Jun 21, 2023 - World

Israeli minister's "not woke" comment irks Jewish Dem lawmakers

Israel Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli speaks during the Israeli American Council (IAC) national summit on Jan. 19, 2023. Photo: Shahar Azran/Getty Images

A meeting between Israel’s diaspora minister and a group of Jewish congressional Democrats earlier this month quickly turned tense after the Israeli politician invoked the term “woke," according to four U.S. and Israeli sources who attended the meeting or were briefed on it.

Why it matters: The difficult atmosphere, as well as the criticism and concerns expressed by the U.S. lawmakers during the meeting with Amichai Chikli, shows the growing rift between Jewish Democrats in Congress — many of whom are strong supporters of Israel — and Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

The big picture: The main role of the diaspora minister is to strengthen the connections between the Israeli government and Jewish communities around the world — first and foremost in the United States.

  • But since assuming office less than six months ago, Chikli has angered many liberal Jewish people in the U.S. with statements against Reform Jews, the pro-Israel liberal organization J Street, Jewish billionaire George Soros and the anti-government protest movement in Israel.
  • Chikli has in the past railed against "progressive ideology” and LGBTQ+ rights, including calling the Tel Aviv Pride parade a "disgraceful vulgarity.
  • A photo taken by journalist Jacob Kornbluh of Chikli making what looked to many like an obscene gesture toward people who protested against him during a pro-Israel parade in New York City went viral. Chikli claimed he was just telling the protesters to smile.
  • A senior Biden administration official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency the incident showed Chikli does not understand the American Jewish diaspora.

Behind the scenes: During his trip to the U.S. two weeks ago, Chikli met in Washington with a group of roughly 10 Jewish Democratic members of Congress, including moderates and progressives.

  • The Jewish lawmakers used the meeting to voice “very sharp” criticism about a range of topics, including Chikli’s remarks about Reform Judaism, LGBTQ+ issues and Soros, as well as the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan and its policy of expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, according to two people who were present in the meeting.
  • Early in the meeting, Chikli declared: "I'm not progressive, I'm not woke" — a comment that roiled up the room, multiple sources said.
  • "I think it touched a nerve, because people feel like the right has been manipulating that word, and then you throw the Soros piece in there…a fair amount of people were offended by his comment," one lawmaker told Axios.

A source with knowledge of the conversation said: “Even those in the room who may not themselves like the terms 'woke' or 'progressive,' understand that both are weaponized by the right against all Democrats. And that went over very poorly."

  • There were attempts to de-escalate the situation, according to two lawmakers, but the members had trouble discerning whether what they said was sinking in, one member of Congress said. "He's not a warm, fuzzy person. And he has a poker face," the lawmaker added.
  • The lawmakers requested anonymity to discuss details of an off-the-record meeting.

The other side: Chikli confirmed the details in the story and told Axios he wasn’t aware of the sensitivity around the term “woke." He said that after one of the lawmakers expressed her dismay, he apologized and the meeting continued.

  • “I wasn’t trying to be confrontational. The context of my remark was that even though I am not woke or progressive, the government is funding LGBT projects and causes and I am not against it,” he said.
  • Chikli said that a lot of the criticism that was voiced by the members of Congress was based on inaccurate information about his position and quotes that were taken out of context. “Nevertheless, the conversation was constructive," he said.

Several of the U.S. lawmakers told Chikli that his remarks and the Israeli government’s policies, in general, have offended their Jewish constituents and make it “terribly more difficult in making a case for Israel," said a source with knowledge of the meeting.

  • The lawmakers conveyed to the Israeli minister the message that they didn't appreciate his remarks and behavior. “He was really uncomfortable … it was tense … he physically bristled," one member of Congress said.
  • One lawmaker recalled Chikli saying that there were no longer any demonstrations over Israel's judicial overhaul plan. That "raised a lot of eyebrows in the room” because the protests are ongoing, the lawmaker told Axios.
  • “It was rough because it needed to be rough, and I think the decision to meet with him was to have him really understand the broad consensus here," the lawmaker added.

What they're saying: Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), one of the leading members of the group, declined to weigh in directly on the meeting but said in a statement: "I fear Minister Chikli’s cavalier approach to the diaspora community’s concerns — including those of Members of Congress — undermines our work to uphold the hard-fought bonds between our nations.”

  • A strong supporter of Israel, Schneider said "one of Israel’s unique strengths has been its special bond with diaspora communities around the world."
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