ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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120 US Jewish leaders: Smotrich ‘should not be given a platform in our community’

Calls against welcoming minister slated to address Israel Bonds confab next week in DC expand to include more mainstream and prominent voices, including former ADL and AIPAC chiefs

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich presents the state budget at his Jerusalem ministry, February 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich presents the state budget at his Jerusalem ministry, February 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One-hundred and twenty American Jewish leaders on Friday signed on to a statement against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s visit to the US later this month, saying the far-right Religious Zionism party chief with a history of incendiary remarks “should not be given a platform in our community,” particularly after he called to “wipe out” an entire Palestinian town earlier this week.

The list of signatories on the statement demonstrated that the desire to disassociate with Smotrich extended to more mainstream elements of the Jewish community and well beyond the more progressive groups who already called for the minister to be denied a visa to get into the country.

Smotrich is scheduled to speak at the Israel Bonds annual conference taking place in Washington from March 12 to 14.

The Religious Zionism chair was already a controversial figure both at home and abroad for his long history of remarks against the LGBTQ community, Arabs, Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews.

While boycotting a sitting Israeli minister might not have been a step characteristic for mainstream Jewish groups in the US to take, it appears to have been normalized after Smotrich said Wednesday that “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out” and that “the State of Israel should do it.”

Those comments came amid an outpouring of shock and horror in Israel and abroad after one Palestinian was killed, hundreds were injured, and dozens of buildings and dozens of vehicles were burned by hundreds of settlers who ransacked the Palestinian town of Huwara hours after two Israeli brothers were shot dead there in a terror attack on Sunday.

Cars burned by Jewish settlers during riots in Hawara, in the West Bank, near Nablus, February 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

“As American Jews committed to Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, and democratic state; to a robust US-Israel relationship; and to Jewish peoplehood that fully encompasses Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities, we are opposed to Bezalel Smotrich visiting the United States later this month in his capacity as Israel’s finance minister, and we call on all pro-Israel Americans to understand that welcoming Smotrich here will harm, rather than help, support for Israel,” the 120 Jewish leaders said in the Friday statement organized by the center-left Israel Policy Forum.

“Smotrich has long expressed views that are abhorrent to the vast majority of American Jews, from anti-Arab racism, to virulent homophobia, to a full-throated embrace of Jewish supremacy. To this list, we can now add his endorsement of violence against innocents based on their ethnic heritage,” they continued.

“We reject the notion that someone must be accorded respect simply by dint of serving in the Israeli government. His presence in the US to address primarily Jewish audiences would be an affront to American Jewish values, and he should not be given a platform in our community, all the more so in light of his most recent comments about Huwara,” the statement added.

The statement appeared reminiscent of the response Smotrich received from the Board of Deputies of British Jews — the top, mainstream umbrella organization for UK Jews — when he arrived in Britain to tour local Jewish communities one year ago.

“We reject the abominable views and the hate-provoking ideology of Bezalel Smotrich,” the Board of Deputies tweeted in Hebrew at the time. “We call on all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever.”

The rhetoric surprised some — and drew condemnation from President Isaac Herzog — but may have been more characteristic for a UK Jewish community establishment that is slightly to the left of the US Jewish establishment.

Head of the Religious Zionism Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Then again, Smotrich was an opposition lawmaker, not a minister acting as a representative of the Israeli government when he came to the UK, which gives more significance to the call made by the US Jewish leaders on Friday.

Signatories of the statement included Jewish Democratic Council of America chair ex-Rep. Ron Klein and CEO Halie Soifer, National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz, Conservative movement chief Jacob Blumenthal, Reform movement chief Rick Jacobs, former ADL director Abe Foxman, and former US ambassadors to Israel Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer and Dov Zakheim, who worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

While former AIPAC CEO Tom Dine also signed onto the letter, his former organization has avoided weighing in on Smotrich’s comments at all, demonstrating that not all parts of the community are ready to disassociate with the far-right minister.

Israel Bonds has also resisted calls to rescind its invitation to Smotrich, saying Thursday that it “remains unbiased with regard to any political party or affiliation” and that “finance ministers from across the political spectrum have historically” attended its events.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at a campaign event in the southern city of Sderot, October 26, 2022. (Flash90)

Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of the body that authorizes settlement construction and demolition of Palestinian homes in much of the West Bank. That area of authority includes large parts of Huwara, where some 7,000 Palestinians live in the northern West Bank.

In his comments Wednesday, during an on-stage interview at a financial conference hosted by The Marker business daily, Smotrich was asked why he had on Sunday evening “liked” a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called “to wipe out the village of Huwara today.”

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied.

He added that “God forbid,” the job shouldn’t be done by private citizens, condemning the rampage and saying “we shouldn’t be dragged into anarchy in which civilians take the law into their own hands.”

As denunciations poured in on Wednesday, Smotrich issued a statement saying the media was trying to “create a distorted interpretation” of his remarks. He claimed Huwara is a “hostile village” where residents throw stones and shoot at Israelis every day and that he supports a “disproportionate response” by the IDF against the town for every act of terrorism in order to establish deterrence.

He appeared to have deleted that clarification tweet before writing later in the day, “so there isn’t any doubt, I did not mean wipe out the village of Huwara, rather act in a targeted manner against the terrorists and supporters of terrorism living there and to exact a heavy price from them in order to restore security to the [Jewish] residents of the area.”

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