabbat, Begin insisted on walking from his hotel to pay his respects to Sadat and offer condolences to his wife.

And in 1967, when German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s funeral was held on a Saturday, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion walked behind the motorcade.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attending Kehilat Jeshurun Synagogue on Sept. 30, 2021. Source: Facebook/Kehilat Jeshurun Synagogue.

Throughout his trip, Bennett’s central message, repeated at the end of his address at the United Nations on Monday morning, his first inaugural major speech as premier, was that Israel is a lighthouse in a stormy sea.

“Our best days are ahead of us,” he said. “Israel is a nation of great hope. Israel is a nation that has brought the heritage of the Torah to life in modern-day Israel—a nation of an unbreakable spirit. A bit of light dispels much darkness. The lighthouse among the stormy seas stands tall, stands strong and her light shines brighter than ever.”

All three speeches Bennett gave that day mirrored this central message.

His speech to the synagogue congregants on Monday evening, though less significant, also emphasized the connection between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry, with him speaking fondly of his time spent in New York when he lived there two decades ago.

At the United Nations, Bennett aimed to strike a different chord than his predecessor and avoided using props or gimmicks to drive home his point. While every leader generally seeks to differentiate themselves, in this case, it may have been accentuated due to bad blood between him and Netanyahu.

Bennett also believes that Netanyahu mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, mainly by closing down the country; instead, the current premier wants to keep the country open and get everyone to vaccinate.

Furthermore, on the American diplomatic front, Bennett wants to strengthen Israel’s ties with the Democratic Party, which he believes, rightly or wrongly, that Netanyahu damaged. Bennett also wants to develop trust and a good, working relationship with U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration.

Whether these can be considered a sound approach or lofty, unachievable goals remain to be seen. Either way, Bennett sees himself as a leader who can withstand political pressure and go against the tide, even if it’s unpopular.

The Israeli leader also appeared determined to change the paradigm by which Israel is understood. A number of times during the trip he emphasized the need for Israel to be seen as a country with energy, optimism, success and a strong, even optimal future.

Asked what his main objectives of the trip were, Bennett told JNS that his U.N. speech was, first and foremost, the main intent of the trip. At the same time, the goal was to tell the story of Israel as one of optimism and energy alongside the need to extricate itself from the corner in which it finds itself labeled as dealing only with security and conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with U.N.s Secretary-General António Guterres. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.

Bennett emphasized that Israel is more than what it is perceived to be, and those who pigeonhole Israel as a country that deals only with security and conflict are mistaken. The country may always be dealing with conflict, but the country is not about conflict, he said; it’s about its past and future achievements in many varied fields.

The second significant speech he gave was at the Moise Safra Center on the Upper East Side on Monday afternoon, where he spoke to representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the crowd was small, but many attendees joined via Zoom.

There, he spoke from the heart, without a prepared text, thanking the Jewish community for its support of Israel. “You have our backs,” he said and repeated what he told JNS earlier that he is “working hard in a very tough area to build an optimistic, energetic, ‘can do’ country. Knowing that each and every one of you is working always to strengthen us means so much.”

‘We bring with us a new spirit’

The last decade has witnessed a widening chasm between Jews in Israel and Jews in the American Diaspora. A number of sensitive issues such as conversion and mixed prayer at the Western Wall have long been managed (or mismanaged, as some would argue) by the haredi parties. Bennett’s government seeks to change that reality and create a more welcoming atmosphere for Conservative and Reform Jews, who have long felt alienated from the Jewish state over such policies.

Bennett called for the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Jews on either side of the Atlantic, promising to work towards creating more common ground between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything; we’re not,” he acknowledged. “But we’re going to talk to each other and we’re going to listen to each other. Now, we have to redesign our relationship.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 27, 2021. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.

He returned once again to his theme of Israel as a lighthouse in a stormy sea, this time noting his efforts to build political unity, set aside differences, avoid a fifth election and create a government that can work together to raise the standard of living and lower the cost of living, while steering clear of hot-button issues such as the defunct peace process with the Palestinians.

“We bring with us a new spirit,” he said of his government. “A spirit of goodwill. A spirit of working together. This government, which was an accident, but turned into a purpose.”

Bennett noted that Jews always had “a bug” throughout history—constant division—that tore their ranks asunder. He reminded the audience that the specific reason Judea and Israel became divided around 930 BCE was because of taxes that King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, tried to impose on the public. And that ripped the unified kingdom into two.

“So it’s a bad idea to raise taxes,” he quipped.

He also noted that both Jewish commonwealths that saw two holy temples built and destroyed never exceeded 80 years in the land of Israel as a sovereign, united state.

“We’re now 73 years old, and this time, we’re not going to let it fall apart,” he said to a round of applause.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett talks to American Jewish leaders following a morning address to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 27, 2021. Source: Screenshot.

In those first two significant speeches of the day, Bennett tried to project optimism and present Israel as a beacon of success and hope whether in high-tech or in vanquishing the pandemic.

While his two speeches to the Jewish community were well-received by the attendees and while he avoided discussing any major diplomatic or religious issues or presenting any real solutions to those issues, it is likely they will not give him such an easy pass moving forward.

Bennett’s U.N. speech seems to have had a different effect back home in Israel and much ado has been made over what he did or did not say. He may tout his achievements on many fronts, but his actions—and successes and inevitable failures as well—will speak louder than words.

By making different choices on the political, diplomatic, religious and coronavirus issues, Bennett has made clear that while he may have walked in the footsteps of his predecessors in New York, he seeks to beat his own path at home, even if it means angering the public. It’s not implausible to wonder whether Bennett sees himself right now as that lighthouse in stormy seas.

JNS

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