With Corbyn the bogeyman gone, Tzipi Hotovely will finally force Britain’s liberal Jews to confront truths about Israel they long ago buried
After years of successfully drawing attention away from Israel’s intensifying crimes against the Palestinian people by citing a supposedly growing “antisemitism crisis” in Britain’s Labour Party, Jewish community leaders in the UK are exasperated to find themselves unexpectedly on the defensive.
Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the rug out from under leading British Jewish organisations by appointing Tzipi Hotovely as Israel’s next ambassador to the UK. She is expected to take up her position in the summer.
Recently made Israel’s first settlements minister, Hotovely does not appear to have a diplomatic bone in her body. She is a rising star in Netanyahu’s Likud Party – and at the heart of the Israeli far-right’s ascendancy over the past decade.
‘This land is ours’
She is openly Islamophobic, denying the history of the Palestinian people. She supports hardline racial purity groups, such as Lehava, that try to stop relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And she flaunts a religious Jewish supremacism that claims title to all of historic Palestine.
In a 2015 speech on her appointment as deputy foreign minister, she rejected a two-state solution, saying: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.”
She was given responsibility as settlements minister for overseeing what is widely feared will be the imminent annexation of up to a third of the West Bank promised by Netanyahu, destroying any last hope of a Palestinian state.
But she goes further. She favours full West Bank annexation, implying support either for Israel’s explicit and direct apartheid rule over millions of Palestinians or renewed mass ethnic cleansing operations to remove Palestinians from their homes.
Hotovely also supports Israel’s takeover of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, one of the most important Islamic sites in the world. Such a move could set the Middle East on fire.
Hotovely is an undoubted rupture from recent ambassadors.
From 2007 until 2016, the post was held successively by career diplomats Ron Prosor and Daniel Taub. They followed the traditional embassy playbook: rhetorical efforts to take the spotlight off Israel and its systematic oppression of Palestinians.
They focused instead on a two-state solution that no one in the Israeli government was actually interested in, and blamed the lack of progress on supposed Palestinian intransigence and Hamas “terrorism”.
In early 2016, another diplomat, Mark Regev, was appointed, though in a more politicised capacity. He had previously served as Netanyahu’s most trusted spokesman.
Regev’s arrival coincided with a much more aggressive – if covert – role for the London embassy in interfering directly in British politics. He had to deal with the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was seen as a major threat to Israel because of his outspoken support for Palestinians.
An undercover investigation aired by Al Jazeera in early 2017 revealed that an Israeli embassy official was secretly coordinating with Jewish organisations to undermine Corbyn. One such group, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), had been recently revived inside the Labour Party to oppose Corbyn.
Evidence emerged to suggest that the embassy’s efforts to damage Corbyn were being directed from Israel, by the strategic affairs ministry. The ministry’s main mission has been to discredit overseas solidarity with Palestinians, especially the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.
Zionism and antisemitism
As the documentary underscored, one of the main weapons in Israel’s arsenal has been to tar Palestinian solidarity activists as antisemites.
This has been achieved by muddying the differences between antisemitism and opposition to Zionism, an extreme political ideology that – even in its secular varieties – assumes that Jews have a biblically inspired right to dispossess the native Palestinian population.
Corbyn found himself increasingly under attack from the JLM and the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation, the Board of Deputies, for supposedly unleashing a “plague” of antisemitism in Labour. While antisemitism in the UK has been rising overall in recent years, statistics revealed this accusation against the Labour Party in particular to be entirely groundless.
Eventually, the party was forced to accept a new definition of antisemitism – devised by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – that classified serious criticism of Israel, as well as support for Palestinian rights, as racist.
Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s successor as Labour leader, gives every impression of having learned from Corbyn’s devastating run-in with the Israel lobby. He has declared himself a Zionist and signed up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies that take meaningful criticism of Israel off the table.
Late last month he sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet for supposedly indulging an antisemitic “conspiracy theory” after she retweeted an article that criticised Israel’s well-documented involvement in training US police forces.
Netanyahu now appears confident that the political threat to Israel from the UK has been neutralised, and that neither of Britain’s two main parties will pay more than lip service to Palestinian rights.
