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Tzipi Hotovely’s Thanksgiving Gift to American Jews

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Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely near the Israeli settlement of Ariel November 03, 2015
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely near the Israeli settlement of Ariel November 03, 2015 Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

On this Thanksgiving weekend, American Jewry should give thanks to and for Tzipi Hotovely. Israel’s talk-before-thinking deputy foreign minister may have insulted and enraged them, but she has singlehandedly done more than almost any other Israeli to draw attention to the tensions and possibly historic breach between Israel and American Jews.

Though it’s true that over the past year the clash between Benjamin Netanyahu and the Reform and Conservative movements over egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall has finally appeared as a blip on the radar of hitherto oblivious Israelis, it was never uppermost in their minds. The standoff with American Jewish leaders was just another one of those petty squabbles over religion and state that plague most Israeli governments; this one, with liberal American Jews rather than ultra-Orthodox Israeli coalition partners, was even more remote than the norm.

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With all due respect to American Jewish women praying at the Kotel alongside men and even the general question of recognizing the Reform and Conservative movements, the current coalition crisis over train maintenance on Shabbat, which led to the resignation on Sunday of Haredi Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, is much more relevant to the lives of most Israelis. It could disrupt vital train services and create huge traffic jams. It could ultimately bring down Netanyahu’s government as well.

But Hotovely’s barbs about Jews who don’t serve in the U.S. army and don’t really care about the Kotel did spark unusually loud howls of protest, from President Reuven Rivlin on down. The deteriorating crisis between Israel and U.S. Jews was suddenly thrust into the limelight and the main headlines. True, it only lasted about 24 hours but that’s nothing to be sneezed at in this era of crazy.

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The political soap opera starring the young and brash deputy minister may have been the hook that got people interested, but the catch was a creeping awareness that something is rotten in the state of relations between Israel and the great American Diaspora. More importantly, perhaps, no one bothered to deny that it was Netanyahu’s decision to revoke the Kotel deal that had made an already bad situation far, far worse. This puts more of an onus on Netanyahu to come up with a compromise that everyone can live with.

To my mind, the danger that some of the bridges burning now can never be rebuilt should have made the American Jewish friction with Israel a top national priority throughout the four months that have passed since the Kotel deal was revoked. But out of sight is out of mind, and most American Jews are not only far away in America but in many ways are also a breed apart from most Israelis. Nevertheless, one should never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially as, in Hotovely’s case, it was her mouth that was the gift itself. 

Were it not for Hotovely, far fewer Israelis would be aware, never mind troubled, by the tension in ties with American Jewry. Even if they don’t support her dismissal from office, many if not most Israelis realize that Hotovely crossed several red lines in her i24 interview, especially given the fact that her job is to improve ties with American Jews, not make them worse. And even though ultra-Orthodox rabbis routinely call Reform Jews goyim and worse and even though the radical right increasingly tries to link Reform Jews to other so-called enemies of the state, from Breaking the Silence to George Soros - many if not most Israelis failed to fathom why it was necessary for an official Israeli to openly insult American Jews, collectively and separately, for no good reason. That is quite an achievement.

Of course, it was only a brief moment in the sun. Political turmoil, corruption probes and the volatile crisis over Iran’s presence in Syria soon took over breaking news and social media. That does not negate the possibility that the situation has fundamentally changed. There is a sense that whatever Netanyahu’s justifications for reneging on the Kotel deal, he done American Jews wrong. In the next round of the trans-Atlantic bout between the two communities, more Israelis will be cheering for the American side, or urging their own side to go easy at the very least. There might even be more political support in the center and right in the Knesset for reaching an accommodation with Reform Jews.

Those American Jewish leaders who are demanding that Hotovely be sacked may be doing themselves more harm than good. They need to weigh the possibility that if she stays at her post, Hotovely could be the gift that keeps on giving. 

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