The appointment of Tzipi Hotovely as the next Israeli ambassador to the UK had been rumoured ever since Prime Minister Netanyahu finally set up his new government some weeks earlier. As one of the accepted eleven political appointees which the Government is allowed to make to ambassadorial and diplomatic positions around the world, a number agreed upon between the Foreign Ministry and the Government back in the 1980s when Dave Kimchi was Director General of the Foreign Ministry, she is just about as political as you can come.
Her views in support of annexation, against the intervention of Diaspora Jewish communities in Israeli politics, are well documented and there can be little doubt that she will come into conflict with her counterparts in the British Foreign Ministry as well as amongst the strongly Zionist pro-Israel Anglo Jewish community, one which has always worked in strong cooperation with the Israeli diplomatic mission, but equally a community which prefers to keep a low profile over matters related to Israel, not least because it is itself deeply split over the issue of the West Bank, the Palestinians and the so called Trump Deal of the Century peace plan (sic).
Nowhere was this more apparent than in last weeks public letter from fifty prominent members of the Jewish community opposing her appointment and, somewhat wistfully, requesting the current (or just departed) ambassador Mark Regev to convey these sentiments back to his bosses in Jerusalem. I doubt that there is anything which will make her appointment even more definite than the publication of this letter, the implications of which were clearly not through through sufficiently, by some of the country’s most intelligent and thoughtful people, whose comitment to Israel and the jewish community is second to none.
Israel’s last three ambassadors to the UK have been top diplomatic officials, even if Mr. Regev was initially seen as being a political appointee (within the diplomatic community) by the Prime Minister, someone with whom he has worked closely in the past as chief spokesman. Growing up in the Australian Jewish community he knew all about the western Diaspora, as did his immediate predecessor, Daniel Taub, who was a product of the North West London Jewish community and of British universities before coming to live in Israel. Prior to Taub was Ron Prosor, one of Israel’s most senior diplomats of the past two decades, who followed his posting to London by becoming Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and is now a Professor of Diplomatic Studies at the IDC in Herzliya.
Truth be told, they followed a period in which Israel made some extremely poor appointments to the Court of St. James, including two ambassadors Dror Zeigerman and Zvi Heifetz who couldn’t even put two sentences together in clearly understood English, and one Zvi Stauber, who was a close ally of the man who approved his appointment, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, going back to army days (and also a former Vice President of Ben-Gurion University).
Prosor, Taub and Regev were all eloquent speakers. All understood (some better than others) the role of the Diaspora community in assisting with the pro-Israel lobby, and despite all of them serving during the long eleven year rule of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ever onward march from the right to the extreme right, they were all successful in getting their message across – be it on the TV, on university campuses (where there were often pro BDS demonstrations against them) and amongst the community itself. They also served during a period of growth in antisemitism narratives in the UK, coupled with the BDS movement which, paradoxically, in turn gave them a more sympathetic ear amongst some groups whom may have otherwise been more antagonistic towards Israel and its policies vis a vis the West Bank and the Palestinians. Not wanting to be critical of Israel for fear it would then be interpreted as a new form of antisemitism.
It is never easy being an Ambassador to a country which has a strong Jewish community. The ambassador represents his country to the country to which he has been appointed, not the Jewish community. At the same time, the Jewish community often feels that it has a share of ownership in the Ambassador and makes countless claims on the Ambassadors time for speeches and other appearances. There is no question, an influential community, at least those who don’t get het up about accusations of dual loyalty, can be very helpful in opening doors in the corridors of power, business and the professional community, while their philanthropic work on behalf of Israeli institutions, from yeshivot to hospitals, to universities and other charities, is second to none. But someone who turns up as a new ambassador and doesn’t know how these things work, can spend the first eighteen months of a four year appointment just learning the ropes, by which time they are already thinking about what will be their next job, two years from hence, when their tour of duty finishes and they return to Israel.
