Today’s slated celebration of “Europe Day” was called off over the planned participation of Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
By Erin Viner
“Regrettably, this year we have decided to cancel the diplomatic reception, as we do not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the EU stands for,” said a statement released by the European Union Delegation in Israel.
“Europe Day” is held on 9 May in tribute of the 1950 date of the issuance of a French declaration that led to the founding of the body that became the EU.
Israel’s right-wing 37th government is an alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions that took office in January.
Announcement that Ben-Gvir was chosen to represent the Israeli government at this year’s reception immediately stirred controversy. Despite dissent voiced over his intended appearance, the far-right Minister insisted on speaking at the event, where he said he would express criticism of the EU stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Ben-Gvir is forcing the EU to stop this approach and respond,” a senior European diplomat told the Haaretz news agency, explaining that until now, policy by the EU and most European nations has been aimed at seeking cooperation with those perceived as moderate elements in the government, while ignoring the far-right parties headed by Ben-Gvir (Otzma Yehudit) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism party (RZP).
The EU reaction underscores diplomatic concern toward the Netanyahu government that caused unease even among Israel’s other allies. Ben-Gvir’s refusal to cancel his appearance essentially forced the first confrontation with the international community opposed to the coalition’s views.
“It is a shame that the European Union, which claims to represent the values of democracy and multiculturalism, is engaging in undiplomatic silencing,” Ben-Gvir said in a statement, adding, “Friends know how to express criticism and true friends also know how to hear it.”
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid has accused the government of endangering democracy and “picking unnecessary fights.”
“Managing Israel’s foreign relations is a complex matter that requires expertise and a smart approach,” he said in a tweet.
Some Israeli human rights groups who said they were invited to participate in the event issued a statement supporting its cancellation.
“We welcome the European Union’s decision to refrain from giving a platform and legitimacy to Minister Ben-Gvir who promotes racist and discriminatory policies towards the communities we represent,” said a statement from the groups.
Even though the diplomatic reception was cancelled, a separate cultural event for the Israeli public will continue as planned “to celebrate with our friends and partners in Israel the strong and constructive bilateral relationship,” stated the EU delegation.
Appointment of Ben-Gvir, who is the head of the political party, as a Minister was met with outcry from the start due to a lengthy police record – which he said in 2015 racked up to 53 indictments on criminal charges – including a 2007 conviction for racist incitement against Arabs. He was even exempted from performing compulsory service in the IDF over his extremist activities that once included calls for the expulsion of all Palestinians.
The Israel Bar Association denied his taking of the bar exam until the settlement of several outstanding cases. As an attorney, he gained notoriety for defending extremist Jewish activists accused of terrorism and hate crimes; also representing the far-right Lehava group opposed to Jewish intermarriage.
As a youth, Ben-Gvir worked as a coordinator at the extremist Kach party, considered by Israel and the United States to be a terrorist organization.
“Ben-Gvir Is an Israeli Diplomatic Disgrace,” read the headline of an editorial published today by Haaretz, while another editorial in the Jerusalem Post read: “Ben-Gvir, Golan: Israel is making diplomatic gaffes. Israel already has enough substantive issues causing friction with both the EU and the US. It need not add to them by taking unnecessarily provocative steps.” The latter reference was to the government’s nomination of Likud Member of Knesset May Golan as Israel’s Consul General to New York. The appointment of Golan, who opposed offering haven to African refugees and called herself “proud to be a racist,” prompted criticism from both Israelis and Americans.