Last Wednesday, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely gave an interview to i24 News. Many responded to the thoughts she expressed in the last few minutes of the relatively long interview with outrage. She has since been widely denounced by American Jewish leaders, Israeli politicians and internet activists.
The media scandal
Ms. Hotovely has been accused of causing a rift between American Jews and Israel, being insensitive, offensive and stupid.
Some Israeli commentators have expressed horror that a “person like her” is in such a delicate position (i.e. liaising with all important Jewish community in America). The media coverage both in Israel and abroad has used highly emotive terminology such as “accuses” and “attacks” to describe what was said. Headlines imply that Ms. Hotovely’s statements could drive the ultimate wedge between American Jews and Israel, causing diaspora Jews to abandon Israel altogether.
Such extreme commentary is rare. I did not see the interview when it aired. It was the backlash that made me wonder, what could she possibly have said that is so awful? Thankfully, in today’s world, everything is recorded and accessible online.
So, what did she actually say?
Ms. Hotvely was interviewed by two people, Calev Ben David and Nurit Ben. I have brought below the parts of the interview that sparked the controversy.
Interviewer Calev Ben David asked Ms. Hotovely: “Is Israel losing the young Jews of America and doesn’t your government have some responsibility for that through some of the policies that you are pursuing?”
Hotovely answered: “I have to ask you, what is happening with Hillel? What is happening with freedom of speech and academic freedom? …. The problem is that those young people, in the top ivy league universities are not willing to open their mind to different opinions and I think that is tragic. It has nothing to do with the way the Israeli government is handling, because you should have asked me this question if I wasn’t doing outreach to Princeton, if I stayed in Israel and said I didn’t care about these people but I DO care about these people! Some of them are my brothers (the Jews of course), some of them are young Americans interested in what I have to talk about…”
Here Tzipi Hotovely emphasized her desire to speak to American Jews, even those whose opinions differ from hers, because she sees them as her “brothers”. She also expressed frustration at a campus atmosphere that is willing to shut down free speech over a difference in opinion. She did not say that she believes everyone should hold the same opinion as hers. She said that she wishes conversation to be possible because she cares about American Jews (and American non-Jews who are interested in Israel). Is that bad?
Ben-David interrupted, using as an example an American Jewish friend who complained about not being able to pray the way he wanted at the Kotel, asking: “Why isn’t the government doing everything possible to make American Jews closer to Israel?”
Hotovely answered: “I think that it’s a very important goal to bring American Jews closer to Israel. I think this is one of my goals but we need to be open about this.”
Again, the desire to have an honest and open conversation.
“The solution that the Israeli government found about the Kotel issue, with having a beautiful place called Ezrat Yisrael, I’ve been there. Most of the time it’s empty and the reason it’s empty, if you ask me, is not because they don’t like the arrangement. The reason it’s empty is because, most of the time those people are not even interested in going to the Kotel. And the Israeli government was doing really a lot to make sure that the people can have an egalitarian prayer. Women can go together with their families. Men can go together with their daughters. Everything is set up. But they are not willing to get that because, if you ask me, this is a political matter. They want to get recognition through the Kotel issue and they are making a religious holy site something for political dispute.”
Ben-David: “So it’s all their fault?”
Hotovely: “I think that the solution that was offered was really quite good.”
Did you know that there is a lovely egalitarian prayer section at the Kotel where anyone can pray, however they want? I personally think it is nicer than the other section but like Tzipi Hotovely said, every time I have been there (and I have gone at all times of the day and night), I have never seen anyone praying there.
Nurit Ben, interjected: “When we’re talking about what is described as an abyss between American Jewry and the Israeli government, for many reasons, whether it is a massive ideological divide, whether it is egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, conversions, or the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace, American Jews are believed to be today and very vocally growing much further from Israel. Can you understand those Jews that feel that they no longer have a connection with Israel on any level?”
Did you notice the implication in this question? There is an abyss between American Jewry and the Israeli government because of a lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace? As if it is because the Israeli government has not done enough to reach out for peace?! Is it the fault of Israeli Jews (who overwhelmingly chose this government) that there is no peace?! This is a shocking idea. Interestingly Hotovely was not defensive about this and simply responded with what she sees as the cause of the abyss.
