Over the past couple of months Israel has seen an array of diplomatic breakthroughs culminating in a sea change within the politics of the wider Middle East. Paradoxically, as the maligning of Israel continues to increase in the West – acceptance of Israel is proliferating throughout the wider Arab world.
We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Hillel Newman, Israel’s Consul General to the Pacific Southwest, to ask him about these recent trends and more.
Daniel Levine: Thanks for taking the time to talk to JLife. Would you mind starting by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got to be the Consul General?
Hillel Newman: I was born in South Africa but moved to Israel early on in my life. I attended a Hesder Yeshiva – a synthesis of army service and Jewish learning – before receiving a Ph.D. in Jewish history. I was teaching at Bar Ilan University, and got involved in student exchange delegations. We managed to arrange first-ever exchange delegations with Turkey and other places. A senior official in the Israeli State Department recommended that I join their ranks and become a diplomat, which I did. I have now served 21 years as a professional diplomat, on behalf of the State of Israel, to a variety of countries, including the Republic of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I also served as policy advisor to three foreign ministers.
DL: Given your experience as a diplomat to predominantly Muslim countries I wanted to start by talking about the major news out of the Middle East: the peace treaties with UAE and Bahrain. How big of a deal is this?
It’s hard to overemphasize how significant this is. I actually visited the UAE about a year ago on an official diplomatic visit with former Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, as a part of a wider UN conference. This process has actually been unfolding over a decade, slowed down by the backlash from Islamic radicals.
Since Israel’s re-establishment in 1948, Israel extended a hand in peace and friendship to all. Israel was and is willing to establish peace with any country that comes forward. But, in 1948 Israel was confronted with total rejection of Israel by the Arab world.
In the Khartoum Resolution they issued their famous “three nos”: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” The negation of Israel was the root of the Middle East conflict. With this history in mind, we can begin to understand the significance of these latest treaties. What we are seeing is a major backlash to this historical Arab rejectionism.
The Abraham Accords have tremendous significance. They realign allies in the Middle East, bringing together moderates against radicals. They reverse the previous misguided policy conditioning normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab states on fully resolving the Palestinian issue. This conditioning proved to be one of the biggest obstacles to peace. The Accords bring realism into the peace process, setting a new model of “Peace for Peace.” The concept of full recognition and mutual recognition, correcting an historical injustice. This peace will be a genuine warm peace.
In the case of the UAE and Bahrain, we are seeing not just peace, but warm relations. Since the public statements we witnessed an unprecedented direct flight from Israel to UAE bearing the Israeli flag and symbols – flying over Saudi Arabian airspace. We have seen much social media activity on a grassroots level expressing satisfaction about this deal. Dozens of agreements have already been drafted on cooperation with Israel on a wide array of crucial areas like science, medicine and even diplomatic affairs. We are even going to cooperate on COVID-19 aspects.
This recent treaty undermines the mistaken concept that normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world are held hostage by the Palestinians. Rejection, and their refusal to engage with Israel directly, has always been the most predictable factor of the Palestinian leadership. For the past decade they rejected Israel’s calls to conduct direct talks, in Jerusalem or Ramallah. The several peace initiatives placed on the table, by numerous American administrations and various Israeli governments, were all rejected without any counteroffer. The Palestinians, including the uncompromising Hamas, made a decision against peace. They could have decided otherwise, and would have had a state alongside Israel a long time ago.
DL: Many pundits have been pushing back on the narrative you just delineated arguing that the only reason why these countries have normalized relations with Israel is because of their economic greed and fear of Iran. What would you say to respond to these critiques?
The key issue is the growing understanding that Israel is an ally, and not an enemy. It takes courage for these countries to step forward. These Arab countries forging peace with Israel are going against decades of policy. This is not a minor decision and it takes an enormous amount of courage. This is not just a result of potential economic benefits and fear of Iran. Both of those factors have been around for years. The reason they step forward now is they feel a confidence and trust. They have internalized that Israel is an ally.
DL: Another critique that I’ve been seeing with increased frequency is the ethics surrounding diplomacy, and thereby implicitly legitimizing these authoritarian countries. What would you say to people who argue that Israel and America shouldn’t be looking to increase relations with despotic, undemocratic regimes?
Ethics and morals do play a part in Israel’s foreign relations. There are cases in which we condition bilateral relations. But, like many others in the diplomatic world, we do not have a policy of “regime change.” The accepted practice in foreign relations is to influence other countries by cultivating relationships and engagement. This is the practice in the EU, United States and others. Increased diplomatic relations have the potential of improving the world. Most authoritarian regimes in current times are influenced by foreign relations and public opinion.
DL: One of the recent ironies surrounding Israel is that it is gaining acceptance within the Arab world while seemingly losing it in the West. If one’s entire vantage point is in the halls of a liberal college campus, or the streets or Europe, one might think that acceptance of Israel is on the quick decline. What can you attribute this to and what does Israel need to do to mitigate it?
I am definitely concerned about anti-Zionist or anti-Israel or anti-Semitic trends on college campuses. These trends are due to the influence of radical elements that have penetrated mainstream circles and are now regarded as normal in many social spheres. Unfortunately, sometimes people are swept up in popular trends, and do not check the facts. They mistake vocalism and aggression on an issue for truth.
