Opinion |

Tzipi Hotovely Is the Ugly, Extremist Face of Israel. British Jews Should Welcome Her

Israel has been represented for too long by urbane professionals who lull a liberal audience into forgetting they represent a Netanyahu government

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020.
Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Ambassador of Israel to the Court of St. James spends his days surrounded by history. The spacious office is situated on the Crown Estate in Kensington Palace Gardens, in an elegant mansion designed to imitate Christopher Wren’s Marlborough House. It was built originally in 1862 for William Makepeace Thackeray, popular Victorian satirist and author of Vanity Fair, and bought 90 years later by the Rothschild family, as a bequest to the young Jewish state.

There is no history attached to the official residence, a comfortable modern villa in St. John’s Wood, but it has some unique futures, such as a vista of Jerusalem, painted by Winston Churchill during his visit to the city in 1921, which hangs in the drawing room.

The office and residence are empty now, as Mark Regev, the urbane and silver-tongued ambassador left this week, ending his term after four years. The new ambassador, when she finally arrives in London to present her credentials at court, will herself be making history. Tzipi Hotovely, the eighteenth Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, will be the first woman in this position and at 41, by far the youngest.

The daughter of immigrants from the Soviet Republic of Georgia (her father is a salesman for pita bakeries), she is totally self-made, rising meteorically to the highest echelons without any connections. Though she wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist, she spoke out as a young religious woman against the pressure on her generation to make compromises and marry earlier. She herself married at the relatively ancient age, for her community, of 34.

You might think that as a working mother of three small daughters, all under the age of seven, and an impressive career as a lawyer, journalist and politician already to her credit, Hotovely would be greeted in London as an attractive poster-child for Israel.

But no. Na’amod, a young organization of left-wing British Jews, dedicated to campaigning against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza has organized a petition calling on the British government to reject Hotovely’s appointment due to her “appalling record of racist and inflammatory behaviour throughout her political career.”

Mark Regev speaking at the Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day event, 23 January 2018.Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Foreign and Commonwealth Office

They’re not wrong. Hotovely was hand-picked by Benjamin Netanyahu to feature on Likud’s candidate slate in the 2009 Knesset election, after impressing him with her performance as a panelist on a political chat-show, jousting with old white Ashkenazi men like Tommy Lapid, Ari Shavit and Gideon Levy. She is the prototype of the new far-right Likudnik, who have pulled the party to the extreme of the political spectrum.

Hotovely is an unabashed Islamophobe and religious fundamentalist who denies the existence of the Palestinian people and supports annexation of the entire West Bank and Jewish control of the Temple Mount.

Hotovely is also the worst possible representative Israel could send to a country with a proud Jewish community. She is entirely dismissive of the Diaspora.

In 2017 she said in a television interview that American Jews criticizing Netanyahu’s policies can’t understand what Israelis are going through because they live "convenient lives" and "never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq."

Hotovely already had form in lecturing Diaspora Jews. A few months earlier she said in a conference in New York that the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism “chose to take the outside skin of Judaism, the customs and tradition, and to empty it of content from within, instilling liberal values that have no connection to Judaism.”

And it’s not just U.S. Jews that Hotovely has abused. Last year, following a statement of principles of the Board of Deputies, the main representative body of British Jews, which included support in the two-state solution, Hotovely said that “an organization that supports establishing a Palestinian state is clearly working against the Israeli interest.”

As an Israeli, I hate the fact that Hotovely will be representing my country in the country of my birth. As a British Jew, I hate the fact that Hotovely will be Israel’s public face in Britain for the next few years. She embodies much of what is ugly and distressing about Israeli politics at this time in its history. But campaigning for her rejection by Her Majesty’s Government is a bad idea. Not least because that’s not going to happen.

For the last decade, Israel has been represented in Britain by career diplomats and consummate civil servants like Regev and his predecessors Daniel Taub and Ron Prosor. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, adept at talking to (almost) any Jewish group, no matter their political or religious persuasion. Men with pleasant accents, who could lull a liberal audience in to forgetting for a while that they represented a Netanyahu government. They were experts at softening the edges of Israeli policy, and made you feel that they embodied not just the right-wing government, but also the other more user-friendly parts.

Hotovely will not deliver that luxury. Whenever she opens her mouth in London, it will be very clear which part of Israel she is speaking for.

Which is exactly why British Jews, especially those on the left, should welcome her arrival. Hotovely does not represent a majority of Israelis but she certainly speaks for an influential section. She is not a settler herself, but she is the proud spokeswoman of the ideological hardcore pro-settler community in Israel. There’s a reason Netanyahu talent-spotted her at 30 and has spent the last decade promoting her. He is secular and, in many ways, much more pragmatic - but Hotovely symbolizes the religious-nationalist constituency he wants to absorb in to Likud.

Her appointment as ambassador to London is not meant to sideline her. She is destined to return to frontline politics, her CV enhanced after a term fighting for Israel on another frontline.

Signing a petition against Hotovely and, assuming she will be accredited, which she almost certainly will be, boycotting her when she arrives, is basically saying that you want Israel to lie to you and send another reassuring civil servant. Much better you confront Hotovely on your turf.

I very much doubt she will take on board any criticism she hears from British Jews; after all, she doesn’t believe the Diaspora has any skin in the game. But British Jews need to see her and hear what she has to say. It will give them a much better idea of what is at stake in today’s Israel and don’t worry, she’s not going to convince any wavering Jews of the Netanyahu government’s case. Her aggressive and obtuse manner only works on Israeli television.

Hotovely is the right Israeli ambassador for our time. She will remind British Jews how powerless they are (as is the British government, to be fair) to influence matters in Israel and how distant the current Israeli leadership is from the mainstream of British Jewry.

And if left-wing British Jews are serious about trying to get their community to finally wake up to the damage the occupation is doing to Israel’s soul, then having Hotovely as ambassador is the best thing that could happen to them.

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