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Reflections on our meeting with the Israeli Ambassador

By Matt Plen

The recent public meeting between Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely and Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg stirred up some controversy. Various Masorti members and our own youth movement, Noam, called on us to cancel the event, arguing that we should not give a platform to someone with Hotovely’s views. Others were keen to engage with the Ambassador – over 200 people signed up for the event and Masorti members have defended our decision on social media.

When deciding to host this event, we had to consider three layers that make up the Ambassador’s public profile. She is the official representative of the people and the State of Israel. She represents the Israeli government. And, unlike previous Ambassadors who have been career diplomats, she is a politician with a history of partisan, political activity.

There’s no doubt that as a movement, Masorti Judaism wants and needs to engage with the people and State of Israel. An indispensable way of doing this is via Israel’s official representative to the UK – the Israeli ambassador. In this context, the identity of the ambassador is more or less irrelevant.

Dealing with a spokesperson for the Israeli government is more complicated. A slice of our membership is likely to oppose Israeli government policy, whoever is in power. Experience suggests that while our members have diverse views, they tend toward the centre and centre-left. As Israeli governments have moved to the right, this raises the likelihood of disagreement. However, we’ve always considered that it’s important to engage, albeit critically, with this more political aspect of the Israeli ambassador’s persona.

Ambassador Hotovely’s political track record was the most difficult factor. In the past she has denied the Palestinian people’s connection with the Land, called for Israeli control of the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock, branded Israeli human rights NGOs as the enemy, opposed social integration and marriages between Jews and Arabs, and spoken disparagingly about non-Orthodox and Diaspora Jews – positions that have led to accusations of racism and religious extremism. Should Masorti Judaism engage with this kind of politician?

Our decision to host this event was motivated by three principles.

1. Meeting with the ambassador in their diplomatic, non-political capacity is an important way of expressing our relationship with the State of Israel. Refusing such a meeting would send the wrong message about our deep-rooted commitment to Israel.

2. Masorti Judaism was born in the 1960s when our spiritual founder, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, refused to submit to censorship of his scholarship and religious beliefs by the Orthodox establishment. Since then, intellectual openness and debate have been among our movement’s guiding values. As a politically diverse, non-partisan movement, we want to meet with a wide range of political figures. Hosting a speaker does not imply we agree with their views.

3. Sometimes disagreement moves beyond political differences into a fundamental clash of values. In these cases, it becomes even more important to articulate our position and our Jewish values clearly and publicly.

For example, on the role of Judaism within Israel, Rabbi Wittenberg said:

The metanarrative of Judaism is the exodus from Egypt. From experiencing injustice we’ve come to understand the meaning of justice for all. I want to see Judaism really lived in Israel. That means a pluralistic Judaism. The doors must be equally open for every kind of Judaism. I want to see respect for Masorti converts, for Women of the Wall…. The Torah says 36 times ‘you shall love the stranger’. This means welcoming refugees as part of society, even though they are not Jewish. We must welcome difference and debate, even when it’s uncomfortable, hearing voices like B’tselem, Breaking the Silence, the New Israel Fund. The ability to include these voices within Judaism’s culture of debate is the glory of Israel and that will shine out to the rest of the world.

In response to the Ambassador’s assertion that Israel’s non-Jewish minorities are treated equally and that non-Orthodox Jews feel at home in Israel, Rabbi Wittenberg commented:

There are streams of Judaism who don’t feel at home, who feel precluded, who don’t have the same access to government funding, that their conversions and marriages are not respected.” Rabbi Wittenberg talked about a friend, the son of an Imam in a small village near Jerusalem. “He’s very pro-Israel and tells his Muslim friends this is the country where you’ll find equality… and then he says ‘but I never feel it.’ There’s a very serious journey still to travel and Diaspora Jews from all the movements want to help Israel travel it.

While Ambassador Hotovely’s views clash with some of our deeply held values – articulated most clearly by some of our young people through Noam – I believe engaging with her was the right decision. I’m proud that Noam organised an alternative educational event on issues of racism and democracy in Israel society. The fact that Masorti Judaism can hold on to core values while encompassing diversity and respectfully challenging those we disagree with is surely one of our movement’s greatest strengths.

Matt Plen, Chief Executive

Posted on 22 April 2021