Naftali Bennett Wants You!

Published in The Daily Beast

Naftali Bennett has been leading a dramatic rebranding of the right-wing national religious party, HaBayit HaYehudi, and polling so high that some predict he could have the third largest party in Israel. His latest effort is an 80-second ad in English, targeting Anglos—as English-speaking immigrants (olim) are called inside Israel—and more specifically American olim.

This ad, which is part of a campaign to create different and more positive associations with the name HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home), is an invitation, not a polemic. It mentions buzzwords—Jewish values and Zionist ideals—and one issue from the party’s platform—Jewish education—but does not harp on any of them. You wouldn’t guess that HaBayit HaYehudi has any connection to the national religious right in Israel, and you might even miss the single reference to West Bank settlements (“I live in Samaria”). You certainly wouldn’t suspect that Bennett has promised he would go to jail rather than evacuate a settlement.

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Campaign propaganda, like all effective propaganda, presents a simple message. In this promo, HaBayit HaYehudi is offering American Jewish olim a new political home. The message “HaBayit HaYehudi is your home” is stated by the five different spokespeople eight times, appears as text on screen an additional three times, and is rephrased again by the talking heads and the text. That’s 11 times in 1 minute and 20 seconds, or once every 7.3 seconds. If you don’t get the message, you’re not listening.

Of course, advertisers don’t count on having your full attention, so the relentless repetition increases the chance that the association of the name “HaBayit HaYehudi” with the word “home” will begin to settle into the recesses of your brain. “Home” is then associated with two other terms, “Jewish values” and “Zionist ideals,” all three conflated with the name of the party. That’s the endgame.

How does the ad work? It’s mostly talking heads and brief text messages flashing on screen. The music is upbeat and low-key throughout, synthesized electric piano with the drum beat moving us along. The opening screen is text in Hebrew: Something new is starting—HaBayit HaYehudi—the Jewish Home—headed by Naftali Bennett.

The new party logo is a solid dark blue Jewish star surrounded by light green lines suggesting a spinning motion, i.e. that things are happening. The green symbolizes freshness, spring and nature, and softens and balances the use of blue-and-white so pervasive in jingoistic right-wing Israeli propaganda for the last 20 years.

A figure comes into focus as the text disappears: an attractive young woman with a long-sleeved blouse and simple pendant, her dark hair pulled back in the unaffected style of the classic Sabra beauty familiar as far back as Cast A Giant Shadow andExodus. She gives us her name, Ayelet Shaked, with her soft Israeli accent, and then we jump immediately to two young men, Jeremy Gimpel, who speaks with an American accent, and Yoni Shedbun, who does not, followed by a middle-aged man with a strong Hebrew accent: “Motiv Yogev, I live in Samaria.” He is the first to tell us anything beyond his name, and this single mention of Samaria, the northern half of the West Bank, is the closest the ad gets to any stance on settlements. Clearly this is a different image for a party previously representing the religious vanguard of the settlement enterprise.

All five spokespeople appear to be Ashkenazi. The men are clean cut and everyone is dressed casually. The men do not wear kipot, or if they do, the kipot are not visible to the camera, another startling change from the party’s former image. While jackets and ties have increasingly become the uniform for media appearances, the boys wear less imposing school clothes. They are neither formal nor distant, the button-down shirts open at the collar signaling vulnerability rather than posturing. Each one speaks alone and directly to the camera, shown exclusively in a one-shot. All are soft-spoken, with slightly embarrassed grins, meant to be inviting and sincere, not a phony toothpaste smile in sight.

We then get a bit of information. Shaked tells us she lives in North Tel Aviv—an area often derided as the heart of hedonist, status-conscious, upscale secular Israel—suggesting without stating outright that she is probably not religious and certainly not a settler. In case the viewer is not thrilled with settlements but still identifies as a Zionist, there will be no conflict. This is followed by the one off-note, that “It doesn’t matter how you dress if you want to bring Jewish values and Zionist ideals to Israel” as if viewers might assume one needs to dress Orthodox to be either a Zionist or an idealist, although presumably the ad is targeting just those people who would not share this assumption.

Gimpel, the American, makes Jewish education a momentary focus, offering two questionable assertions: that Jewish education was the “luxury of a select few” back in America and that the lack of a quality Jewish education is a consensus concern in Israel. I know few Israelis who are satisfied with the education their children are receiving, but the Jewish quality is often less worrying than general pedagogic incompetence. As for the nature of our children’s Jewish learning, the diagnosis of what’s wrong varies as wildly as the prescriptions of how to fix it. But Gimpel’s point is to very briefly create an assumption of a shared agenda—that we all want better Jewish education and that’s one reason we came here. And that his party is more about values and education than the Occupation.

The different spokespeople briefly repeat the buzzwords—Jewish values and Zionist ideals—but the mantra of the ad is “home.” This sets us up for the kicker.

Naftali Bennett introduces himself as the new chairman of the party, adding immediately that his parents are from California. This establishes an American connection and source of identification with the target audience. He strengthens his credentials with the message that his parents chose aliyah “out of Zionism and the love for Israel.” He then invites American immigrants to take the message of theiraliyah—their ideals, their Zionism—to the rest of the country, and to join his party, where their aliyah experience will be welcome and relevant.

Bennett is youthful and dimpled, a receding hairline the only indication of any worldly experience. With his lightly accented English, he comes across as unassuming, friendly and approachable, which is probably not how Benjamin Netanyahu would describe him.

Bennett is a lawyer and wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, the former head of the Yesha (Judea and Samaria) Council who took a leading role in trying to thwart the 2010 settlement freeze. Bennett also ran Netanyahu’s primary campaign in 2007 and served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff while Netanyahu was in the opposition to the Kadima-led government, before the two men had a bitter parting of the ways.

The brilliance of Bennett’s appeal can perhaps best be appreciated by American immigrants to Israel who have attempted to become active in Israeli politics but found Israeli political party culture alienating. While American politics are hardly pure, Israeli politics are marred by demagoguery, backroom deals, high school and army bonds, excessive nepotism, and ancient grudges that seem impenetrable to newcomers. The American model of paying your dues and working your way up in the party (if you can’t bankroll your own campaign), doesn’t apply in a system where you don’t run as an individual candidate. No surprise then that the Knesset rolls have included immigrants from many countries but almost none from the United States.

Bennett’s media savvy is obvious. Just as he seems to be able to recruit Sabra refugees from the Likud, this ad shows his ability to reach out to American olim.

My daughter recently came home with repackaged Silly Putty, bearing a different name, selling for five times the price, and including a pair of googly eyes to stick on, instantly giving the mass of muck a friendly face. We’ll see how effective and how costly Bennett’s repackaging of HaBayit HaYehudi turns out to be.

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