Interview – Amichai Chikli
By Yossi Golds
Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister of Social Equality Amichai Chikli knows full well that in his current position there is no grace period. “It is an extremely complex task to keep this people together,” he says in an interview. Chikli is contending with one of the greatest challenges in the current government — the need to explain to Diaspora Jewry the government’s actions, above all the judicial reform and the desire to change the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return. The person who epitomized rebellion in the previous Knesset, who opposed every act of the previous government, is now charged with explaining to the Jewish world what form the State of Israel will take in the future.
“This gives me a sense of vast responsibility, a feeling that from now on, in any sphere relating to me, I can point an accusing finger at only one person, and that is me, of course. These are topics that I had much to say about in the past, and now it’s squarely in my court,” says Chikli in an interview with Hamodia.
“I cannot remember a single situation in which the opposition has ever recruited forces from Diaspora Jewry against a reigning government. This is contemptible. Instead of enlisting their help in the fight against Iran’s nuclear program, the opposition is recruiting Diaspora Jewry to take part in a political argument between the right and the left. These senior figures are no fools and quickly admit that this is ‘much ado about nothing,’ with numerous false alarms regarding the end of democracy and a regime coup — statements that could not be further from the truth.”
Minister Chikli, can you give a brief overview of the activities of the Diaspora Ministry?
The main responsibility of this office is, as the name suggests, to strengthen the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the Jews of Israel. Another aspect is the reinforcement of the Jewish identity of Jews abroad — notably the younger generation — to give them pride in being Jewish, and with that to hopefully keep them in the Jewish fold. This is one of our main activities, as this is the future of our nation.
We invest much effort in Northern America, notably in the outlying communities — those that have less Jewish education and smaller communities, by definition, and that need more support. One of my ideas to strengthen these communities is to give better wages to the teachers; ultimately, they are the ones who instill Jewish values in the students — which helps guarantee the Jewish future of these children.
We have many projects to this end, and our biannual budget stands at about half a billion shekels.
We also do a lot to combat the banning of, or discrimination against, Israel, be it via BDS [the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Movement] or any other whitewashed name the new antisemitism may be given. The new antisemitism disguises itself as [contempt for Israel] — “No, we’re not against you as a Jew, but against the State of Israel,” or similar. And in the end, the ones who suffer the most from this anti-Israel or antisemitic bias, paradoxically, are religious Jews, as they are easily discernible as Jews. At times, these can even be Jews who aren’t pro-Israel by definition.
How do you maintain contact with Diaspora Jewry?
As I mentioned, we invest much of our budget in Northern America. That is because statistics show that only about 20% of Jewish children across Northern America study in Jewish schools. Most of those who do study in Jewish schools are from the religious and Orthodox communities — those who wouldn’t need our assistance in preserving their Jewish identity.
Jewish education in private schools is very expensive, and at times out of range for the average family. This is where we step up to the plate. This isn’t to say that we’re giving out free scholarships … but we invest, as noted earlier, in the teachers, in the school systems, to ensure Jewish education, and continuity of Jewish generations. We want to raise the pride of Jewish studies teachers.
In short, the ministry sees itself as a sort of venture capital of Israeli citizens, to ensure and instill Jewish studies and identity in each and every child.
And what about the fight against antisemitism and BDS?
On that front, we have a new strategy, especially to that of the former Diaspora Affairs Minister, who said that he doesn’t see BDS as a form of antisemitism, or to the former Foreign Minister, who said that the fights between the Tutsi and the Hutu are similar to antisemitism. We aren’t trying to sweep BDS and its real intent under any proverbial rug. We call a spade a spade. It is pure Jewish hate.
After the recent terror attack in Neve Yaakov, in which seven Jews were killed, the Palestinians celebrated their murder. These were innocent people, killed just because they were Jews. We gathered all the information and images of the Palestinians distributing sweets and celebrating their deaths, notably in the official schools of the PA, and we sent this to all the offices of the foreign ambassadors in Israel. That is our plan of action: We are on the offense, no longer just on the defense.
We no longer use hasbarah.
No more hasbarah?
To date, the State of Israel has been using hasbarah, public diplomacy, but I believe that this is an extremely feeble term. No country in the world has a Ministry of Public Diplomacy; we don’t need to explain anything. These are “brand awareness” statements to the effect that Israel has a right to defend itself. This is obvious.
We intend to publish a rating of the most antisemitic campuses in the U.S., shaming those institutions that promote antisemitic stances, where Jewish students feel uncomfortable. Among other things, we are now differentiating between the Arab world and the PA, uncovering the severe incitement being led by the PA against Israel, alongside support by the EU for entities that in practice are involved in putting forward antisemitic viewpoints.
The PA is the most antisemitic state entity in the entire world. Some 93% of the public there adheres to antisemitic viewpoints. This is an appalling statistic. The PA is the focal point for the dissemination of the new antisemitism, namely denial of Israel’s right to exist, demonization and comparing it to the Nazi regime, accusing it of ethnic cleansing, etc. The Fatah newspaper features caricatures that would put Der Stürmer to shame. It’s a source of virulent incitement against the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Only Iran, perhaps, compares with the PA in terms of the intensity of its anti-Jewish hatred.
Following the formation of the new government, many Jews in the Diaspora voiced significant concern with regard to what steps it was about to take.
I came across concern, chiefly from people who are more identified with the liberal-progressive approach. I understand their concern, but I really think that it is mainly due to a considerable amount of disinformation, also known as fake news. A political campaign of the opposition that has crossed a red line.
In the past, there have been people who warned of a potential rift with Diaspora Jewry. Do you feel that such a rift exists?
