'A small country in a hostile region' is different to the US

Under-fire deputy minister sorry for offending US Jews, but doesn’t retract

Tzipi Hotovely says Diaspora Jewry is her family, but insists many ‘don’t understand that we [in Israel] are fighting a war of self-defense, not a war for territorial expansion’

Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, July 7, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, July 7, 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely apologized on Thursday after she offended US Jews with claims that they struggle to understand the Middle East because they lead comfortable lives, don’t perform military service and don’t know what it’s like to live under attack. But she did not retract her remarks, and expressed similar sentiments even as she went on TV to say sorry.

“They are my brothers,” she said in an interview with Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) on Thursday afternoon, amid reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was thinking of firing her for the remarks. “If someone was hurt by my words I’m very sorry.”

Several political analysts said Thursday evening they thought it unlikely that Hotovely, an MK from Netanyahu’s Likud, would be fired from her job as deputy to Netanyahu, who serves as his own foreign minister.

In another interview, with Channel 1, she said, “I apologize from the depths of my heart if someone was upset by my words.”

She said that she felt a strong, family connection to Jews in the Diaspora, and, as in all families, there are sometimes disagreements and arguments. But, she said her words came from her love for the Jewish communities who are outside Israel.

During an interview with i24 News on Wednesday, Hotovely had depicted US Jews as being removed from the sacrifices other Americans make, as well as the threats that govern life in Israel.

“The other issue is not understanding the complexity of the region,” she said. “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, going to Afghanistan, or to Iraq. Most of them are having quite convenient lives. 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.”

On Thursday she clarified what she meant.

“To all those Americans who are lone soldiers, or those who have grandparents who fought in World War II, I salute you all. That was not my intent,” she said. “When I was 18, I spent a year in Atlanta as part of my national service in the Jewish community. For the past 20 years the topic of the Jewish community in the US has concerned me and I truly feel that we are part of a family.”

However, she did not offer retract her fundamental message, which was that people who do not live in Israel, including many in the Jewish world, do not fully understand what Israel goes through.

In the wake of reports that Netanyahu was considering firing Hotovely from her position, she said that he had actually spoken to her not long before she gave the offending interview, and told her to be sensitive to world Jewry.

“He was right,” she said on Hadashot News on Thursday evening. “He told me how important the subject was to him and how sensitive it was to him as the leader of the Jewish people.”

However, she then said again that even though “Diaspora Jewry is dear to us all… it pains us that lots of people [in the wider Jewish nation] don’t understand that we [in Israel] are fighting a war of self-defense, not a war for territorial expansion or a war to harm other people.”

If she were to recalibrate her remarks now, she told Hadashot, she would say that “a very small country, surrounded by a hostile region, is not the same as a huge nation, that fights its wars far from its borders. Apparently the experience of daily living in America is different from that in Israel. That does not mean that brothers don’t need to talk within the family,” she said. “Expressing that message is far more important to me than being deputy foreign minister. I care about the Jewish people and our connection to the Diaspora.”

She also said that most of those criticizing her had not heard the full interview, which was 20 minutes long, and which she said was filled with her love for American Jewry.

Her comments drew wide-spread condemnation, including a rare public rebuke from Netanyahu who condemned Hotovely’s “offensive remarks regarding the American Jewish community.”

Avi Gabbay, leader of the opposition Zionist Union faction, also blasted Hotovely, while pointing out that rather than serve in the military, she did a stint of national service in the US. Hotovely’s comments were “shameful and embarrassing,” he said in a statement that referred to her sarcastically as “the great warrior, the moral sermonizer who spent her military service in Atlanta.

“While Netanyahu has already found the time to condemn her comments, make no mistake – she’s accurately expressing the policy of a government that has decided to sacrifice [Israel’s] relationship with US Jews for petty political gain,” Gabbay said.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak harshly attacked Hotovely in an English tweet, calling her “arrogant and ignorant,” and accusing her of hypocrisy because she too had never served in the IDF.

“How dare she preach, when she herself hasn’t served?” he asked. “Our vital ties with our own flesh and blood are torn by weak BB and the extreme right. Faint condemnation will not do. Fire her.”

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