For example, many well-meaning people are swept up in the BDS movement. They do not understand that the origin and goal of this movement is to negate Israel’s existence in any borders. The origin does not preach for a two-state solution, but in practical terms the annihilation of the State of Israel. When they chant the slogan “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” they are actually calling for the annihilation of Israel. Perhaps they don’t even stop to think about it. The tendency is always to blame Israel for the lack of peace. That is so superficial. If they would check the facts they would see that it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to engage in direct talks, and the so-called Palestinian partner has rejected every peace offer on the table without any counteroffer. The Palestinian camp is also split between Hamas and Fatah. The Hamas rejects any peace with Israel in any borders. Fatah is too weak to make any decisions.
We need to hear from the voices of moderates on these issues. The real battle and conflict in the Middle East is between radicals and moderates. Not Jews against Arabs, or Christians against Muslims, but radicals challenging moderates. The radicals tend to dominate the public arena with their vocalized aggression and provocations. This has been part of the problem with the Arab and Muslim world, where radical voices have dominated a silent but moderate majority. It is time for the moderates in all camps to come together. The peace accords and public declarations with UAE and Bahrain are an important step in that regard. The Jewish community can also play an even more important part.
DL: I wanted to switch gears for a moment and ask about Ultra Orthodoxy in the Israeli government. A lot of liberal American Jews can’t understand why Haredim have strongholds over the Israeli government controlling marriage, holy sites, and not fully accepting liberal conversion.
Jews of all denominations are welcome in Israel and recognized by the Interior Ministry as Jews. Our leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, have voiced this message several times. Perhaps Israel should do a better job in conveying this message in greater clarity. Israel should be like a second home to all Jews around the world.
It is also important to note that the Reform and Conservative communities are growing in Israel and do receive budgets from the government. A book called “Rising Streams,” on Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, has been released recently by a researcher at the Jewish People Policy Institute, and it displays interesting findings. There is a wide range of views in Israel, from far left to far right, and aside from radical standpoints which cross red lines of anti-Semitism, like the support of BDS, all denominations of Judaism are welcomed and can be represented.
It is true that in religious matters, like marriage, divorce and conversion the religious institutions run according to traditional Halacha, under the Orthodox establishment. This has historical traditional roots. Ben Gurion, who was not an ultra-orthodox fan, established this out of a vision of unity. There was a fear that diverse conversions or marriages could bring about a split in the nation. Upholding the traditional Halachic standard was the only way to ensure we remain united. This does not mean that changes cannot be made in areas of tension, and some accommodations have been made. For instance, the Ezrat Yisrael Plaza at the Western Wall. This is a plaza for mixed gender prayer at the Kotel. This displays a transformation which has taken place in recognition of the needs of non-orthodox communities. More changes will come about with time, but it requires a stronger presence. Greater presence will increase influence. The Ezrat Yisrael plaza for instance needs to have a greater presence.
DL: I can imagine that when many American Jews hear that answer their immediate reaction would be: “what are you talking about unity, our practice of Judaism and even our communal institutions are given little to no respect in Israel, how can this be unity?”
There’s a difference between state recognition and halachic recognition. Every Jew of all denominations is recognized and invited to Israel under the Law of Return.
When it comes to religious aspects, such as marriage, divorce and conversion in Israel, it is different. The more active a part the other denominations have in Israeli society, the more they will be able to introduce reforms.
DL: Thanks so much for your time and on behalf of JLife we really appreciate this conversation. Before we finish I wanted to ask what’s most helpful as an OC community when it comes to supporting Israel?
Firstly, allow me to express appreciation for your work and send a greeting of a good and happy New Year to all your readers and community members. The fact that people are affiliated with the Jewish community and feel belonging to the community is of vital importance.
I implore everyone to gather knowledge and study the issues. Knowledge is a vital part of one’s identity. I also encourage everyone to have an active connection with Israel. Israel is a key element in preserving Jewish identity.
The consulate can also serve as a resource for issues of interest and concern. Anyone who wishes to expand knowledge on some issue or share a concern, is invited to turn to our information bureau in the consulate, info@LA.mf.gov.il, which can serve as a resource. For those who doubt Israel’s policy, I encourage them not to follow popular trends but to learn the facts.
I cannot stress enough the importance of being involved in Jewish community life. Preservation of tradition is also a key aspect in maintaining identity and affiliation. I know that this has been a challenging year. Amidst the darkness we have seen a ray of light come forth from Israel with the peace accords. Israel, the US and others are working on vaccines and technology. Israel’s innovation and ingenuity will also benefit humanity. I am confident that the next year will bring forth better times. There will be more peace treaties, and there will be a vaccine. One can be proud of one’s Jewish heritage and affiliation with Israel. I wish everyone Shana Tova, good health and prosperity.
RABBI DANIEL LEVINEis the Senior Jewish Educator at OC Hillel, the Rabbinic fellow at Temple Beth Tikvah, and a contributing writer to JLife magazine.