A Proud Daughter of Olim
An Interview with Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely
Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely has emerged as one of the leading religious women in Israeli politics and diplomacy. After becoming a Member of Knesset at 31 and serving as a government minister, she has served as the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom since August 2020. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Ambassador Hotovely about her work, the Israel-UK relationship, and the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jews.
Thank you for speaking with us, Ambassador Hotovely. Tell us about your experience as Israel’s Ambassador to the UK.
It has been a great and productive term here, even if it was difficult at the beginning, arriving during the middle of the pandemic. I was honored to be able to present my credentials to the Queen, which was a very special experience. We got to chat for about 20 minutes, and she was actually very informed about Israel – she said to me, “You have had too many elections!” My husband made the beracha on seeing royalty, and it definitely was a special moment.
Throughout your life, you have gone on shlichut three times – as a shlicha of the Jewish Agency to Atlanta, Georgia, as a shlicha of Bnei Akiva to France, and now the Ambassador of the State of Israel to the UK. What drew you to this line of work, representing and connecting people to Israel around the world?
You are correct – and I also served briefly in the government as the Diaspora Affairs Minister. I have always felt a strong connection to the Jewish Diaspora, as my parents made Aliyah, and I remember when my grandparents came to join us on Aliyah in Israel. I believe that olim, with all of their diversity and different cultures and mentalities, have greatly enriched Israeli society. They become part of the great melting pot that is Israel, and bring with them creativity and new perspectives. I feel I understand Diaspora communities because of my family background, and feel very proud to represent Israel, as a child of people who made Aliyah.
On a day-to-day basis – when you aren’t meeting with royalty – what does that actually involve?
I divide my role into aspects that people are aware of, and aspects that people pay less attention to. One of the well-known aspects of the role is interacting with the Jewish community, and representing Israel at official events. When I get to daven at Kinloss Shul on Yom HaAtzmaut, at the communal celebration hosted by Bnei Akiva UK and Mizrachi UK, I feel like I am transported back to Yerushalayim! I also find this role to be very significant, as there is this myth out there that the Israel government focuses on the Jewish community of America, and doesn’t pay attention to other Diaspora communities. This is totally untrue – the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews is of critical importance, and all communities and their relationship with Israel are extremely significant.
One of the less well-known aspects of the UK-Israel relationship is our very strong relationship on all matters relating to security. Just a few weeks ago, we hosted a significant public event exploring this security relationship, and this is a relationship that has become stronger and stronger, with collaboration relating to Iran, the war in the Ukraine, as well as many other matters. The UK is a member of the UN Security Council and NATO, where it plays a critical role. Israel’s security relationship with it is very strong, and is continually getting stronger.
It is interesting, I think many people reading the news would think that with the rise of BDS and anti-Zionism, the UK-Israel relationship is getting weaker. But you are telling a different story here.
There is no question that in the British media and on university campuses there is a lot of anti-Israel feeling – when I went to speak at the London School of Economics (LSE) I had to be escorted off the premises because of the strong protest against my presence. But that is not the whole picture. London and the UK have a long connection with Zionism, going back almost two centuries. The story starts with the Montefiore and Rothschild families and their philanthropy for Eretz Yisrael during Ottoman times, and it continued with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, issued by the British government as a letter to the Zionist Federation of the UK. Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel’s first President, was very active in promoting Zionism in the UK. When Israel was founded, the relationship between the two countries grew. Margaret Thatcher was the first sitting British Prime Minister to visit Israel, but since then, Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have all been strong friends of Israel.
One of the best things we do is bring politicians to Israel. Both Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel bring delegations of politicians to experience Israel first-hand. For a country that is so often in the headlines, when politicians come to experience the country themselves they understand it better, and we feel these trips make a significant impact.
Another expression of this relationship is in the UK’s voting patterns at the UN. For many years, the UK was what we call a red country, namely a country that would often vote for anti-Israel resolutions in the General Assembly. The UK is now a green country that very often votes against the biased and anti-Israel resolutions.
You mentioned that the British media is often very anti-Israel. Many people around the world saw the recent video of a BBC journalist saying “Israel is happy to kill children,” to Naftali Bennett, for which she did later apologize. What is the reason for this media bias, and how do you work against it?
Firstly, there is clearly a lot of ignorance about Israel, and I take every opportunity to speak to journalists, to represent Israel on TV and radio and more. Each time we have a high-level Israeli figure come to the UK we have a press briefing which is an opportunity to tell more of our story.
Beyond responding to falsehoods and bias, we also try to tell people that Israel is not a one-dimensional story that is only about the conflict with the Palestinians. Take the past few years since the pandemic, in which issues of public health have come to the fore. From Israel’s response to the pandemic, to the tremendous start-ups in the field of bio-tech, there is so much that Israel offers the world in dealing with the issues of our time. Another example very relevant to this year is everything in the field of AI, in which Israel is very much at the forefront of innovation. To focus only on the conflict is to miss such a significant part of Israel’s story and contribution to the world.
When it comes to the conflict itself, there is also so much ignorance. I actually think that the story of the Dee family made a big impact on the British public. Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee were British citizens, and their murder was widely reported. Rabbi Leo Dee spoke powerfully of his experience and values, and this was Cambridge-accented English, and it made a big impact on the British public.
Our public diplomacy department also works with different communities, such as the Indian community and even the Muslim community, to build friendship and understanding from the bottom up. I always say that at Friday night dinners I almost never host Jews; almost all of our guests are non-Jews, so they get to see a Jewish Shabbat. At my Shabbat table, I hosted the British Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary together with their spouses. We hosted the Trade Minister and his wife, and their children had a playdate with our children. I want leaders of different backgrounds to experience hadlakat neirot, our customs and minhagim, so they have a real understanding of Jewish culture. One particularly powerful memory is the first Chanukah I was here, when we ran a joint, live-streamed event where I lit the menorah together with ambassadors in three capitals of Abraham Accords countries. London is a great place for strengthening connections with the Abraham Accords countries.
On the subject of the Abraham Accords, you arrived in London right around when they were being signed. How has that impacted your role?
I was probably the first Israeli ambassador to say “my first meetings will be with my Arab colleagues!” We have formed an excellent relationship with the ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, including organizing an embassy soccer tournament between the workers of the embassy (Bahrain won).
On a more personal note, there are not many religious women who represent Israel as ambassadors. How has that impacted your work?
In one of my first meetings when I began this job, someone from the Jewish community here said, “You are almost the opposite of the stereotype we are used to. We are used to Israeli ambassadors being secular men, who are 3rd or 4th generation Israeli, and you are a religious woman whose parents made Aliyah!” I am very proud to represent Israel, and think it is important that the diversity of Israeli society is expressed through Israel’s representatives. I wear it as a badge of honor that my parents made Aliyah. I think it is really important for people to know that our society is meritocratic, and it doesn’t matter what your background is and who your family is; you can find success in Israel. We need more women, and religious women, to be representatives of Israel! I also see my religion as a source of strength for me in this role – it grounds me and gives me clarity.
One of your roles is representing Israel to a younger generation – what are your thoughts about Israel and Jewish youth today?
I love engaging with the youth here – each year I get to host the winners of the Chidon HaTanach competition, and it’s one of my favorite things to do here. I think the past few years were challenging [because of COVID]; young people missed two summers of trips to Israel, and it does make an impact. I always encourage young people to take a gap year in Israel if they can. If they are religious, then at a yeshiva or seminary, and if not, then on one of the many other programs available. There is nothing like getting to live in and experience Israel for a year.