Israeli minister's NYC parade photo: A symptom of what we must combat - opinion

A word to Amichai Chikli: The photo may indeed be fake news, but it is essential to move forward and focus on the real challenges we face as the Jewish people.

 Amichai Chikli  attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 6, 2022 (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Amichai Chikli attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on December 6, 2022
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

I participated in the Celebrate Israel Parade on 5th Avenue in Manhattan last week, marching for the first time and witnessing a beautiful demonstration of love for our only Jewish state.

However, despite the impressive turnout of approximately 40,000 marchers and many more supporters, this year's parade will be remembered for a photo of Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli (Likud) allegedly making a lewd gesture towards a gathering protesting the Israeli government. 

Chikli and his team clarified that his intention was to encourage the protesters to smile rather than making an offensive gesture. According to Chikli, he asked the people in front of him to smile, and since he held a small Israeli flag, he had to fold his fingers and pull his cheeks, signaling a smile. He never attempted to make any violent gestures towards the protesters, he says, despite some of them being disruptive, shouting, and using inappropriate language.

As someone who was present at the parade, I can attest that if Chikli had genuinely made an offensive gesture towards anyone, things would have spiraled out of control. The security surrounding the Israeli delegation was tight and tense, with the protesters closely observing his every move. If such a gesture had occurred, there would have been multiple photos capturing it, witnessed by many, and it would have provoked an angry response from the protesters. However, this simply did not happen.

 The Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City on June 4, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City on June 4, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

During an interview on Monday, the minister criticized J Street for amplifying the photo and even suggested that they had edited it by removing the Israeli flag from his hand. He described J Street as a hostile organization that undermines the interests of the state of Israel and stated that he would not engage in discussions with them.

Israeli politics: Is it possible to assess situations objectively anymore?

Rather than focusing on Chikli's photos, we should address the fact that the political discourse has made it nearly impossible to objectively assess any situation. In the eyes of the opposition, Chikli, who played a significant role in the collapse of the former Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government, is considered an enemy, and any means to damage his image are deemed acceptable. Unfortunately, on both sides of the political spectrum, facts are disregarded, which is a significant problem. We cannot let our anger, frustration, or fears dictate how we perceive the events taking place, particularly in Israel.

To be clear, Chikli is far from perfect. During the early months of his tenure as diaspora affairs minister, his social media mainly focused on actively promoting the judicial reform and criticizing those opposed to them. He also tends to take criticism too seriously and often fails to engage in factual discussions, instead demonizing those he sees as his adversaries. Many people in the Jewish community were surprised that this new minister did not utilize his role to bridge the gap between those in the Jewish world who oppose traditional reforms, as well as other issues like potential changes to the Law of Return, and the current government. Instead, he acted more like an activist, failing to grasp his responsibilities as a diplomat and someone who should facilitate understanding between different parties.

Behind closed doors, Chikli did attempt to serve as a bridge, engaging with various Jewish leaders. However, during a meeting with leading religious Zionist rabbis from around the world a few months ago, participants felt that he did not fully understand their concerns. Instead, he focused on discussing his perception of the left-wing bias in the Israeli media, avoiding addressing critical and sensitive issues.

Chikli also met with heads of American Jewish organizations, including leaders of the three major religious streams in the US, on multiple occasions. Contrary to what some may believe, his schedule was not solely focused on judicial reforms, as his online presence might suggest.

Chikli has his flaws and should be criticized when he makes mistakes. Likewise, he is entitled to criticize those he disagrees with. However, the way this criticism has been conducted so far has been disastrous on both sides. Chikli genuinely cares about the Jewish world, and many progressive Israelis and Jews in the US love Israel. Unfortunately, the discourse surrounding these issues is toxic, hindering any meaningful dialogue.

As a straightforward individual, Chikli would likely love to engage in arguments with demonstrators. However, after being in office for almost six months, he understands that he must represent his country while adhering to his own beliefs. Unlike other ministers in the Israeli government, Chikli took the initiative to meet with heads of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox umbrella organizations in the US during his first week in office.

This action did not gain his political support in Israel; on the contrary, many Likud voters view these counterparts as excessively progressive or overly critical of the Israeli government. Similarly, former Diaspora Minister and later Prime Minister Naftali Bennett faced negative attitudes for his support of the Reform and Conservative movements. His core voters could not comprehend why he would meet with Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union of Reform Judaism.

Another core issue is that some Jewish organizations have decided to boycott representatives of the democratically elected Israeli government. They not only refuse to meet with any government members but also actively lobby against any organization that seeks to engage with them.

Therefore, organizations like J Street and UnXeptable making requests for Jewish organizations and leaders to avoid meeting with Chikli, as well as other Israeli ministers representing the government, is a significant mistake and a major problem. Repairing the damage caused by such actions may take years or even decades. These organizations are entitled to demonstrate according to their beliefs, express their values and frustrations with the government, but they cannot boycott Israeli leaders, spread fake news, or lobby against dialogue and meetings with liberal or progressive groups. Without dialogue, we cannot make progress in a positive direction. Instead of encouraging boycotts, these organizations should encourage liberal American Jewish leaders to speak up while engaging in discussions with Israeli officials. Strengthening the divide will only exacerbate an already existing problem.

To my fellow brothers and sisters who feel ashamed of the current state of our country, I urge you to engage in dialogue and work towards shaping Israeli society into what you believe it should be. It is not an easy task; it is tough and painful. Let's abandon the boycotts and start listening to those on the other side who are willing to have sincere conversations while trying to understand their positions. Do not turn your back on government representatives who are genuinely eager to hear from you and comprehend your perspectives. Continuing on this path will not only gradually isolate you from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations but also harm the Jewish people in the same way that extreme right-wing members of the government do.

Lastly, a word to minister Chikli: The photo may indeed be fake news, but it is essential to move forward and focus on the real challenges we face as the Jewish people. Your responsibilities are significant, and the possibilities in the field of Israel-Diaspora relations are endless. I am excited to see what lies ahead.