Chikili: 'To say I am against LGBT is totally disconnected from reality'

The Israeli diaspora minister speaks out after UK protests


Israel’s diaspora affairs minister has hit back against accusations of homophobia and defended Israel’s judicial reforms after his Rosh Hashanah visit to London sparked criticism and protests.

In a wide-ranging interview in which he attempted to answer all of the allegations against him, Amichai Chikli told the JC that his year-old remark that Tel Aviv’s Pride parade was “vulgar” had been taken out of context.

"I was comparing between the parade in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where in some parts they undress in the street, and that looks vulgar to me," he claimed.

"This government is giving more money to the LGBT community than the previous one," he added. "I am the one who fought for this budget."

Chikli has faced condemnation around the world, particularly from young people, in response to his comment, made on Facebook in June last year. Four international student unions wrote an open letter in protest, with Union of Jewish Students president Joel Rosen accusing him of holding “extremist views”.

But the minister insisted that he was no bigot, pointing out that he has backs projects to support the LGBT community.

“It’s got nothing to do with their rights or their preference in terms of sexuality,” he said. “That’s none of my business.”

Brushing off the row, Chikli was in festive mood, emphasising: “I want to wish every single Jew in Britain a shanah tova of unity, of prosperity and of success."

Last week, Chikli visited Britain and met with communal leaders including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and senior rabbis.

A planned tour of the JW3 cultural centre was cancelled following the threat of demonstrations, however, while a Rosh Hashanah reception he attended at Israel’s embassy attracted a handful of protesters outside.

Reflecting on his "very productive" trip, Chikli told the JC that he had held “authentic conversations” with representatives of Anglo-Jewry, but they were not always comfortable ones.

“I’m not sure it’s a realistic expectation to have a conversation where we all agree and we are all on the same page,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for this kind of conversation.”

Instead, he said, community members shared “their concerns and their pain” about Israel’s ruling coalition government. “I’m happy to have a debate,” he said, but added: “I’m stubborn on some of the issues, like obviously the judicial reform.”

Last Sunday, up to 1,500 mainly Israeli demonstrators gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest the divisive judicial reforms. Academic Yuval Noah Harari warned that the Likud-led government threatened to “destroy democracy” in the Jewish state.

But Chikli insisted that some of the protest leaders had rejected democratic norms themselves.

“Opponents of judicial reform are telling me that because we’re going to have some changes in the judicial system, we’re seeking to be a dictatorship. Or we are like Nazis, as one of the leaders of the protests said just yesterday.

“If they really believe I am a Nazi, or I am a dictator, or I support dictatorship, then we don’t have a room to speak, then we are not in this zone of legitimate debate.”

Reforms are necessary to reverse the judicial over-reach established by Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in the 1990s, he added.

“Having an overly powerful court is a very dangerous situation because it really undermines the essence, the core of democracy,” he said.

Seventy-two per cent of British Jews are pessimistic about the future of democracy in Israel, compared to 55 per cent in Israel itself, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Meanwhile, 79 per cent disapprove of Netanyahu. For Chikli, this is evidence of a concerted PR effort.

“The right-wing parties are not in a campaign outside of Israel to try and prove that all those who don’t think like us want to destroy Israel and they are dictators,” he said.

“We do not delegitimise our rivals and we do not ask people to divest the investments in Israel because Israel is becoming a dictatorship.”

While demonstrations are “super important” and “super legitimate”, he added, it is important not to undermine Israel itself.

“We are responsible not just for the next year, but for the next 50 years,” he said. “We as Jews, as Zionists, we will never want to harm the future of our children.

“It doesn’t matter if they will be left-wing Zionists or right-wing Zionists. There is a core consensus that we need to keep.”

Chikli also defended his other provocative comments. In January, he claimed that the Palestinian Authority was a “neo-Nazi entity”. He doubled down on this, adding that its president, Mahmoud Abbas, was “one of the most radical Holocaust deniers”.

The minister said: “Just a week ago, Abbas said that Hitler didn’t commit the Holocaust because of our ethnicity and faith but because of financial issues… Antisemitism is not because of the air in Judea and Samaria, it’s because of indoctrination led by the Palestinian Authority.”

But he supported the Board of Deputies’ criticism of finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for the West Bank town of Huwara to be “wiped out” after clashes.

“That was a very bad thing to say,” Chikli said. "I'm happy he apologised for it."

He rejected any suggestion that he had “denigrated” Reform Jews by claiming they were returning to “anti-Zionist roots”. But he repeated his view that the early Reform movement “was against nationalism, Jewish nationalism”.

Chikli added that he had chosen to raise his children in "a religiously diverse community".

He said: "As a government minister I am working on deepening the partnership with the liberal religious movements. With that said, it does not mean there are no ideological differences and legitimate criticism."

The Likud MK has also provoked ire for his condemnation of George Soros and a claim that criticism of the Jewish billionaire was “not antisemitism, in fact, it was the opposite”.

He said: “His actions and investments are feeding the flames of antisemitism, especially new antisemitism.”

Soros, a Shoah survivor, is “attacking the remembrance of the Holocaust” by funding Human Rights Watch, he added, which has opposed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.

Chikli’s first visit to Britain had been eye-opening, he said. “I was impressed by the vibrant community. Seventy per cent of [Jewish] kids learn in Jewish schools.

"When I look across the globe, that is not the situation. In the US, outside the Orthodox world only five per cent of the kids get opportunity to get Jewish education.”

According to Chikli, Israel can be proud that it embraces Judaism wholeheartedly.

“We fought to have a Jewish state so that it would not be just another Western country,” he said. “We have the uniqueness of our culture. We do not need to be shy.”

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