Young American Jews Fend Off Top Israeli Diplomat's Critique: She Is Mischaracterizing Us

In the fallout of Tzipi Hotovely's remarks on U.S. Jews, American college students say they wished 'she spent more time talking to us instead of lecturing'

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Tomer Epelbaum

Tzipi Hotovely is mischaracterizing us and is out of touch with our point of view, many young American Jews claimed after the deputy foreign minister recently described them as a “liberal dictatorship” living nave, “convenient lives.”

Hotovely said in an interview Wednesday with the English-language Israeli channel i24 News that the growing fissure between Israel and American Jewry is due to the latter’s “convenient lives” rather than her government’s policies relating to the occupation, which is often cited by millennial American Jews as a reason for their disengagement.

She disparaged them as being "too young to remember how it feels to be a Jewish person without a Jewish state" and said they “don’t understand the complexities of the region.”

Hotovely’s description “is a mischaracterization and I wish she would have spent more time talking to us Diaspora Jews rather than lecturing us, because she would have seen that there is more nuance and understanding than she thinks,” Yitz Landes, 29, a Princeton graduate student, told Haaretz.

Landes is one of the more than 100 Princeton students who signed an open letter published in the Princeton University campus newspaper that objected sponsorship by Hillel (the Jewish campus organization) of a talk by the right- by the right-wing Israeli minister.

Their objection, however, was not to her speaking on campus; it was to Hillel's failure to apply the same standard to her as it does to left-wing groups that want to speak under the aegis of the Jewish student organization.

Almost everyone who signed the letter attended Hotovely's November 7 speech, which Chabad ended up hosting. “We actually believe in free speech. It’s Hillel’s policy we object to,” Landes told Haaretz. "Hillel has a policy of limiting free speech and we wanted to take the opportunity to call it into question.”

Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership” are intended to guide individual Hillel chapters as they decide who to invite to speak at events.

Those guidelines have become a source of conflict for the past several years as speakers from Israeli anti-occupation NGO “Breaking the Silence” and other groups critical of Israeli policy were barred from speaking at Hillel chapters.

Hillel's CEO, Eric Fungerhurt, explains that the guidelines, introduced in 2010, are intended to protect students connected to the organization's branches in more than 550 campuses worldwide from anti-Zionism.

But some critics say that instead, the "Standards" function as a sort of loyalty test. If students want to host a speaker who is viewed as too critical of Israel, the critics say, then both the guidelines and Hillel’s fear of a potential loss of donor funding are invoked as a way to quash the event.

“In no way would we ever seek to censor things on a college campus,” Fingerhut previously told Haaretz.

Acceptable speakers at Hillel branches “run the gamut from [a] Zionist who is critical of Israel’s policies to those who don’t support the idea of a Jewish state. Recognizing where that line is and drawing that line is not always the most simple of matters. But it’s an important line for Hillel to draw because we are a Zionist pro-Israel organization. We’re building Jewish identity, and at the heart of Jewish identity is love of Israel as the Jewish homeland. We’re looking to foster that belief.”

Hillel’s cancellation of Hotovely’s appearance sparked a strong backlash against the Center for Jewish Life. CJL Director Rabbi Julie Roth and Fingerhut quickly apologized.

Speaking about his attendance at Hotovely's Hillel-backed appearance, Landes, who is a PhD student in religion and Judaic studies at Princeton, said that he and other attendees "politely listened to MK Hotovely and asked questions in a respectful manner."

“She had no problem reiterating her earlier statement that Reform and Conservative are empty Judaism even though the audience was around 80 percent Reform and Conservative Jews,” he added.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose recent statements and policies have exacerbated tensions with leaders of the liberal denominations that comprise the overwhelming majority of American Jews, promptly rebuked Hotovely. “Diaspora Jews are dear to us and an inseparable part of our people,” Netanyahu said.

Hotovely’s disregard for young American Jews is emblematic of the Netanyahu government’s whole attitude, said Yonah Lieberman, 26, a founding member of IfNotNow, a grassroots activist group which holds demonstrations opposing the occupation. “They don’t care about Diaspora Jews unless we are supporting their positions unconditionally.

“It’s totally outrageous to not see the direct connection between 50 years of occupation and the way that young American Jews are no longer strongly associating with Israel,” he told Haaretz. 

“It’s amazing, though not surprising, that someone who represents the Netanyahu government would try and sweep the effects of the occupation under the rug, and the effects it’s had on the way that my generation of American Jews relates to Israel,” said Lieberman.

With many friends and family members living Israel, and after having lived there briefly himself, “I have a very real understanding of the lived reality of Israelis and the real fear Israelis have of terrorism.”

Similarly, Mikaela Gerwin says that her perspective comes from a place of deep love and connection to Israel. Gerwin, 21, who is a junior at Princeton, signed the open letter opposing Hotovely’s appearance at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life, as its Hillel is named, and attended her talk at Chabad.

Israel “is a place I’ve cared about, this is a place [where] I’ve lived,” Gerwin told Haaretz. “This is a place we love and are connected to but also don’t agree with a lot of its policies and think we can criticize certain ministers,” said Gerwin, who lived in Israel for two years and visited many more times.

“In her world she does not know my Judaism and does not know my world,” said Gerwin, a history major at Princeton. “Nor is she trying to understand that there can be rich, vibrant Jewish life in America.”