Former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett spoke at Duke Wednesday evening in Page Auditorium, where nearly a hundred students and Duke community members walked out in protest.
Bennett served as prime minister from June 2021 to June 2022. Before rising to this position, he served in various cabinet positions, including minister of defense and minister of economy.
Critics say Bennett, who rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state and had committed to a “shrinking of the conflict” between Israel and Palestine, perpetuated previous Israeli leaders’ intentions to expand Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and withhold a reversal of the 54-year occupation.
Bennett previously led the Jewish Home Party, which promoted Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The talk, hosted by the Center for Jewish Studies in conjunction with Duke’s Program in American Grand Strategy and Jewish Life at Duke, also featured Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few distinguished professor of public policy.
Laura Lieber, professor of religious studies and smart director of the Center for Jewish Studies, introduced Bennett. Lieber focused on the importance of “fostering lively civil and challenging conversation” at a university. She noted that the event “has already proved contentious, just in its anticipation,” and she “took hope” in the fact that no one had approached the organizers to cancel the event.
When Lieber asked the audience to welcome Bennett, she was met with both cheers and booing.
Bennett opened by tracing his career from serving in the Israeli military to founding and selling a software company. Then, when he returned to military service in the Lebanon War, his best friend died, and Bennett said he felt that the “leadership in Israel had let us down,” and volunteered to be then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
Jentleson asked about Bennett’s time as director of the Yesha council, an organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the contested West Bank and Gaza territories. The council’s mission is to “ensure Israel’s right to the land” in what the United States and international law considers to be “occupied territories.”
Bennett said that Jews and Palestinians “better figure out how we're going to get along.” He argued that Israel tried the Palestinian state approach twice before, and the consensus view is that this approach doesn’t work.
“You hand over land, you give them everything, and you get out of their area and they're just shooting rockets at you all day,” Bennett continued, before being interrupted by an audience member who shouted, “It’s a prison!” in reference to Gaza.
Bennett described his policy as providing Palestinians with “the opportunity to better their lives.” He noted that under his government, Gaza citizens were allowed to enter Israel during the day to work and return to Gaza at night. “They earn in Israel 10 times the salary they earn in Gaza,” he said.
According to Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, Gazan workers earned an average of 6 times more money working in Israel as they had when they worked in Gaza.
“Be tough on terror and open with the community,” Bennett said. “That’s my approach.”
Throughout the first twenty minutes of the talk, Bennett was interrupted multiple times by audience members shouting. Some attendees shushed the protestors in response.
As Jentleson started on his next question, around 100 attendees stood up and walked out of Page in protest. As they filed out, some shouted at Bennett, calling him a “war criminal” and “murderer.” Others yelled, “Free Palestine.”
The protestors, some carrying Palestinian flags and others wearing traditional Palestinian keffiyeh scarves, chanted as they left the building.
“From the river to the sea!” organizer Dana Alhasan called out. After the crowd repeated the phrase, she continued, “Palestine will be free!” echoed by the crowd. She then repeated the chant in Arabic.
“I’ve learned that screaming is not the best method,” Bennett said as attendees left the auditorium.
“Our goal here as a university is to have a dialogue of expressions and views. Freedom of speech is of course a right, but with every right comes responsibility. I think we all have a responsibility to try and express our views in ways that don’t trample on the rights of others who are trying to engage in discussion,” Jentleson said. He was met with applause from the remaining audience.
Bennett said he supports the right to protest, but added, “Does that change anyone’s minds? No. A better approach would be to engage in dialogue.”
On Abele Quad
Meanwhile, protestors gathered on Abele Quad. Other organizers had set up a folding table, a speaker and a microphone. One organizer addressed the crowd, explaining that they had catered dinner on its way. “We definitely don’t have enough food, we didn’t think this many people would come,” the organizer joked.
The gathered crowd spanned all ages, including a group of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and several community members in addition to Duke students and faculty.
As soon as the food arrived, it was snatched up, as protestors set up picnic blankets to eat and wait for the talk to end.
Durham resident Burhan Ghanayem, co-founder of the North Carolina chapter of the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, said that it is important to educate students in “the true face of Bennett and Israel.” He argued that Israel has occupied Palestine for over 70 years, and has been denying “every right for the Palestinian people.”
Ghaneyem recounted that when he visited his family in Palestine, “it was nothing that [Bennett] is describing. It is a complete denial of basic rights, of the freedom of movement, a denial of ownership — they confiscate and steal the land at any time, they shoot and execute people in the streets with no responsibility, detentions and arrests, blowing [up] homes.”
He went on to say that his family’s farmland was stolen 10 to 12 years ago, and called out the Israeli government for uprooting hundreds of olive trees in the West Bank.
The more people know about Israel, Ghaneyem said, the closer people can get to a peace settlement in the Middle East.
Even as the chants continued — “Resistance is justified, if people are occupied” — the mood of the gathering was closer to a party than a solemn occasion.
