EXCLUSIVE: What really happened at Israeli ambassador LSE debate?

EXCLUSIVE: What really happened at Israeli ambassador LSE debate?
10 min read
04 January, 2022
In-depth: The New Arab for the first time reveals what was said in the room when Tzipi Hotovely, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, attended an LSE debating society event in November.
Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely appeared at an LSE event in November [MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images – archive]

The New Arab can exclusively reveal what was said at a London School of Economics (LSE) debating society event featuring the Israeli ambassador to the UK on 9 November, which led to heated scenes outside the university with pro-Palestine activists accused by media of antisemitism.

During her appearance, ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, 43, a former lawmaker for ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, defended the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, platforming a Jewish supremacist group that two Israeli politicians urged should be banned as a terrorist organisation in June.

Social media footage shows Hotovely being booed and heckled as she leaves the building. One demonstrator is stopped from hurrying towards the ex-settlements minister, who was escorted away in a car.

UK politicians and others were quick to react, with many suggesting the reaction to Hotovely was antisemitic.

Two sources present at the demonstration outside the LSE Students' Union Debate Society event, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those there were aware of what was happening inside the building. They had live access to the session on their phones using the event's Zoom link.

Both sources said they did not witness any antisemitic comments or violence at the protest.

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Rather, demonstrators chanted slogans like, "Free, free Palestine". One noted these chants became momentarily louder whenever protesters became aware the ambassador had made a comment they considered outrageous.

"The most hectic it gets is people just screaming and shouting or whatever… whether it's, 'Free Palestine' or, 'Get her out,'" the second source said, adding that no one there sought to harm the ambassador.

"Looking at the way the news across the spectrum, really… reported the protest, it was almost as if I wasn't there myself at times. Because what I was reading was not what I saw at all."

London's Metropolitan Police said it attended the event and no arrests were made. While the police investigated a social media post about the protest, no suspect was identified, and the case was later closed.

The New Arab obtained a leaked transcript of Hotovely's speaking engagement and then listened to the original recording to verify its authenticity. Later, a video of the event was uploaded to YouTube in December by the LSE debating society but by 9 January this had gained only three dozen views, remaining unreported in the media.

The recordings show that at LSE Hotovely was confronted by a student for calling the 1948 Nakba (Arabic for "catastrophe") a "very popular Arab lie" while at a 2020 digital event with the Board of Deputies, a key communal body for British Jews.

During the Nakba, 700,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land. This happened alongside the Israeli state's formation and the First Arab-Israeli War, when it fought several Arab states, including Egypt and Iraq.

The Nakba created a multigenerational refugee crisis that lasts to this day.

At the LSE event in November a student questioned Hotovely on her 2020 Nakba remark. She responded: "[This is] a very good opportunity to clarify and put things in context because I was saying very clear things in the context.

"The context of the event was the fact that almost a million Jews were expelled from Arab countries experiencing the same as the Arab population experienced.

"And this thing is something that Israeli history, just like… international history, is erasing from the textbooks. And, actually, this is the real problem because the 1948 war is being documented in every possible way, and everything is accessible. And the most important thing–"

The student came back in, asking: "So you acknowledge the Nakba is real?"

"No," Hotovely replied, prompting the student to say, "What?"

"Because I'm saying again, in order to say something happened, you need to say what you're claiming–" Hotovely started to respond. She was again cut off by the student who maintained they'd provided "primary source evidences" during their initial question.

After the moderator asked the student to allow Hotovely to finish, the Israeli ambassador returned to Jews' expulsion from and wider abuse in Arab states, saying this must be grasped to understand the context. Later in the event calls she calls it a "catastrophe" – the literal English translation of the Arabic word "Nakba". The New Arab has asked Israel's embassy in London if Hotovely was aware of this at the time.

Israel's foreign ministry said in 2019 that "more than 850,000 Jewish refugees… were forced out of Arab lands and Iran in the 20th [c]entury".

Israeli professor of history Ilan Pappé, director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, said both Arab nationalism following the Nakba and Zionism were responsible for Jews leaving the Arab world.

The University of Exeter academic explained: "According to Zionist ideology they were not Arabs and extreme nationalists in the Arab world accepted this new [understanding], especially after the Nakba."

Most Iraqi Jews left their homeland in the early 1950s. Pappé said they were partly forced out by then-Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Said and partly by Israeli agents carrying out a terror campaign by planting bombs in synagogues. Many suggest the bombings were an effort to push Iraqi Jews into moving to Israel.

Hotovely then made a second point she called "more important".

"Nineteen forty-eight [the year of the Nakba and First Arab-Israeli War] happened, just because of one reason: the Arabs refused… the UN partition plan," the ambassador claimed.

She seemingly then referred to Palestine as being part of Israel, saying: "What, for many years, was offered to the Arabs [who] lived in Israel was: have your own state.

"This was under the [1937] Peel Conference [Commission]. This was under the UN resolution – very famous UN resolution."

In 1947, United Nations Resolution 181 proposed splitting historic Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Palestinian.

Palestinians objected, asserting the move would breach their right to self-determination as a people.

Despite Palestinians then owning around 85 percent of the region's land, while representing 68 percent of its population, the division would also have seen 56 percent of territory go to the Jewish state.

Hotovely continued: "And they decided they're not interested that Israel will be a state and they started a war.

"This historic truth must be said, because it was a war that happened because the Arab[s] refused to have [a] partition plan, while Israel always agreed to have a partition plan throughout all points in history," she added. "What happened in 1948 [is] that, while Israel was willing to have an Arab state next to it, the Arabs refused to have Israel next to it."