For its part, the Anglo Jewish community spends much too much of its time arguing between respective left and right wing support of Israel. Just recently the main Community representative body, the Board of Deputies, and its dynamic chairperson, Marie van der Zeil (only the second woman ever to have been elected as president of this cross-communal body) has been caught between those who would have the Board of Deputies publically oppose annexation and those who would, in response, send a letter of support to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It would behove the Board of Deputies if they spent their time focusing on local issues, not least the rise of anti-semitism, rather than argue about Israel, a country over which they have absolutely no influence whatsoever, and if they don’t know this yet, the new ambassador will make it clear soon after she arrives. After all, if Hotovely has, in the past, made this position clear to the leaders of US Jewry, Britain is but small fry in comparison.
Hotovely is different in just about every possible sense from any previous ambassador who has held this position. She is the first woman ambassador that Israel has sent to the UK. She is the youngest by far of any previous ambassadors, in her early forties, and she is also a mother of three young children, all of them below the age of 10. She is also strictly religious, although this is by no means a first. Two previous ambassadors, both of them products of the UK itself, Daniel Taub and Yehuda Avner, served as ambassadors, attended the local synagogue St. Johns Wood and could often be seen accompanied by their security complement walking the short distance (about twenty minutes) from their home to this magnificent synagogue on a Friday evening and a Shabat morning.
The new ambassador will be pleased to note that just recently the area in which she will be living, along the plush Avenue Road leading down to Regents Park, has just been approved by the Westminster and Camden councils for the establishment of an Eruv, which means that if she desires to go to synagogue with her young children, she will have no problem taking along a stroller, once the Eruv has finally been constructed. The Ambassador is always accorded the greatest deference in the Synagogue and, in the cases of both Taub and Avner, have become unofficial members of the community. They served at a time when St Johns Wood synagogue with its magnificent David Hillman stain glass windows, was the official place of worship of the British Chief Rabbis (Lord Jakobovitz in the case of Avner, and Lord Sacks in the case of Taub). The present chief Rabbi, Efraim Mirvis, the first British Chief Rabbi to have been educated at Israeli Yeshivot (in Gush Etzion) and a strong supporter of Israel, has relocated to the Jewish suburbs of North West London, but it is to be assumed that he will find a lot in common with the new religious woman ambassador, and will not have any of the problems outlined in last weeks letter trying to stop her appointment.
As an orthodox synagogue, and an orthodox woman however, she will not be accorded the honour of being called up to the Torah unless, that is, she decides to attend some of the recently established alternative prayer services of religious women in North West London.
It is somewhat ironic that the outgoing ambassador, Regev, grew up in the Australian Jewish community, while the present Israeli Ambassador to the Canberra, Mark Sofer, is a product, like Taub, of the North West London Jewish community where his father Victor Hochauser was the country’s best known impresario and concert organiser opening up the doors of the Soviet Union for Jewish visitors, and where his brother, Simon Hochauser, served as President of the country’s leading synagogue organisation, the United Synagogue. Indeed, the fact that an ex Australian was ambassador, and that former South African Jews, Ephraim Mirvis (the Chief Rabbi) and Mick Davis (the former head of the Jewish Leadership Council and one of the fifty signees on last weeks letter) occupy positions of prominence in the UK community, is indicative of the way in which London, the former heart of the British Empire which used to send its rabbis and community officials out to the colonies to take on leadership positions, has now become the recipient of such assistance from elsewhere.
The British Jewish community is small, approximately 270,000 at the last count, and kicks well above its demographic weight in almost all spheres of life, as do all Jewish communities which are allowed to move ahead and develop in liberal and free societies, without persecution or oppression. It it is culturally very active across the religious-secular spectrum, and has given Limmud to the world. It has a dynamic and highly competent young generation ready to provide future leadership, although they may be divided over the nature of their support of Israel far more than their parent and grandparent generation.
But one cannot ignore the fact that many of the most dynamic young members of the Anglo Jewish community include those who have grown up in the Jewish and Zionist youth movements and have made Aliya to Israel (as yong adults with a life in front of them, not just the retirees who now opt for Netanya instead of Bournemouth). Over thirty thousand have made this move during the past fifty years, in percentage terms this being the largest of any free Western Jewish community. They, in turn, have spawned tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of children and grandchildren who are citizens of Israel, but many of whom retain strong links to their country of origin (especially those of a sporting nature).
And as the world has become more global and easily accessible (at least until the onset of Corona), thousands of British Jews now have holiday homes in Israel – in Netanya, Herzliya, Ranana and Jerusalem, where they spend longer periods of time, especially during the festival periods, and where many of their children and grandchildren reside. This is a new constituency which the new Ambassador will have to pay attention to, a disproportionately religious community and largely supportive of the present right wing Israeli government, in contrast to those who signed last weeks letter.
This is counter balanced by the large population of ex Israelis who have sought their home in the UK, as too throughout Europe and North America, for whom Israel provides all the normal consular services and invests much energy and time in reaching out. For a present day ambassador it is no longer a binary situation – either you are here or you are there. An ambassador to the UK has to deal with many of these crossover populations who do indeed have dual loyalties – in the most positive sense of the term.
But at the end of the day, one must not forget that the UK is not really that important to Israel’s foreign policy. The country which wrote the Balfour Declaration, which was the home of Israel’s first president Haim Weizmann and in which no less than the first three Chief Rabbis of Israel resided for parts of their life – Chief Rabbi Kook in London during World War I, Chief Rabbi Herzog in Belfast and Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s, and Chief Rabbi Unterman in Liverpool (yes, the same town which is more commonly known for its football team and for the Beatles) during the 1930s and 1940 – doesn’t really have much sway in terms of current Israeli foreign policy or in peace making. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair (like most UK Prime Ministers, a great friend of Israel) was perhaps the last major British personality who tried to intervene in Israeli-Palestinian peace making, on behalf of the international Quartet, but his influence in contributing to change was no more than marginal.
Beyond the USA, it is the EU, and the countries of Asia (India is now home to Israel’s second largest embassy in the world after the USA) which are of far greater significance as Israel looks to the future, rather than the past. And as Britain has finally implemented Brexit and left the EU, it no longer has any influence over EU foreign policy.
Israelis may get excited about the recent Royal visits of both Prince Charles and Prince William, but that has nothing to do with hard core foreign policy – it is just the Cinderella impact of the British royal family which exists everywhere in the world and which was seen as important if only because of the fact that no member of the Royal Family had previously made an official visit to Israel. A sleight perhaps, but the Queen has stopped her foreign travel and she will not be coming to Israel.
I am acquainted with many of the signatories of last weeks letter. Some of them I know from childhood growing up in the UK, others I have got to know in recent years when I have spent a lot of time back in the UK teaching at British universities and researching in the local archives. As someone firmly on the left of centre of Israeli politics I also identify with the underlying sentiment of what they would like to see happen in Israel (and what, perhaps more importantly, they would not like to see happen). But the letter, if it does have any impact beyond the headline effect, will only strengthen Israel’s resolve to send a young, brash, religious woman whose views are clearly set out, non diplomatic, but represent the views of the present Israeli government.
It will be an interesting time. Not least her first public TV interview. The Jewish community, at least those who oppose her political views, will have to strike a new balance between supporting Israel and being critical of its policies, without such criticism being used by the many anti-Israel groups and pro boycotters who are not in short supply in contemporary Britain.
It seems to me that we will be hearing a lot more of Tzipi Hotovely in years to come. When she returns to Israel she will still not be fifty and it is possible that she will yet be one of Israel’s future leaders, assuming that power remains in the hands of the right wing, as appears to be the case at present. The best we can wish her at present, even if like this writer we strongly disagree with her political policies, is bon voyage – nesiya tova.