That has been underscored by the fact that Hotovely’s appointment coincides with the expected move by Netanyahu to annex swaths of the West Bank over the coming weeks under licence from US President Donald Trump’s recent “peace” plan.
Last month, some 50 United Nations human rights experts described Israel’s proposed annexation as the harbinger of “21st century apartheid”.
The fact that Hotovely, a champion of maximalist annexation, will represent Israeli government policy in the UK suggests that Netanyahu understands that British party leaders will offer no more than empty threats.
But while Netanyahu may be happy to have Hotovely selling West Bank annexation to the British public and defending Israel’s ever-greater abuses of Palestinians, prominent Jewish figures in the UK are up in arms.
They have spent the past five years changing the optics in the UK. Zionism – Israel’s settler-colonial ideology – has been repackaged as innocuous, even wholesome: a benevolent political movement that simply empowers Jews, liberating them from antisemitism.
But this illusion has depended on erasing Palestinians – and their oppression – from view.
So successful has the campaign been that those who try to remind Britons of the circumstances of Israel’s establishment and its subsequent history have been decried as antisemites.
The creation of Israel, sponsored by British governments starting more than a century ago, depended on the ethnic cleansing of some 80 percent of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and the continuing exclusion of millions of their descendants. Israel still subjects millions more to a belligerent occupation.
Hotovely threatens to disrupt all of these achievements, and expose the pro-Israel lobby – as well as some of the biggest names in Britain’s Jewish community – as charlatans.
Passionate about Israel
Jewish leaders in the UK were already panicking over Netanyahu’s promises to annex parts of the West Bank. That would bring into sharp focus a decades-long Zionist programme of Palestinian dispossession they have quietly supported.
Early last month, before Hotovely’s appointment had been announced, around 40 of Britain’s most prominent Jews, including historians Simon Schama and Simon Sebag Montefiore, philanthropist Vivien Duffield and former Conservative cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind, wrote to Regev urging the Israeli government to rethink annexation.
They observed that, as “committed Zionists and passionately outspoken friends of Israel”, they had worked hard to “nurture a more sympathetic environment for Israel” in the UK. But annexation, they warned, would tear apart the country’s Jewish community and “pose an existential threat to the traditions of Zionism in Britain”.
It was notable that key figures in the campaign to oust Corbyn over his support for Palestinian rights signed the letter, including former Labour MP Luciana Berger; Trevor Chinn, a major donor to Starmer’s campaign; Daniel Finkelstein, associate editor at the Times newspaper; Julia Neuberger, a prominent rabbi; and Anthony Julius, a celebrated lawyer.
Annexation is not new
But annexation is not a new policy, as these Jewish notables suggest. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, in violation of international law, condemning more than 370,000 Palestinian residents to permanent Israeli apartheid rule. Israel did the same to the Syrian Golan Heights a year later.
And is annexation really worse than the mass ethnic cleansing operations Israel carried out not only in 1948, but again in 1967? Ever since, Israel has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing by stealth in the occupied territories – the flip 0side of its “creeping annexation” policy – as it has taken over more Palestinian land to settle it with Jews.
Did these war crimes not lead Jewish community leaders in Britain to rethink their “passionate commitment” to Israel?
And why is it only this latest phase of annexation that makes them question “Israel’s status as a liberal democracy” – not the legal structures codified in dozens of laws that privilege the citizenship rights of Jews over Israel’s 1.8 million-strong Palestinian minority, a fifth of its population?
Formal annexation is simply the logical conclusion of more than a century of Zionist colonisation of Palestine, one that was always premised on the replacement of the native population with Jews. Getting the jitters at this late stage in Israel’s settler-colonial mission, as though some imaginary red line has suddenly been crossed, is self-delusion of the highest order.
Sparing allies’ blushes
But if annexation poses a severe blow to the image these “passionate Zionists” have of themselves as fair-minded, sensitive liberals, Hotovely’s appointment as ambassador may yet sound the death knell.
