December 16, 2018

Hillel’s fault, Hotovely’s duty

Last week, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely fell victim to a lack of judgment. She fell victim to a rash decision. The heads of Princeton Hillel canceled her lecture because of complaints and protests from the left against the speech of someone whose very appearance is supposedly considered illegitimate. That’s their instinct: When there are complaints, first you cancel and then you think about the consequences. In this case, these were grave consequences — an official representative of the State of Israel was shunned from an important campus and treated as a leper, as someone whose views are not even worthy of being heard.

We don’t need to feel too sorry for Hotovely, though. Her loss was also her gain: The speech was canceled, but others came in its place. And Hotovely also received a flowery apology from the heads of the organization, who understood the severity of the mistake (“Unfortunately, we did not treat the Israeli deputy foreign minister with the respect that her office deserves” ). And she got an official apology letter from the Princeton chapter itself. And every apology was followed by a press release, and another mini headline, so the small damage of the canceled speech turned into an advantageous PR tour.

Hotovely is known in Israel as one of the more right-wing representatives of the ruling Likud party. She has advocated the annexation of the West Bank, invited an extremist anti-intermarriage organization to the Knesset, used biblical quotes to justify territorial claims, and famously declared that she “dreams of seeing the Israeli flag on the Temple Mount.” Obviously, all this does not make her very popular with the Israeli or Jewish American left. That being said, she is still a high-ranking official representative of the State of Israel.

Everything Hotovely said about the cancellation of her speech is true. Hotovely mentioned the “liberal dictatorship” as the cause for the cancellation. And she is right: This cancellation is a sign of a problem. It’s a sign of over-sensitivity to complaints, of spinelessness and of fear of anything that smells of Israel, especially of anything that smells of right-wing Israel. Quite a few young Jews in America — as well as heads of organizations, opinion leaders and rabbis — face the same problem. And Israel is not to blame for this, not Israel and not its policies. The responsibility, in this case, falls on the shoulders of the Jews of America. They are the ones who need to decide if they want to stand up for themselves or fold at any slight sign of criticism. They are the ones who need to determine their level of commitment to having an open discussion with the real Israel, not an imaginary Israel that votes for different representatives.

This need for an open discussion with the real Israel was on the minds of the leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America in their conference this week in Los Angeles. The GA 2017 summit was held in the shadow of an external crisis — the Kotel, conversion, everything that the Israeli government wants to do and they do not accept. The summit was also held in the shadow of an internal crisis — the federations need to be considerate not only of Israel but also of their donors. And if the donors are angry, the federations should be angry too.

It seems Hotovely has an opportunity to play a positive role in bettering this situation, even though she is in a somewhat tricky spot. On the one hand, one could understand the temptation to continue making political use of the unfortunate incident that occurred to her. On the other hand, perhaps she should kindly be advised to stop with the politics — she has already made her political gains — and focus on being deputy foreign minister. That is, to utilize the “incident” to create a dialogue, a quiet, pleasant, open dialogue between friends who are trying to sort things out, not between opponents who are trying to do damage control (Hillel) or make use of a political opportunity (Hotovely).

This week I asked someone familiar with the incident whether there is any chance of a meeting between the heads of Princeton Hillel and the deputy minister. I was told that maybe in the future. I asked why not now. This remark was met with silence. I believe that this silence points to a suspicion, a fear that a meeting could result in another fight, another sermon, another need for an apology.

I’m not suspicious of Hotovely. She surely wants the good of the Jewish people, and thus I assume she would be glad to have such a meeting, even if it came with no political gain. She should invite them to a talk and explain what her positions are on different important issues that certainly concern them too: How Israel is going to look in the coming decades, whether they have a place in such an Israel (and what type of place that is), and how they are supposed to justify to their friends Israel’s insistence on giving preference to one Jewish denomination at the expense of others. She should invite them over and clarify beforehand that this will be a conversation with no press releases, with no need for apologies or repentance, with no sour discussions of “who was right and who was wrong.” It has already been established: She was right — they were wrong. Now it’s time to move on.