Israel’s new UK ambassador has pledged to be an ambassador for “the whole Jewish community with all its streams” as she tackled for the first time concerns that led to calls for her appointment to be blocked.
Former settlements minister Tzipi Hotovely has previously attracted the ire of Reform leaders in America and the former leader of Reform Judaism in the UK insisted her views were “in strong contrast” to those of her movement, in an unprecedented warning ahead of the 42-year-old’s arrival in the UK two months ago.
“I have all denominations in my meetings,” she said in a wide-ranging interview with the Jewish News. “In order to have a dialogue, you need to listen and learn about people’s concerns and what they care about. This is a benefit of being an ambassador, I can listen instead of just talking as politicians usually do. Everyone has a way to bring good to Israel-British Jewry relations.
“I’m on a journey to get to know people and exposing myself to all. I’m trying to represent the entire of Israel and not a certain sector. I’ll be an ambassador not just to the UK but also the whole Jewish community with all its streams. I’ve been glad at the warm reception I’ve had in meetings.”
The mother of three young daughters and first female Israeli ambassador here is keen to explore the issue of female leadership and from a “warm” conversation with Liberal Judaism chiefs last week, she said, emerged an idea she “loves” to specifically interact with female rabbis.
I’m trying to represent the entirety of Israel and not a certain sector. I’ll be an ambassador not just to the UK but also the whole Jewish community with all its streams
The close ally of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was the youngest MK when she entered the Knesset, is fully aware that her reputation precedes her. ‘You know my record as a politician with all my ideological thoughts,” says the ambassador. Nor does she try to whitewash controversial previous comments on non-Orthodox Judaism (she once accused Reform Jews of turning the issue of prayer at the Kotel into a political dispute) , settlements (strongly supportive) or the two-state solution (strongly opposed).
But, addressing for the first time concerns expressed by some British Jews, she said: “If people have criticism of the Israeli government it’s absolutely ok, it’s part of freedom of speech. I don’t represent my party here. I represent my country. Everyone has a political opinion but here I definitely know I’m serving my government and the people of Israel so I’m coming with a much broader perspective on every issue.”
Everyone has a political opinion but here I definitely know I’m serving my government and the people of Israel so I’m coming here with a much broader perspective on every issue
She added: “Britain is a very important diplomatic arena and sending a minister is a statement.”
So would she, for example, be holding back on her views that Israel is entitled to the entire West Bank – a scenario which would end all hopes for two states? “It’s easy to ask me that as a politician,” she said. “Now I’m respectful to the ambassador’s role. On pretty much whatever question, I can’t give my private position anymore. You can ask me maybe in the future when I’ll be a politician.” On annexation, a plan she had strongly backed, she wouldn’t say if she felt it should be enacted at some point in the future.
So would it be correct to suggest she’d left her personal views on such issues at the door of the El Al plane flight? “I don’t think that is the right way to see it,” the former deputy foreign minister says. “I don’t think there are too many differences between the way the prime minister thinks about many issues and my own ideological views.”
She was keen, however, to set the record straight after appearing to suggest during an online event about Jewish refugees from Arab lands that the Nakba was an “Arab lie” – drawing fresh criticism from Rabbi Janner-Klausner.
Hotovely insisted she wasn’t denying the displacement of people when Israel was created but that “to speak about the Arab catastrophe without mentioning at the same time the almost 1m Jews who were expelled is not saying the truth. Jews were always part of the Middle East”.
During the interview, she also appeared for the first time to distance herself from controversial Israel organisation Lehava, having previously suggested it was the best vehicle to tackle mixed marriage.
I don’t think there are too many differences between the way the prime minister thinks about many issues and my own ideological views.
She denied she had hosted the group in the Knesset in 2011 when representatives spoke at a discussion, saying: “In all my time in politics I was never associated or connected to this organisation. I didn’t invite Lehava to the discussion. Due to freedom of speech, it’s the duty of the committee chairman to allow all citizens and groups that want to participate in the public debate to do so.”
Turning to the recent normalisation deals transforming the middle east, the envoy said she had very much “felt at home” when meeting the ambassadors of the UAE and Bahrain, and discussions have begun about interfaith projects they can work on together.
“We came with the same excitement that the peoples of the countries have. Often when political agreements are signed it stays at the political level. Here it’s so clear it goes beyond to business to business and people to people. Look how many Israelis are already going to Dubai and want to go to Bahrain.”
She said at least two more deals were in the pipeline and could be announced within a month, but wouldn’t confirm if those included the Saudis.
to speak about the Arab catastrophe without mentioning at the same time that almost 1m Jews were expelled is not saying the truth. Jews were always part of the middle east
Closer to home, she set her sights on continuing the trend of record bilateral trade figures after Covid, and hoped for a second post-Brexit trade deal focusing on environmental tech and other areas where Israel is at the cutting edge.
But a key priority will be reaching out to young Jews where she acknowledged a trend towards disconnection compared with previous generations amid concern over the conflict.
“For the last few years Israel was seen through the prism of conflict. There is so much Israel has achieved that is bigger than the conflict – liberal values like liberty, diversity. About 1m Arabs are part of the Israeli population and they get to the top roles.
“It’s not like we didn’t try to solve the conflict. When you get a rejection time after time from the Palestinian side you can’t take responsibility for both sides of the conflict.”
There is so much to show about what Israel has achieved that is bigger than the conflict – liberal values like liberty, diversity
She added: “I want to meet young people not just in universities but in high schools. I want to be ambassador for young people, not just older generations.”
Hotovely says she chose to speak to the Jewish media ahead of the nationals who have all requested interviews as Covid has prevented her from pressing communal flesh so far. She praised the vibrancy and Zionism of British Jewry and praised Rabbi Lord Sacks as a personal “inspiration. We need to make sure the voice of Rabbi Sacks and the voice of British Jewry will be heard in Israel. I hope to be that bridge”.
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