Thanksgiving, Tzipi Hotovely, and American Jews — A Bit of a Rant!

Today is Thanksgiving. It is the one American holiday that our family continues to celebrate in Israel.  This year, as in most past years, the majority of the people attending the celebration will be friends of my daughter Tali.  This time she did most of the cooking. My main responsibility was purchasing the turkey. Not as easy as it sounds.  Supermarkets in Israel do not stock whole turkeys, and it required special effort to get my local market to order one.  It is so rare that when I got to check out line, the woman manning the cash register called over the other workers to see something they had never seen before … a whole turkey.

Thanksgiving brings up happy memory of my youth.  For all of my childhood and teen years we always went to the Thanksgiving dinner hosted by one of my Grand Aunts. They were big affairs with the large extended family in attendance.  Everyone would bring something else, with my Grandmother making her lemon meringue pie, and my Grand-uncle Morris, a veteran of the US Navy (one of the first Jewish Naval officers) always being in charge of carving the turkey.

Thanksgiving 1961?

Remembering those events also reminds me a little of how I felt in the last few years I attended the event, as the year of my Aliyah and induction in the Israeli army came closer.  I was so sure of myself then. I knew all the answers.  I felt a little superior to some of my relatives, with my clear connection to Israel (at the time I was already working for the Jewish Agency).  I remember giving a speech at a convention, a few weeks before we (myself and several friends) made Aliyah — the complete details of which I do not remember, but it was clearly a speech that represented my view at that time, which was the traditional “Shlilat HaGolah,” or negation of the diaspora.

Over the past 40 years, some of that time spent living here in Israel and some time in the US, my views have evolved.  There was no question that 42 years ago when I first made Aliyah, I believed every Jew should move here.  I really did not see any future for the Jewish diaspora.  Today, I feel it’s not that simple.  While from a national perspective, I still believe it would be great of all Jews moved to Israel, I know that that’s not going to happen and that this place that I have always called home — even when I did not live here — is not the right place for everyone.  As to the future of the diaspora, it’s four decades later and the US Jewish community, despite what I thought then, is still going strong.  Still the same concerns I had 40 years ago remain.

Which brings me to the events of the last two days. Yesterday I participated in an hour-long show on i24News, where the main guest was Morton Klein of the ZOA.  My parents met each other at the young ZOA, and both were extremely active in that organization in their youth.  For many years, throughout my childhood, my parents would go to monthly ZOA meetings, where they would have food, listen to a speaker and discuss events.  Back then, ZOA was non-political, similar to Hadassah — a far cry from the very right-wing ZOA of today, whose annual dinner was attended by Steve Bannon. However, that is not what I want to write about now — nor do I want to write about the high salary the ZOA pays Klein as President. I guess I am just jealous that I was a lay President of a Jewish organization (a school) for nine years and never saw a cent.

What I want to talk about is the discussion we tried to have with Klein about the crisis in the relations between Israel and American Jewry.  Interestingly, when asked directly, he said the Israeli government should have honored the Kotel agreement, it itself had negotiated, but he immediately pivoted and said he saw no problem with the relationship between American Jews and Israel. He stated that as soon as American Jews hear from him how murderous the Palestinians are they immediately support Israel.  Leaving aside how absurd the statement itself is, the incredible one-dimensional nature of someone who has been working in the American Jewish community, as the head of the ZOA, for 23 years was breathtaking. To not recognize the breadth and depth of some of the problems between the two communities was astounding.  Of course, other things he said and believes, for instance, that someone cannot be an antisemite if they like Israel, was equally mind-boggling (but that is for another discussion).  Klein did mention that he has been writing a column every other week for Briebart — but…

What was just an interesting discussion on a TV show took center stage in the Israel political discourse, a few hours later, when on the same station that I had appeared, just a few hours earlier, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely was interviewed on “The Rundown”.  When asked about the problems in the relationship between American Jews and Israel, Hotovely took the Netanyahu line that the Israeli government was doing a great deal to ensure that non-orthodox Jews could pray as they wish at the Kotel.  When pushed by anchor Nurit Ben, Hotovely made her fatal mistake by saying that American Jews cannot understand us — “since their children do not go into the army like our children do.  They do not fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Being unqualified for her job, Hotovely had no idea that the claim she made is an old canard used by antisemites, claiming that Jews do not fight in the army.  Of course, during the times of the draft in the US, that claim was just false — the Jews sent the highest percentage of soldiers to fight in World war II of any ethnic group and leaving apart the American Jews I know serving in the Armed forces, there is an element of truth. The US armed forces consist primarily of people from either the lower middle class or from families that have long traditions of service in the military.  Neither of which are groups that Jews are generally a part.  So, yes there was a grain of truth in what she said.  There was an even greater truth in what she meant to say — or was trying to say — however awkwardly.

There is a gulf of understanding between those who go the army and those that do not. There is a gulf between those whose children have to go to the army and those that do not.  I feel it personally, as the draft date for my youngest rapidly approaches.  There can be no denying how it impacts the relationship between American Jews and Israelis, but that has always been the case.  Whether it was in ’67, ’73 or any other point, that difference has always been very real.  No, the problems in the relationship today have nothing to do with this unchanged reality, they have everything to do with the Kotel agreement the government failed to honor; Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump, when most of American Jewry hates him; the failure of the Israeli government to speak out promptly about antisemitic incidents in the US and other similar issues.  There are many fundamental issues at work that nobody wants to even discuss — like what happens to a relationship that was fundamentally based on dependency, once the dependent party (Israel) is now strong and wealthy?

Of course, no one wants to discuss any of that …

Instead, everyone has called for Hotevely to be fired. I agree she should be fired because she is unqualified for the job — having no diplomatic experience and representing the extreme right-wing of the government, i.e., not really the type of person you want to effectively put in charge of the Foreign Ministry, but the careless half-truth she uttered last night is clearly not the reason.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this rant — Thanksgiving.  Two days ago, Sarah Huckabee, the White House Press Secretary asked reporters to say what they were thankful for before asking questions. It was not an appropriate question, however, since one of the hats I wear puts me on the White House press list, I will answer that question — as someone who is a much less sure of myself than I was so many years ago at my grand-aunt’s house on Thanksgiving … I am thankful for the wonderful family that I have. I am blessed with a happy marriage and three wonderful grown children.  I am also thankful that in this period before the twilight of my life, I have the opportunity to share my opinion on matters such as this, since other than the bored readers who have read through this piece, earlier tonight I had the chance to appear on Arabic TV and try to explain the Hotovely controversy to an Arabic speaking audience.

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