Her appointment is almost certain to be short-lived, but that doesn’t mean world Jewish leaders weren’t wringing their hands Sunday when they learned that Tzipi Hotovely had just been named Israel’s next Diaspora affairs minister.
A self-proclaimed religious right-winger, her values and positions seem bound to collide with those of large sections of the Jewish world, particularly in the United States.
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As if they haven’t already. In November 2017, American Jewish leaders demanded her ouster as Israel’s deputy foreign minister after Hotovely accused U.S. Jews of not understanding “the complexities of the region” because they “never send their children to fight for their country.”
The backlash to her remarks, made during an interview on i24 News, was so fierce that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to issue a statement distancing himself and his government from his fellow member of Likud.
Hotovely’s ready smile tends to belie her extremist orientation. Nearly a decade ago, while serving as head of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, she drew fire for inviting representatives of Lehava – a highly controversial organization dedicated to fighting intermarriage between Jews and Arabs – to address its members. She later explained that Jewish women are more likely to intermarry than Jewish men and, therefore, Lehava’s activities are relevant to her committee. (Last November, Lehava leader Benzi Gopstein was indicted for incitement to racism and violence against Arabs.)
Hotovely has accused African asylum seekers in Israel of subjecting their neighbors to “migrants’ terror.” She has called Israeli-Arab lawmakers “thieves of history” determined “to co-opt Jewish history and Islamicize it.” She rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and instead supports full Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
She has said she would allow Palestinians to obtain citizenship in Israel under this sort of one-state model, but only after Israel successfully executes a grand plan to take in 2 million Jewish immigrants from around the world to ensure that the Jews are not outnumbered in this new binational state.
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She has shown little tolerance for the non-Orthodox movements and their struggle for a proper egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall. In that same controversial interview on i24 News, she claimed that the Reform and Conservative movements make little use of the mixed-prayer space already available to them and accused their leaders of turning the Jewish holy site into a political football.
But she is striking a different tone now, at least insofar as her relations with the Jewish world are concerned – and that most likely has to do with the nature of her new job. In a Tweet on Sunday, after news of her appointment broke, Israel’s new chief liaison to the Diaspora promised: “I will work to enhance ties between Israel and all Jewish communities and denominations of Judaism.”
Even as they make their ongoing concerns clear, leaders of the non-Orthodox denominations have expressed their willingness to give Hotovely the benefit of the doubt – for the meantime, at least.
“It is no secret that we have had tough disputes with Minister Hotovely over her remarks concerning Diaspora Jews,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said in a statement. “But we hope she brings to her position a real commitment to nurture relations with all the Jewish movements and to promote equal and respectable status for them in the State of Israel. In the coming days, we will ask that she set up meetings with the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel and around the world, and we have no doubt that she will oblige.”
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, was more circumspect. “I bless the new minister of Diaspora affairs, but I am definitely troubled,” he said in a statement. “To this day, Tzipi Hotovely has not shown any understanding or interest in the Jewish world that is not Orthodox. Her actions from now on will speak for themselves. I wish her success and hope that she knows to behave in this sensitive position with wisdom and modesty.”
Uri Keidar, director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel, was more blunt. “World Jewry should not see this appointment as reflecting of Israeli public positions regarding Israel-Diaspora relations,” he wrote on Twitter. “Political appointment for political reasons.”
For many Israelis, the question is not how a woman like Hotovely rose to the position of government minister, but rather, what took her so long to get there?
The 41-year-old joined the Knesset as a member of Likud in 2009 (she was the youngest member of that Knesset) and has served as a lawmaker ever since. As well as chairing the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, she has served as deputy transportation minister, deputy science and technology minister, and, since 2015, deputy foreign minister. For most of her latest stint, she was, for all practical purposes, Israel’s top diplomat because no full-time foreign minister served above her.
Hotovely is married to Or Alon, a lawyer, and they are the parents of two young daughters. She was born in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, a child of immigrants from former Soviet republic of Georgia. Because she is Orthodox, Hotovely was able to avoid military service. Instead, she completed a year of national service, which included working as a tour guide at a religious museum in Jerusalem and serving as a Jewish Agency envoy in Atlanta. She studied law at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and is now completing her doctorate in the discipline at Tel Aviv University.
Hotovely first caught the eye of Netanyahu as a young panelist on a political talk show, in which she filled the slot of the “right-winger.” At the time, she also served as a columnist for the daily Ma’ariv newspaper. Impressed by her ability to articulate and defend her views, Netanyahu urged her to join Likud and run for the Knesset.
Until this week, though, he always skipped over her when handing out top jobs in his government. Indeed, this is the first time since she joined the ruling Likud party that she will be a full-fledged minister.
Given her fierce and constant loyalty to Netanyahu, the prime minister’s behavior has long been a mystery to political observers – especially considering Hotovely’s special appeal among a very important demographic for his party. As a prominent representative of the religious Zionist community (the Israeli equivalent of Modern Orthodox), it is often surmised that she could be a magnet for voters from the religious right – those who might otherwise vote for smaller parties – were she to hold a more prominent position in Likud.
But when Netanyahu ultimately came through for her this week, he gave her a job that is unlikely to last more than a few months (until the next government is formed after the March 2 election), and in a ministry whose functions are widely viewed these days as redundant.