Questioned as to whether "that made it OK to ethnically cleanse them", Hotovely returned to the same argument.

She said: "This is the thing no historian will say [any] different [from] because everyone knows why 1948 happened: 1948 happened because the Arabs refused to accept the partition plan. So, this is what we begin with."

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However, academic research indicates the violence of the Nakba greatly exceeded the normal rules of conflict, and that non-combatants uninvolved in political decision-making were victimised. Scholars – including many Israeli historians – agree atrocities were committed against civilians during the Nakba.

Explaining her argument, Hotovely said: "What I am saying is Israel shouldn't… never in our lifetime, Israel should never say that we should have just said: 'Kill us.' This is what you're expecting us to say, because what you're expecting us to say is, 'OK, fine, so–'

The student questioner then chimed back in, saying: "Women were raped and children were killed."

The ambassador replied: "It's a very, very simple answer, and I gave it to you: [the] 1948 war was a war where Israel won after being attacked because the Arabs refused to have their own state, or their own, whatever, sovereignty."

The student compared Hotovely's remarks to Holocaust denial.

She rejected this, saying: "Everything is clear, and we are not hiding history."

The Israeli parliament or Knesset
Tzipi Hotovely was formerly a lawmaker in the Israeli parliament [DeAgostini/Getty]. Click here to enlarge image

"Both events [the Holocaust and the Nakba] have historical consensus on them, but you cherry-pick one of them. Why is that?" the student asked.

"No, I'm not, I was just trying [to] look at the broader picture," the ambassador said.

Despite responding in the negative when questioned earlier in the event about whether she acknowledges the Nakba is real, Hotovely said, "No" when asked directly whether she denies the Nakba, tilting her head to the side. She then shook her head, holding her right hand up and adding, "Please, don't put words into my mouth" as the student continued to press her.

Hotovely then commented on the issue of radical Islam in the region.

"Part of the problem is that I'm actually saying out loud that part of the problem [is] that radical Islam is on our borders," she said.

"Unfortunately, when it comes to Hamas or Hezbollah… in Lebanon, this is the truth. This is radical Islam being [led] by jihadi ideology."

Hotovely then told a story about a United Nations diplomat's visit to a school in Lebanon. While there, he asked the children where they are from.

They told him they were from the originally Palestinian city of Safed. The city was taken over by a Zionist militia on 10 May 1948 and is now part of northern Israel. That the children were living in Lebanon indicates their families eventually became refugees there, with that refugee status passing down to them.

The UN diplomat pushed back, saying they were second-generation born in Lebanon, according to Hotovely. However, the children insisted that they were from Safed.

"They were being raised by a narrative that basically it doesn't matter," Hotovely claimed.

"They don't recognise the idea that Israel exists or that he was speaking about Israel. [They] said no, Israel shouldn't exist.

"So part of the problem again, that, why do I mention Islam? Not because we're against Islam. We're against radical streams in Islam that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and we need to address this ideology."

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Later in the session, another student asked about a 2011 Israeli parliamentary appearance by Jewish-Israeli extremist organisation Lehava.

The group, whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning, "For the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land", is infamous for being anti-Palestinian and for its opposition to Jews marrying non-Jews. It is also anti-LGBTQ+.

In June, Omar Bar-Lev, Israeli minister of public security, and Knesset defence committee chief Ram Ben Barak urged Lehava to be banned as a terrorist organisation.

Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein dismissed the suggestion, and criticised government politicians trying to ban his group while the Palestinian-Islamic United Arab List is part of their coalition.

The student's question seemingly referred to Gopstein's appearance at a meeting of the Israeli parliament's Committee for the Advancement of Women.

This reportedly came at the invitation of Hotovely, though the student did not mention this detail.

At the committee meeting, Gopstein described the "legitimacy that is given today to intermarriage" between Jews and Arabs as a "problem".

Facing backlash over the event, a decade ago Hotovely asserted that it's "important to examine procedures for preventing mixed marriages, and Lehava members are the right people for that", according to Israel's Walla news outlet.

At LSE in November, the ambassador also defended the group being platformed by the Knesset, though justified this in a different way.

Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely departing from 10 Downing Street
Ambassador Hotovely departing from 10 Downing Street [Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency/Getty]. Click here to enlarge image

"Lehava doesn't call to kill people, like it's a very radical organisation," she said.

"When we are saying a certain organisation is a terror organisation, it's usually defined by a country.

"The word radical and terror, it's not always the same. You can be very radical and still under [the] legitimate spectrum of a country, but you're not a terror organisation.

"So, [the] Israeli parliament allows every organisation whether they're radical or not to [have], you know, [its] freedom of speech moment in parliament."

The ambassador said she doesn't need to agree with particular groups to value the freedom of speech Israel's parliament offers, which she maintained applies so far as no one is put in danger by what's said.

However, in 2014, Lehava members attempted to burn down a rare integrated school where Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian students study together, leaving behind graffitied slogans like "Death to Arabs".

The phrase "Death to Arabs" made headlines in April when it was chanted at a march arranged by Lehava in Jerusalem.

Over 100 Palestinians were injured that evening as violence broke out, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The New Arab has contacted Israel's embassy in London for comment.

Note: This article was updated on 9 January to reflect a YouTube video of Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely's LSE appearance uploaded in December by the LSE Students' Union Debate Society.

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin