by Joshua Leifer
Princeton University Hillel sparked controversy last month after announcing it would indefinitely postpone a scheduled speech by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. The decision came after protests by students from the Alliance of Jewish Progressives and other groups, who claimed that Hillel had scheduled Hotovely’s speech without bringing it before the Israel Advisory Committee, an internal committee that vets Israel-related events and enforces Hillel’s “Israel Policy.”
As the students highlighted in their letter to the university paper, Princeton Hillel’s Israel policy had “previously served as a thinly veiled method to exclude left-wing voices,” such as Breaking the Silence. However, in light of Hotovely’s comments about Palestinians, Conservative and Reform Jews, and her support for the occupation, the student group argued that Hotovely’s speech would violate a clause of the Israel policy, which bars “groups or speakers that, as a matter of policy or practice, foster an atmosphere of incivility, intend to harm Israel, or promote racism or hatred of any kind.”
Hotovely ended up speaking at the campus Chabad house instead. But that didn’t stop her from declaring that she was the victim of “a liberal dictatorship.” Hotovely, a staunch opponent of the two-state solution, evidently missed the irony of her comments. In the occupied territories, Palestinians protests are prohibited by military law. And the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which Hotovely in part oversees, has been actively lobbying American lawmakers to pass anti-BDS legislation, including laws that the ACLU warned violate the First Amendment. Until this week, Hotovely had no problem with suppressing free speech.
That Hotovely’s views were enough to make Hillel staff think twice about bringing her to speak is significant. Within American Jewish establishment organizations, it is common practice to subject left-wingers and critics of Israel to strict scrutiny — and even to bar them from speaking — while giving a free pass to those on the right. The controversy around Hotovely suggests that if more American Jews understood the extent to which the Israeli government’s politics contravenes their own mostly liberal values, the relationship between American Jews and Israel could change, perhaps drastically.
The American Jewish public, after all, has undergone a process of politicization since Trump’s election, which marked the reemergence of public anti-Semitism and a sharp rise in racist rhetoric and violence. Thousands of American Jews joined protests at airports around the country after Trump’s executive order barring entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. In response to Trump’s comments about Charlottesville, leading American rabbis boycotted the traditional High Holidays conference call with the president. A range of Jewish groups have protested Trump’s policies and allies under the banner of the #JewishResistance. There is even an orthodox anti-Trump group, Torah Trumps Hate.
With many Israeli right wingers trying to sound like Trump, American Jews may begin to resist them, as well.
They have good reason to. Netanyahu’s current government, as its supporters and opponents alike point out, is the most right-wing in Israeli history, made up of conservative, pro-market nationalists, far-right religious Zionists, and xenophobic populists. There is little shared ideological ground between the coalition partners and American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. The politicians in these parties, meanwhile, have little respect for American Jews. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has accused Reform Jews — the largest American Jewish denomination — of “intentionally trying to destroy and desecrate the Jewish tradition.” Hotovely, just one day prior to her talk, said that liberal Jewish denominations have “emptied Judaism of substance.”
Furthermore, Israeli government ministers regularly promote and even glorify violence. “In my military career, I eliminated many terrorists, and it’s a shame I didn’t kill more,” Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and the Diaspora boasted during a 2015 speech in the Knesset. “Anyone who raises a hand against the state of Israel must die.” Just last week, Bennett again bragged, “in contrast to the ministers who’ve never held a weapon in their lives, I killed with great success in Lebanon.” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who, unlike Bennett the commando, served as a quartermaster in the IDF, has called for Arab MKs to be tried and executed, “like at Nuremburg.” In an interview last spring, Liberman threatened that in the event of another war in Gaza, “We’ll go all the way…we won’t leave a single stone unturned.”
Netanyahu’s cabinet members also consistently advocate for racist, discriminatory and anti-democratic policies. Uri Ariel, Minister of Agriculture, has spoken of the coming need “to encourage the self-deportation of Arabs” from Israel. In 2014, when the city of Ashkelon announced it would no longer employ Arabs in the city’s kindergartens, Ariel defended the decision. “In my opinion,” he said, “this is not a racist move.” Referring to Arab members in the Knesset, Liberman remarked, “there is no reason they should continue to be Israeli citizens.” Liberman campaigned in 2015 with the slogan, “Ariel to Israel, Umm-Al-Fahm to Palestine,” referring to his proposal to transfer large Arab cities and their populations out of Israel in exchange for keeping the settlements in a potential peace deal.
The racist rhetoric is not limited to Arabs. Culture Minister Miri Regev has called the thousands of Eritrean and Darfuri asylum seekers in Israel “a cancer in the body of the nation.” Ofir Akunis, minister of science and technology, like Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, has insisted that asylum seekers are actually illegal labor migrants. “There are a few tens of refugees,” he said, adding, “we established here a national home for Jews, not Africans.” Akunis called for the asylum seekers to be returned to their home countries, which in the case of the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees would violate international law.
Few in Netanyahu’s cabinet support a two-state solution. After Donald Trump’s speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last February, Akunis announced, “tonight marked the end of the two-state solution.” Bennett joined Akunis in celebrating after Trump’s speech. “The Palestinian flag has been taken down and replaced with the Israeli flag,” he declared. “The Palestinians already have two states: in Gaza and Jordan. They don’t need a third.” During a visit to the settlement of Karnei Shomron last year, Uriel Ariel stated, “We’ve reached half a million Jews in Judea and Samaria. With God’s help, we’ll reach a million.” He added, “Between the river and the sea, there will be one country — the State of Israel.” Netanyahu himself, despite what he says to English-speaking audiences, has repeatedly rejected the possibility of two-state solution. “We are here to stay, forever,” Netanyahu declared at an event in the West Bank last August.
Thus, when American Jews insist on supporting Israel, this is the Israel they support; when they silence criticism of Israeli policy, these are the voices they strengthen. The Hotovely controversy suggests that American institutional leaders have begun to understand, albeit slowly, just how vast the gap is between their values and those that the Israeli government represents. By denying a platform to demagogues on the right, American Jewish leaders have the power to take a bold stance against hate and violence. For the sake of everyone living on this little sliver of land, let’s hope they do so.
Joshua Leifer is based in Jerusalem. His writing has also appeared in Dissent and Jacobin. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Hotovely.