I have met with a number of important figures within Diaspora Jewry and I don’t feel that there is any such rift. Some sectors express concern, but I believe that we can solve the disputes. I look at U.S. Jewry and fully understand that one of the most important tasks is to preserve the strong bond that keeps them all together. It is an extremely complex task to keep this people together.
How do you explain the chaos here in Israel ever since the judicial reforms were discussed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin?
All the hysteria and talk about a regime coup and the end of democracy as we know it are utterly baseless as well as completely irresponsible.
In complete contrast to the outgoing government, which was formed under false pretenses and by stealing people’s votes, this is a legitimate government with a majority of 64 MKs and mass popular support. This clearly spooks certain people. There is an entire section of the left wing that has become hysterical and is unable to act rationally. You hear people like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who are beginning to speak nonsense about civil unrest. Excuse me, but what are you going on about?
Even at the time of the Oslo Accords and Israel’s evacuation of Gush Katif, the senior right-wing leadership never talked in these terms. Maybe on the radical fringes of the right, but certainly not the senior leadership. Some of the leaders of the current protest have explicitly stated that the people might well have made their choice at the ballot box, but they are wrong. These protest leaders don’t regard their own vote as being equal to that of Biton from Beit She’an or Segal from Ofra; they regard themselves as the masters of this land. These are people who come from very specific segments of the population. It is their right to express their opinion, but it is important to note that there is a considerable degree of condescension and an unwillingness to accept the fact that there are other voices and communities of citizens with equal rights.
That brings me to my other position: Minister of Social Equality. We on the right aren’t asking for or demanding more than equal rights. Have we ever been allowed to hold a protest on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway and close it for hours? Or does that right only belong to the left wing? How long have we been given the right to protest before police come with their water cannons, while in Tel Aviv, it all goes smoothly … It is time for equality. Simple as that.
While we see that the protesters and their allies have taken over the mainstream media with their claims, inciting Diaspora Jewry against the current leadership, it seems that there is total silence on the part of the government. What is the government waiting for?
Since when are internal Israeli issues the business of the Diaspora? This is a local issue, and has nothing to do with the Diaspora.
But the left is utilizing that to their advantage.
These are things that are unheard of. I’ll tell you, as a vocal opponent of the previous government, that at no stage did we go on such a rampage and try to undermine the country. How much joy does the opposition express every time any company withdraws its money from Israeli banks? This is unheard of. They are like the Meraglim, trying to badmouth Eretz Yisrael and Jews in the Land.
So you support the judicial reform?
Of course I do. Just last week, the coalition offered very far-reaching compromises. Let’s wait to see if these anarchists will take our olive branch or continue to wreak havoc, all in the name of bringing down the government, not for anything real.
To put things into perspective, in 24 out of the 38 member states of the OECD, it is the political leadership that appoints the highest legal figures, and in the U.S. the president appoints the Supreme Court judges subject to a majority in the Senate — a conservative president appoints conservative judges and vice versa. We are simply taking a further step toward what happens in the U.S.
When you look at the current composition of the High Court in Israel — it represents a rather restricted range of views from Meretz to the Labor Party, and it doesn’t even fully take in all of the positions in this part of the political spectrum. I really don’t think that the judicial reform is going too far on this issue. Of all the OECD member states, only in Turkey and Greece do the judges appoint themselves.
I have had meetings with senior Diaspora Jewry figures who have expressed concern over the “override clause” but the issue of the override clause was implemented in the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation by none other than former High Court President Aharon Barak himself. Yes, that man who considered himself an ubermensch. At the state level in the U.S., the judges themselves are selected to serve based on elections. Israel is progressing toward adopting the U.S. model, and this is a welcome step forward. If anyone has an objection to the idea of the override clause, they should address their reservations to Aharon Barak…
How do you deal with the division between religion and state — which for the moment has been somewhat overshadowed by the judicial reform — for example, the desire to amend the Law of Return?
The Law of Return is in need of urgent amendment. An individual who is not Jewish, and whose link to Israel is via his grandfather or even his great-grandfather, should not automatically be granted citizenship, in my opinion.
This issue is currently completely wide open, and the State of Israel is entitled to request that an individual who does not adhere to a Jewish way of life in any form undergo an orderly process to make aliyah.
We are currently facing a severe problem, and many people who shouldn’t be entering Israel are doing so. Forty percent of them leave after receiving the economic benefits associated with making aliyah.
It is clear that somebody who has strong Jewish roots enjoys a completely different status. Israel has the right to examine whether a person seeking to come and live in Israel because his grandfather was Jewish wants to be a part of the Jewish people, and perhaps even undergo a conversion process if he is coming to live here for good or for a shorter period.
The figures require us to invest a serious effort in addressing this issue. This is not a game.
I am looking to advance this issue based on consensus as it genuinely is a complex matter. I aspire to make the requisite amendments to the grandfather clause from a national perspective, but also based on dialogue and consensus. As far as I am concerned, the idea put forward by President Herzog to convene a committee to work on these amendments is most welcome, and we shall of course ensure that representatives of Diaspora Jewry are also included on such a committee. It is important to respect them and to listen to them. I believe that an orderly process needs to be set in motion, just as you receive a visa for a number of countries, so that somebody who has no direct link to Israel can make aliyah.
Perhaps a final message to Jews in the Diaspora?
We are now heading into the chag of Pesach. One of the main mitzvos of Pesach is v’higadeta l’vincha – to relate the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim to one’s children. That is perhaps the message we can take from Pesach: Jewish continuity goes from generation to generation. It is Jewish chinuch, Jewish pride, that will keep us as a nation.
May we merit to what we say at the end of the Seder: L’shanah haba’ah biYerushalayim!
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