Fresh off her campus speaking tour of the United States, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely sat down last week for an interview with i24 – Israel’s English-language news channel – and immediately sparked a crisis. In responding to a question on whether she can understand American Jews, who for a variety of reasons are feeling increasingly less connected to Israel, Hotovely said she couldn’t and went on to explain that American Jewish memories are too short, forgetting that only seventy years ago there was a Holocaust because there was no Jewish state. Then she offered up that there was another issue, which is American Jews “not understanding the complexity of the region.” She continued, “People that never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines and going to Afghanistan or to Iraq. Most of them are having quite convenient life. They don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets, and I think part of it is to actually experience what Israel is dealing with on a daily basis and still creating an amazing place.” This led to an uproar from American Jews, who were offended by Hotovely’s disparaging remarks; criticism from Israeli opposition MKs, many of whom pointed out that Hotovely herself did not serve in the IDF but instead was a Jewish Agency shlicha in Atlanta; and a statement of condemnation from Prime Minister Netanyahu along with a leak from his office that he was considering sacking Hotovely. The problem, however, is that Hotovely’s central point was right.
There is simply no question that Israeli Jews and American Jews live very different lives with very different experiences that color how they view the world. Hotovely was, of course, wrong in claiming that American Jews “never” send their children to the military, but however many Jews are among the approximately 2.1 million active duty and reserve personnel in the U.S. armed forces, it does not compare in number or percentage to Israel’s conscription regime. Most Israeli Jews have firsthand military experience whereas most American Jews do not. Hotovely was also correct that American Jews do not know what it feels like to spend weeks at a time dropping everything at the blare of an air raid siren to run to a bomb shelter. Americans are affected by terrorism and other threats, but not in the same all-consuming way as Israelis. This colors the different ways in which the two groups views both threats and potential solutions. Many Israeli Jews scoff at American Jewish sloganeering about ending the occupation now, and not all of it can be chalked up to right-wing ideology as opposed to intimate knowledge of what that would entail and whether it is practically feasible. When Hotovely talks about the complexity of the region, she means living in a small country sandwiched between competing extremist forces, some of which deny your right to exist. Whatever American Jews face, it is not this. It means that American Jewish hectoring of Israelis often emanates from an incomplete understanding of the Israeli situation, which is what Hotovely was correctly – if artlessly – trying to get across.
But that does not mean that anyone should be applauding Hotovely. Quite the opposite, in fact. Leave aside that she is the latest in a long line of Israelis who treat American Jews with contempt, betrayed by her snide comment about our “convenient” lives. Or that earlier in the interview she trashed American Jews on college campuses for not being willing to hear opposing views when the Israeli government bans people from entering its borders if they rhetorically support BDS. Or that she implied that American Jews do not serve their country because they are underrepresented in the military, ignoring that American Jews are overrepresented in Congress, the judiciary, and can be found across the federal government in politically appointed and civil service jobs. All of this makes Hotovely’s sordid and hypocritical performance bad enough in its own right, and if you want to see just how much she disrespects American Jews, watch her even more insulting Hebrew-language interview on Gav Ha’Uma from one week earlier. But aside from having a superiority complex, Hotovely is also myopically ignorant on two important points.
First, Hotovely displays the attitude that the highest fulfillment of American Judaism is to support Israel, no matter what. Support for Israel is and should be a critical component of Judaism in the Diaspora, but it is not the sum of all American Jewish practice. David Ben-Gurion famously described American Jewish existence in 1954 as “sad, wounded, limping, and impoverished,” explaining that a Diaspora Jew could not be “a complete Jew” outside of Israel. Hotovely takes this view to its logical extreme, extending it not only to whether Jews should all make aliyah but how Jews should interact with Israel from afar. Hotovely literally cannot fathom how American Jews could feel disconnected or alienated from Israel because she does not view Israeli actions as pertinent to this calculus; her view is that there is an American Jewish obligation to cleave to Israel that is no less obligatory than circumcising sons or commemorating the exodus from Egypt on Passover. There is no room to even think about, let alone question, why American Jews should support Israel. My view is that American Jews should absolutely support Israel, but it is critical to understand why some do not and how Israeli actions are connected to this alienation. Hotovely is not even remotely interested in this inquiry.
Second and more importantly, Hotovely wants American Jews to understand the unique challenges that Israel faces, but she views this as a one-way street. Hotovely displays not one iota of understanding of or interest in the unique challenges that American Jews face and which Israelis do not. American Jews do not face rockets from Gaza or daily terrorism on the scale of the second intifada, but they face their own obstacles that Hotovely would have difficulty comprehending if she devoted even two minutes of thought to them. Israeli Jews are the majority group in a state built around Jewish customs and rhythms, whereas American Jews are a distinct and small minority in a much larger population. American Jews face anti-Semitism, accusations of dual loyalty, unfamiliarity with Jewish religious practices and holidays, pressures of assimilation and intermarriage, and tradeoffs between maintaining their ancient traditions and becoming completely integrated into dominant American religious and cultural life. Israeli Jews face none of these challenges, and do not understand them firsthand any better than American Jews understand what Israelis face. Just as the Israeli experience leads Israelis to certain political and philosophical conclusions, the American experience does the same for American Jews.
Hotovely wants American Jews to walk in her shoes, but in order for her complaint to be credible, she needs to walk in ours. She needs to try and understand what makes American Judaism unique, and how that reverberates back to the way in which American Jews relate to Israel. But Hotovely does not want to do that. Easier to watch the shadows of the American Jewish experience on the cave wall and assume that what you observe encompasses the totality of the known Jewish universe.