Earlier Israeli governments were aware of the need to put a rhetorical gloss on their oppression of Palestinians to spare the blushes of supporters in western states. That was one of the tasks of Israel’s foreign ministry and its diplomatic corps. It was also the aim of the Israeli hasbara industry – state propaganda masquerading as neutral “information”.
Successive Netanyahu governments have found propping up such deceptions increasingly untenable in an era in which Palestinians have phone cameras that can document their abuse. The resulting videos are all over YouTube.
Many British Jews have averted their eyes, claiming instead that strenuous criticism of Israel is demonisation motivated by antisemitism. But the self-deceptions so beloved by many in overseas Jewish communities are increasingly unpalatable to the Israeli right’s Jewish supremacist instincts. Hotovely is simply the latest choice of envoy who cares little for indulging the cognitive dissonance of local Jewish allies.
Back in 2015, before the ultra-nationalist Jair Bolsonaro became Brazil’s president, Netanyahu tried to foist a settler leader, Dani Dayan, on Brasilia. Notably, Hotovely, who was then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, was outspokenin defending Dayan’s appointment, even threatening to downgrade relations with Brazil.
After a diplomatic row, Dayan was eventually reassigned as Israel’s consul general in New York.
Some in the UK’s Jewish community appear to believe they can enjoy similar success. Many hundreds of British Jews have signed a petition launched by an anti-occupation group, Na’amod, urging the UK to reject Hotovely as ambassador. Others appear to be contemplating a boycott if she is accredited.
Liberal Jewish community leaders have joined them in opposition. Labour peer Lord Beecham told the Jewish Chronicle that Hotovely’s appointment would “do nothing to win friends in the UK – or indeed any other reasonable country”.
Laura Janner-Klausner, the senior rabbi of the Reform Movement, echoed him: “[Hotovely’s] political views on Palestinians, annexation and religious pluralism clash with our core values.”
Except that all the recent evidence suggests Janner-Klausner is wrong. Yes, Hotovely’s unadorned “values” are ugly and openly racist. She does not veil her Jewish supremacist worldview; she wears it proudly.
But her policies in support of Jewish settlement on Palestinian land have been the bedrock policy of every Israeli government since 1967, when the occupation began. And the logical endpoint of the ever-expanding settlements was always annexation, either by legal fiat or by creating a mass of facts on the ground.
The majority of Britain’s Jewish community, as its leaders keep reminding us, are fervent Zionists. Jewish publications described Na’amod, which launched the petition against Hotovely, as a “fringe” group because it “campaigns against the occupation and [is] in favour of Palestinian rights”.
Living a lie
For many years, some in the British Jewish community have served as cheerleaders for the settlements. One such group, the Jewish National Fund UK, welcomed Hotovely’s appointment, noting what they called her “many positive attributes and achievements”.
Others have cynically turned a blind eye to developments in the occupied territories over more than half a century. The Board of Deputies – the nearest the UK’s Jewish community has to an establishment – has said it will work with Hotovely. Concerning annexation, it has said: “We don’t take sides in Israeli politics.”
Others have paid lip service to opposition to the settlements, while living a lie they concealed even from themselves. The more Israel moved to the right and the more it expanded settlements to displace Palestinians, the more these “liberals” entrenched their support for Israel, and the more they refused to countenance dissent.
Blind support for Israel became a measure of whether they would back a political party, as Ed Miliband, himself Jewish and Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader, found to his cost.
An ultra-nationalist id
The Labour Party was lost to the majority of Britain’s Jewish community long ago – long before Corbyn. Anything but uncritical support for Israel – even as Israel moved ever further into an ultra-nationalism bordering on what Israeli experts have described as fascism – was denounced as proof of left-wing “antisemitism”.
“Antisemitism” became a way to avoid thinking about Israel and what it stood for. It became a way to reject Israel’s critics without addressing their arguments. It served as a comfort blanket, reassuring many British Jews that their politics were defensive, rather than ideologically extreme and offensive.
Now, Hotovely will serve as the Israeli ultra-nationalist id to their liberal egos. With Corbyn the bogeyman gone, liberal British Jews will finally have to face truths about Israel they have deeply buried.
It is a moment of reckoning – and one long overdue.
• First published in Middle East Eye