This weekend the Board of Deputies is hosting Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, as the guest speaker at a plenary for the first time. As a Deputy representing many British Jews who care deeply about opposing racism, I feel an obligation to set out why this is the wrong thing to do.
Hotovely’s remarks about Palestinians are well-documented, but clearly bear repeating. During a debate in the Knesset in 2017 – the video of which is still on her personal YouTube channel – she described Palestinians as “thieves of history” whilst waving an empty book she claimed represented their heritage in the Holy Land. She has repeatedly denied any Palestinian connection or claim to the territory, stating as Deputy Foreign Minister in 2015: “This land is ours. All of it is ours.” Earlier in her political career, in 2011, she invited the notoriously racist organisation Lehava to speak in the Knesset about preventing relationships between Jews and Arabs. Lehava was the group behind the horrifying scenes in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, leading violent protestors through the streets where they chanted “death to Arabs” and attacked Palestinians in their homes.
Hotovely has argued that she should not be held to account for things she said prior to her diplomatic posting – even as she continues to defend some of them. One of her most appalling comments, however, came just six months ago when the Board first hosted her as ambassador. She used the platform to describe the Nakba as an“Arab lie” and a “made up story”. The Abraham Initiatives UK, a charity chaired by former Board Vice President Alex Brummer which supports Jewish-Arab cooperation in Israel, condemned Hotovely’s remarks “in the strongest terms”, explaining that “the displacement of over 700,000 Arab men, women and children is an historical fact and recognition of this is essential if we are to establish a shared society for Israel’s future”.
Yet the remark went unchallenged during the event and received no comment from the Board afterwards. The decision to extend another invitation to her sends a message that the Board simply doesn’t care, or at the very least values its relationship with the Israeli embassy over any anti-racist values it claims to hold.
The consequence of this decision will impact the Board’s work on Israel and beyond. It means that we can never expect anyone to respect our calls for antisemitic speakers to be de-platformed or for other minorities to express solidarity with us when we won’t do the same in return. It will brand our policy in support of a two-state solution – reaffirmed only last year – as nothing more than lip service, given we are willing to honour a politician who continues to be one of its leading opponents. Hotovely accused the Board in 2019 of “working against Israeli interests” for supporting the creation of a Palestinian state and said on LBC only last month that she wants to see “creative solutions” instead. This is almost certainly a euphemism for the detailed plan she published in 2013, which advocated annexation of the entire West Bank, with its Palestinian residents becoming eligible for Israeli citizenship only if they serve in the army and after two million Jews make Aliya – in other words, never. This amounts to support for a single state where Jews have full rights and Palestinians do not: unambiguous apartheid. This is not a view the Board should hechsher as part of legitimate political debate.
The sad irony is that British Jews are increasingly taking a stand against the growing racism in Israeli society which Hotovely represents. Almost 2,000 members of the community called for her appointment to be rejected last year, and last month over 1,000 signed a letter asking the Board to condemn the racism Palestinians are facing in Jerusalem. As conflict raged in Gaza, hundreds joined protests against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and the violence which inevitably flows from it – an unprecedented event within the community. The youth movement Noam – a constituency of the Board – recently refused to participate in an event with Hotovely, hosted by its parent denomination Masorti Judaism. Courageously declaring that their commitment to anti-racism was not “empty words”, they instead hosted a counter-event featuring Palestinian speakers and Israeli anti-racism activists.
It is clear that the community is changing and yet the Board – which claims to represent all of it – remains stuck in the past, able only to uncritically engage with the Israeli ambassador in the exact same way it would have years ago. This is not only a moral failing but a sign that the Board is losing touch with the spectrum of opinion within British Jewry, only representing a shrinking proportion who are happy with the status quo.
I understand that the Board has a need to engage with Israel’s formal representative in the UK and am not suggesting otherwise, but honouring her and providing her with yet another platform to share her racist views is unnecessary and inexcusable. This is not about being anti-Israel but is about upholding our values consistently. Our community has been particularly sensitive over recent years to people who claim to oppose racism while maintaining a blind spot for antisemitism. We must not act the same way towards Palestinians.