Hotovely: “Well, I can’t understand that. Because maybe they are too young to remember how it feels to be a Jewish person without a Jewish homeland, without a Jewish State. I think the memory is too short. 70 years ago, the Jewish people went through a horrible Holocaust because there was not a nation state for the Jews to go to.
I see the truth of this statement in my own home, in Israel. My own children are unable to comprehend not having the State of Israel. Their grandparents survived the Holocaust. Their parents were raised, hearing what it was like to have no state, to be utterly defenseless in the world and having to fight for Israel’s survival. The children of today, Israeli children who have seen wars and been to the funerals of friends murdered by terrorists cannot conceive of a day when Israel might cease to exist. Memory is short. This is the reality of the generation gap and growing up in (relative) freedom. If Israeli youth have difficulty understanding this, American young people will have an even more difficult time understanding.
This is not an accusation or an attack, this honest realism.
Nurit Ben: “So should all Jews be accepted in that nation state?”
Frankly, this question is more than a little offensive. Since when has there ever been a question about this??
Hotovely: “Of course! I am always saying, this is the home of ALL Jews, from all streams. Everyone is welcome to come here, to influence Israeli politics. Please. Come. As I said, I’m willing not to have a right-wing leadership in order to have all Jews sharing this beautiful, amazing place that is called Israel.”
Listen to that! I am willing to not have a right-wing leadership (Ms. Hotovely’s party) in order to have ALL Jews share Israel. What politician, in the history of the world, has ever proclaimed willingness to lose power in order to have all of their nation enjoy the same benefits they have?? Tzipi Hotovely, idealistic as she is, holds a higher ideal than that of her politics – the Nation of Israel should be united, in Israel -and she is willing to give up her personal power in order to gain this.
This is nothing short of astounding and yet, all the commentary I have seen on this interview has completely overlooked this statement.
Hotovely’s final statements seems to have been the source of most of the controversy:
“But there is another issue and I think that issue is not understanding the complexity of the region.”
The Middle East has dumbfounded statesmen, politicians, religious leaders and philosophers from biblical times. This is not an accusation, it is simply a statement of fact.
“People that [have] never sent their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers going to the Marines and going to Afghanistan or to Iraq, most of them are having quite convenient lives, they don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel is dealing with on a daily basis.”
This has caused a lot of confusion so let’s break it down:
“People that [have] never sent their children” –
This statement refers to one generation of people that have not sent their offspring.
This obviously does not refer to all time, from the beginning of history.
In the same vein, this does not refer to people who have sent their children.
Honest reading of this statement makes the intention very clear. There is absolutely no reason to be offended because “Jews fought in many wars” or because “my family enlisted”. This statement refers to the people who have not fought. And yes, she did mean to say “have”. She is Israeli and while her English is very good, it is not her first language. English IS my first language and I don’t believe I would have succeeded in speaking with as great an accuracy as she did in this double-pronged interview.
“To fight for their country”
This statement also seems to have confused many people. What did she mean by “their country”? America or Israel?
From the words she used after this, it is obvious that she was referring to US military service. The IDF does not have Marines and we do not fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Interestingly a number of people chose to be offended by things she did not say.
“Why was she disrespectful to lone soldiers?!” seemed to me a particularly strange objection considering that she did not mention lone soldiers at all (Well, then why didn’t she?!) because she was speaking about American military service. Lone soldiers obviously do not fall under the category of “those who have never sent their children to fight.”
To clarify, lone soldiers, soldiers that come from the US or other diaspora communities to serve in the IDF are held in high regard by Israelis for two reasons:
- Few actually make this step – while any support of Israel is appreciated, standing shoulder to shoulder with us, showing up physically, possibly putting your life on the line, is given much higher value than moral or financial support.
- They don’t have to – Israeli are drafted in defense of our country. We defend our country for our families and friends but also for the Jews who may need (and hopefully will want) to come here. We have to, otherwise we would be annihilated. Lone soldiers give up the comforts of home, family and what is usually a comfortable life abroad to join us. This is a sacrifice by choice rather than necessity and that makes it more meaningful.