With Palestinian music playing, groups of friends eating on the lawn, and some teaching each other the traditional Palestinian Dabke dance, spirits remained high through the evening.
Bennett’s time as prime minister
Bennett continued to explain how he formed his government, which was the most diverse in Israel’s history, and noted that his political inclination is right of center. Bennett’s cabinet included nine female ministers, two Arab ministers, two openly gay ministers, and a minister with disabilities.
He described how he met with Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamist party Raam, and although he was suspicious of Abbas, he was open-minded.
“He told me, ‘Look, I'm not Zionist, I recognize Israel as a Jewish state. And I'm not out to fight Israel, I’m out to improve the lives of 2 million Arab Israelis.’ And I said that's exactly what I want to do,” Bennett said.
Bennett invited Abbas to join his government, making Raam the first independent Arab party to enter an Israeli governing coalition in 2021.
Bennett spoke on the success of his government, citing a reduced unemployment rate of 4%, but noted that this success only lasted a year because of “the pressure of [Abbas’] base on his party members and the pressure of my base on my party members.”
“I think the only way forward is a moderate middle,” he said.
He noted that during his tenure he utilized what he called the “70-70 rule,” in which 70% of Israelis agreed on 70% of the issues. Agreed upon issues include better public transportation, security, jobs and education. The other 30% included Arab, Israeli or Palestinian issues, religion and state. As prime minister, Bennett decided to “shelve [the 30% issues] for a while ... Now let’s just do the rest ... And when you pull out the ideologically tense issues, suddenly all the walls and moats around each other evaporate.”
“We got so much done. It’s said that in one year we got four years of work done, and that’s true,” he said.
Jentleson then asked how Israel “got from the successes of [Bennett’s] government, to this current government, which has extreme elements in it?”
Bennett answered that he believes Israel is experiencing “its biggest domestic crisis since its establishment” in 1948. Israel’s current political climate, Bennett said, is not just due to the government’s proposal to reduce the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, but a broader question of the future of Israel as people were “taken aback” by “government overreach.” But he also said he sees Israelis “fighting for Israel's future because they care ... And I’ll give you a spoiler, democracy will prevail.”
An audience member asked what Bennett would do if Palestinians refuse to be part of his favored one-state solution. Bennett responded that Palestinians are already governing themselves and should continue to do so.
“They should have their own elections, which they have not had until , their own flag, everything, barring two things,” Bennett said. He continued that Palestinians should not have their own military, and Palestinian refugees shouldn’t be able to move into the land of Israel, because this would create a “demographic nightmare.”
In response to another audience question about balancing Palestinian rights and Israel’s security, Bennett explained his policy of “saying yes unless there is a good reason to say no” regarding Palestinian demands.
Bennett then addressed Israel’s role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in response to a question on why Israel has not supported economic sanctions against Russia. He recounted a meeting he had with Vladimir Putin before the war started.
“We were supposed to have a one hour meeting in Sochi,” Bennett said, “I came over and we spent five and a half hours. In fact, he took me on a walk on the beach of the Black Sea.”
Once war broke out, Bennett said that Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked him to use his relationship with Putin to negotiate an end to the conflict. “During that [negotiation] process, there was considerable progress on both sides,” Bennett said.
Israel’s first consideration is the high number of Jews who live in both Russia and Ukraine, so Bennett wanted to make sure that Israel could help refugees from both countries. He also noted that Russia is allied with Syria, while Israel continues to attack the Iranian presence in Syria. Had he taken a strong stance against Russia, Bennett said he would have put his military in harm’s way.
Bennett’s last question was about whether there’s room in the Jewish American community for those who may be critical about various aspects of Israeli policy.
“Absolutely,” he answered. “When you care about something, you're also critical of it.”
He acknowledged that Israel is an “imperfect nation,” but asserted that even as “the most threatened country on Earth … we’re a thriving democracy doing good for the world.”
‘We live in the heart of the empire’
As Bennett’s talk wrapped up nearly an hour later and attendees began to leave the auditorium, the remaining fifty protestors gathered to hear Alhasan speak. After wishing the crowd Happy Ramadan, she said that “Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world.”
“Shame!” the crowd yelled back.
She discussed inhumane conditions faced by Palestinian residents in the territory, connecting Palestinian activism to the United States. American police officers train and exchange officers with the Israeli Defense Forces, she said.
The crowd applauded when she noted that Durham became the first city in the United States to ban exchange between the city police department and the IDF.
“We live in the heart of the empire, the belly of the beast,” Alhasan said, calling on the United States to reinvest the $3.8 billion provided annually to the Israeli government in domestic programs for impoverished minority communities.
“Palestine will not be free until people everywhere, until the workers of the world are free,” Alhasan said to cheers.
As attendees walked past the demonstration as they left Bennett’s talk, she resumed leading chants.
“Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry, Palestine will never die! Gaza, Gaza, don’t you see? Palestine will be free!”
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Anisha Reddy is a Trinity junior and a senior editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator of The Chronicle's 119th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 118.