There’s an old Jewish joke that begins with two Jews being dragged by anti-Semites before a firing squad. One of the Jews cries out, “I am innocent! You must stop this barbarous act!” And the other Jew elbows him in the ribs and hisses, “Quiet down! You’ll upset them!”
It is the mentality of the second Jew, now dressed up as a Tel Avivian hipster, that Israeli politician Naftali Bennett pillories in a new ad in advance of the upcoming Israeli elections. Bennett, an erstwhile tech entrepreneur who turned to politics after selling his company and making millions, is the leader of the right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home. The party is against the creation of a Palestinian state, and Bennett himself is a controversial figure, not least for his penchant for making off-color remarks, such as the time he told The New Yorker: “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic.” Or the time he told an Arab MK, “When you were still swinging from trees, we had a Jewish state here,” or the time he suggested that Palestinian terrorists should be shot, seeing as “I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that.”
In Israel, Bennett has pitched himself as a “bro”—quite literally, as in the ad campaign “Bennett’s a Bro” and its attendant meme generator. In the new ad, however, Bennett himself plays the role of the hipster. The usually clean-cut Bennett is now dressed up in a long, fake beard, a flannel shirt and a pink watch, a baseball cap covering his bald pate, replacing his trademark small knit yarmulke. The ad shows Bennett in three scenarios in which he is wronged—a waitress spills coffee on him, an impatient driver rear-ends him, a woman grabs the Tel Aviv version of a Citibike out from under him—and yet in every scenario, Bennett’s hipster apologizes profusely. “I am sorry, I really am. I really apologize,” are the only sentences uttered throughout the ad, except for when the character, played with surprising aplomb by Bennett, opens his Haaretz newspaper to find a New York Times op-ed demanding that Israel apologize for the Flotilla debacle that left nine activists dead. “They’re right,” he says, nodding with Colbertian sagacity. The ad ends with Bennett, now beardless, asking people to register for his party. “Starting today, we stop apologizing,” he says.
The ad’s message is straightforward: Bennett’s character represents those who would have Israel constantly apologize for the sin of merely existing, themselves the wronged party who are always being asked to apologize. It casts these remorseful leftists as Israeli culture’s biggest nightmare: the friar, or sucker.
The ad takes aim at what conservative Iraelis call the “Tel Aviv Bubble”—safe from the country’s dangerous frontiers, rich Tel Avivians have the luxury to be leftists. As Tal Kra-Oz points out, just 10,482 of the city’s residents voted for Habayit Hayehudi, representing just 4 percent of Tel Aviv ballots.
But the ad’s target is not really a Tel-Avivian hipster; rather, it is anyone who feels that Israel has ever done anything wrong—be it the Flotilla, the war in Gaza, or the occupation more generally. The ad casts such nay-sayers as effete layabouts who walk little dogs and wear jewelry. Bennett is using this feminized male as a characterization of leftist thought—weak, image-conscious, fearful.
The ad mocks the beta-male, who fantasizes about being macho and brusque, taking what’s his without paying heed to the burden of apologizing or worrying about hurting others. It’s an aggressively male fantasy, a bull’s eye for a certain dominant stream of Israeli culture. The ad's cleverness lies in the way it matches this psychological component with one that is historical, and political. It’s the latest iteration of Max Nordau’s “muscular Judaism” which he described in his 1898 address to the Second Zionist Congress. For the fantasy of a machismo that precludes the need for apologies is also the fantasy of the exile, of the disempowered and disenfranchised, and it’s been a part of the Zionist narrative from the start.
“In Zionist ideology, the old Jew was the diaspora Jew—effeminate, weak, pale, overly feminized, not sure of himself and never sure of his place, the overly intellectualized Jew, either due to learning too much Torah or too much Jewish Enlightenment works,” explained Dr. Shayna Weiss, an Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow at Bar Ilan University. “The way Zionism fixed the problem of the Jewish man was to make him a New Jew—strong, not care, not apologize for anything, we’re here to do what we’re going to do, and that’s what’s going to make us normal and heterosexual and strong.” Or, as Weiss put it, “Zionism means never having to say you’re sorry.”
In Zionist mythology, the Old Jew was the Diasporic Jew, as opposed to the New Jew of the Homeland. Bennett’s ad appropriates the narrative of the New Jew, says Weiss, but this time, it’s the bougie culture of Tel Aviv that has made Israelis soft, and it is Bennett come to save them from themselves.
Bennett’s ad specifically contrasts his character’s profuse apologies with the way those who wrong him also aggressively dismiss him without apologizing—the macho driver who rear-ends him, the unsmiling waitress who spills his coffee, the busy career-woman who takes his bike, all of whom glare at him or roll their eyes. Though in the ad's metaphor they are clearly meant to represent Israel's wrong-doers—Hamas, say, or the EU—the logic of the ad suggests obliquely that they’ve actually got it right—even if you spill a cup of coffee or two, “Starting today, we stop apologizing.” As one friend put it, “I wonder what kind of material was left on the cutting room floor? Do you think there are scenes of him knocking on Arabs’ doors in Jaffa begging for forgiveness?” The ad’s genius is that it incorporates into its platform the idea that even if you are the spiller, the rear-ender, the bike thief, don’t apologize. Instead, well… be a man.