Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, rankled plenty of North American Jews last week. She was appearing on Israeli TV to respond to the Princeton University Hillel’s decision to cancel her scheduled speech amid protests labeling her as racist and claiming she has caused “irreparable damage to the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” (Her speech at Princeton ultimately went ahead after the campus Chabad invited her to speak there instead.) In an interview on Israel’s i24 network, Hotovely decried the Hillel decision before wading into the deepening rift between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Asked to comment on that growing disconnect, Hotovely suggested Diaspora Jews don’t understand “the complexity of the region.”
“People that never send their children to fight for their country,… 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,” she added.
Those words set off a firestorm across the Jewish world. In Israel, Avi Gabbay, the new head of the Zionist Union, said Hotovely’s remarks were “shameful and embarrassing,” while former prime minister Ehud Barak called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire her. (Both also pointed to the fact that Hotovely did not serve in the Israeli military, instead opting to perform national service as a museum tour guide in Jerusalem and a representative of the Jewish Agency in the United States – Gabbay referred to her as “the great warrior, the moral sermonizer who spent her military service in Atlanta.”) Meanwhile, in the United States, the presidents of the World Jewish Congress and Union for Reform Jewry were among those crying foul, the latter going so far as to claim, “If an American politician had made these comments, we would not hesitate to call them out as anti-
Hotovely quickly apologized amid rumours Netanyahu was considering turfing her. Speaking to the Hadashot TV network, she said, “If someone was hurt by my words, I’m very sorry,” though she did not retract her previous comments. “Apparently, the experience of daily living in America is different from that in Israel,” she continued. “That does not mean that brothers don’t need to talk within the family.”
That last sentence is key. It unsubtly echoes the script Diaspora Jews critical of Israel have been deploying for years – “We may disagree on the politics and democratic virtues of Israel,” they say, “but that doesn’t make us bad Jews.” Indeed it doesn’t, which makes it hard to understand the fracas over Hotovely’s words, to say nothing of Princeton Hillel’s decision to cancel her speech. If it’s OK for one side to criticize, then the same rules should apply to the other side, too.
As to whether Hotovely was correct in her assessment of the difference between Israeli and Diaspora Jews – that serving your country and facing down the constant threat of terror fundamentally alters one’s perception – there is a strong case to be made, though she could have made it with more tact. After all, families need to stick together, through thick and thin.