Some commenters declared that it is unfeasible or improper to demand that all Jews enlist in the IDF. The only thing is that no one requested this happen, much less demanded this.
“most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers going to the Marines and going to Afghanistan or to Iraq”
This is true of most Americans, not just American Jews. Most don’t have children serving as soldiers. Most Americans do not know anyone who is a soldier and many have never seen a US soldier in real life. There are certain areas of the USA where it is more common to serve but that does not reflect on the majority of the population. As a Jewish child in Detroit I knew no one, Jew or non-Jew currently serving in the military. My grandfather was a Marine in WW2. In his generation everyone served. In mine, very few and no one I knew served.
“most of them are having quite convenient lives”
Could it be that, of all things Ms. Hotovely said, this is what was construed as an attack on American Jewry? If so, could the expressions of offense actually be masking feelings of guilt?
Most American Jews DO have convenient lives. It is easier to live in America than in Israel. The salaries are higher, the cost of living is (usually) lower and terrorism and war are things that usually happen “over there”. Israeli Jews don’t resent Americans for having good and comfortable lives. We don’t want Jews anywhere to suffer and we pray for the day that all Jews have convenient lives.
“they don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel is dealing with on a daily basis.”
Americans don’t know what it is like to be attacked by rockets. Americans have never had to race to bomb shelters, praying that the rocket will not hit your home, that if it does, the bomb shelter will be strong enough to protect you even if the rest of the house comes crashing down.
Americans have never been trapped outside with no place to go for protection and no way to protect their children besides sheltering them with your own body.
The vast majority of Americans have never witnessed a terror attack and have never or known anyone who had to battle a terrorist with their bare hands. When Americans go to the grocery store they don’t worry about being butchered by a terrorist.
The vast majority of Americans have never had to take their children to the funeral of a classmate murdered by a terrorist. Or to the funeral of a soldier one year older than them, who was killed in a war.
Even Americans who have service members in their families don’t know what it is like, knowing your son is fighting for his life just a few miles away from you and you are powerless to protect him. Hearing the news of soldiers killed, the names not yet released (because the families were not yet notified) and being terrified that the knock will be on your door.
And you know what? We don’t want Americans to know. We want Jews everywhere to be able to enjoy a peaceful life of not knowing.
None of Tzipi Hotovely’s statements were accusations. They were all statements of fact. It is living in this reality, living as we live in Israel, that gives us our perspective. Only those who have walked in our shoes can truly understand. That is a truism relevant to all situations…
Careful consideration of everything Ms. Hotovely said, I am at a loss to find anything offensive, accusatory or inappropriate. She spoke the truth with kindness and grace, repeatedly stressing the desire to have good, open and honest relations with American Jewry.
I am left to wonder, was the real spark of the outrage caused by the idea that, if American Jews want to influence Israeli politics, they need to first become Israeli?
Or was it actually something said earlier in the interview? Tzipi Hotovely laid out the main principles the Israeli government holds in regard to any future peace agreement:
- The settlements are not the issue that is preventing peace
- No Jews or Arabs will be uprooted from their homes for the sake of territorial exchange
- Washington will not impose an unacceptable peace deal that endangers Israeli security
- Jews have 3000 years of connection to Judea and will continue to live in Judea
- IDF will retain security control between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river – for the protection of both Israelis and Palestinian, in order to prevent the creation of another terrorist state like Gaza.
- Jerusalem remains the undivided capital of Israel
These principles are diametrically opposed to the sentiments held by the political left (to which most American Jews subscribe). Obama, Clinton and basically every American administration before the current one, have championed the policies of the left. In Israel, reality has caused the political left to diminish drastically. Land for peace has proved an utter failure, over and over. One sided withdrawal from territory has made it possible for ISIS and Iran to set up camp on our northern border and turned Gaza into a terror state that tortures its own citizens and is a constant threat to ours. In America, it is still possible to hold leftist views – because it is not American lives who are in danger.
Could it be that this is the real reason Tzipi Hotovely was so widely denounced? Either listeners have a comprehension problem (which I do not believe) or the outrage is really a scream of despair that a decades long, failed political platform is no longer acceptable.