Like her or not, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely deserves some credit for setting off a renewed debate on how American and Israeli Jews perceive — and misunderstand — each other, underscoring a deep division between segments of the two largest Jewish communities in the world.
Hotovely, a young and outspoken member of Likud who is the de facto top diplomat of Israel today, said in an interview last week that American Jews don’t really understand the Middle East because they have “convenient lives,” don’t send their children to the military, and don’t know what it’s like to live under the threat of attack from neighboring enemies.
The immediate response from a number of leaders in Israel and the American-Jewish community was outrage. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister) to fire her, asserting that while Hotovely “has a right to her ill-informed and insulting views…her comments serve to underscore how the Israeli government disdains the majority of North American Jews.” Avi Gabbay, who heads the Zionist Union faction, called Hotovely’s comments “shameful and embarrassing,” and described her, sarcastically, as “the great warrior, the moral sermonizer who spent her military service in Atlanta.” (It is common for Orthodox women like Hotovely to perform their national service as educators abroad.)
Some said that if, according to Hotovely’s calculations, military service is a requirement for loyalty to Israel, the charedi members of the government — more than 20 percent of the current Knesset — should step down. And of course it should be noted that hundreds of young diaspora Jews serve in the IDF as Lone Soldiers, there are Jews in the U.S. military, and American Jews identify with Israel politically, philanthropically, culturally, emotionally, and in many other ways.
Even Netanyahu, who has cautioned his deputy before about voicing her less-than-diplomatic views, was said to have considered replacing her.
But then came the backlash. Right-leaning Israelis acknowledged that Hotovely may have been politically incorrect, but praised her for speaking the truth, whether or not American Jews want to hear it. Admired on the right for her opposition to a Palestinian state and in calling for the annexation of the territories, Hotovely still sought to walk back her remarks the following day, insisting that she feels American Jews are “part of the family” and that she “truly believes in dialogue between Israel and diaspora Jewry, especially the illustrious U.S. Jewry.”
Historian Rafael Medoff points out that American-Jewish leaders have been criticizing Israeli policies since the state came into being, starting with threats to withhold financial support when David Ben-Gurion called for the end of the diaspora and a mass return to the homeland. In recent years there have been persistent complaints about lack of initiative on the peace front, treatment of Palestinians, and failure to recognize the liberal branches of Judaism. It is far more rare, though, for Israeli officials to criticize American Jews, Medoff points out. And when they do, they get in trouble for it.
It’s time to listen to the other side in these squabbles rather than lash out. In an honest relationship, criticism is acceptable, even required, at times. Hotovely should recognize that American Jews should be commended for identifying with and supporting Israel even if most of us do live convenient lives, making the commitment even more impressive. And American Jews must understand that for Israelis living in the constant pressure cooker called the Mideast, security is always the bottom line. Everything else comes second.
It’s never too late for us to get to know each other better.