In US, Smotrich walks back Huwara remark, touts unity, as hundreds protest; 7 arrests

Finance minister again says call to destroy Palestinian town ‘created a mistaken impression,’ claims to embrace Israelis of all types, as ex-pats and others rally outside DC hotel

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

Jewish Americans and Israeli ex-pats protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Jewish Americans and Israeli ex-pats protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — Visiting a less-than-welcoming United States, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich appeared to embark on a charm offensive Sunday, telling American investors he was sorry for calling to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara and committing to “protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab,” as several hundred American Jews and Israeli ex-pats protested his appearance outside.

Smotrich spoke to some 150 leaders in the Israel Bonds organization at a private gala dinner, attempting to drum up continued support for Israel’s economy despite reports of investment money fleeing the country due to the upheaval around a judicial overhaul plan being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government.

Midway through his English-language remarks at the gala Sunday night, Smotrich sought to address what he called the “the elephant in the room.”

“As I have already said and written and repeat now with sincere regret, my comments about Huwara created a completely mistaken impression,” he claimed.

“I stand before you now as always committed to the security of the state of Israel, to our shared values, and to the highest moral commitment of our armed forces to protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.”

Less than two weeks earlier, Smotrich was asked why he had “liked” a tweet calling “to wipe out the village of Huwara today,” referring to the Palestinian town where a pair of Israeli brothers were gunned down in a terror attack and where hundreds of settlers carried out a deadly rampage hours later.

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied, adding that “God forbid” the job be done by private citizens.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich poses with Israel Bonds members at their conference in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Bezalel Smotrich/Twitter)

The comments sparked an immediate international uproar, with the US calling them “repugnant” and demanding that Netanyahu and other Israeli ministers repudiate them.

Three days later, Smotrich walked back his words, calling them a “slip of the tongue” made in a “storm of emotions,” and Netanyahu praised his clarification.

But for many — particularly in the American Jewish community — the damage was already done. Seventy-three liberal Jewish organizations signed onto a pledge against hosting Smotrich, three of whom called on the Biden administration to deny him the visa needed to enter the country. Several such groups organized a protest outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel Sunday where inside Smotrich addressed the conference for Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad.

For its part, the White House sufficed with announcing last week that no government officials would meet the finance minister while he is in town.

Among those to effectively shun Smotrich were major mainstream organizations such as the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League, though they avoided signing onto statements in support of boycotting Smotrich. The Republican Jewish Coalition and Christians United for Israel similarly confirmed that they didn’t have meetings scheduled with Smotrich.

Smotrich said last week that he was supposed to meet with a director of the International Monetary Fund and representatives from the US Chamber of Commerce, but both of those meetings were canceled amid uproar over the Huwara comments, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Only the Orthodox Union and the right-wing Zionist Organization of America announced plans to meet with Smotrich during his three days in Washington and New York.

ZOA president Mort Klein said he was proud to have scheduled the meeting. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to meet a major Israeli leader like Finance Minister Smotrich, it’s important to learn first hand about the major issues facing Israel such as Iran, the frightening increase in Palestinian Arabs murdering innocent Jews, pay-to-slay, judicial reform, the situation in Judea & Samaria,” he said, noting that Smotrich had already apologized for his Huwara remark. “Shouldn’t we accept that and move on?”

As Smotrich spoke on Sunday, several simultaneous protests against the finance minister took place outside the Grand Hyatt. On the west side of the building, a few hundred Israeli ex-pats and American Jews waved Israeli flags and chanted slogans against Smotrich, the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans and the government’s policies toward the Palestinians.

Jewish Americans and Israeli ex-pats protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

On the north side of the building, the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace organization led a rally of over 60 people who called to boycott Israel and accused the country of maintaining an apartheid regime over the Palestinians.

A similar number from the like-minded If Not Now Jewish organization gathered near the White House before marching toward the Grand Hyatt and positioning themselves on the west side of the hotel, just two police squad cars apart from the pro-Israel demonstration.

Nearly a dozen members of the group managed to sneak into the building, seeking to disrupt Smotrich’s speech. They didn’t make it inside the ballroom, but If Not Now said seven of its members were arrested.

Speakers and participants at the rally of Israeli ex-pats and liberal American Jews expressed their solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of anti-Netanyahu protesters who have taken to the streets across Israel to protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans. The Washington protesters adopted the “De-mo-cra-cy” chant that’s been heard over the past 10 weeks some 6,000 miles away.

“To our Israeli sisters and brothers, we say: ‘We are with you at every moment in your struggle against racism, against homophobia, against extremism and for democracy, tolerance, equality and human rights,'” declared Susie Gelman, who chairs the board of the center-left Israel Policy Forum. “We are here tonight because the racism, homophobia and extremism of Bezalel Smotrich do not and must not represent the values of Israelis and Jewish people worldwide.”

Smotrich has a long history of remarks against the LGBTQ community, Arabs, Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews, some of which he has walked back.

His latest remarks about Huwara managed to unify both Israel-flag-waving Zionists and Palestinian-flag-waving anti-Zionists outside the Grand Hyatt on Sunday evening.

T’ruah CEO Jill Jacobs addresses a protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Both groups made a point of criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, though such chants at the Israel-flag-waving demonstration were not nearly as aggressive and were largely voiced by the liberal American Jewish speakers, not Israeli ex-pats, who focused their remarks on opposition to the judicial overhaul.

“I know you are joining today because you know that even here, in tranquil America… as we all go about our business, at home, in our synagogues and [Jewish Community Centers]… the government in Israel is executing an aggressive, violent, illegal judicial coup,” said Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli-American living in the Bay Area. Gutelzon and other expats recently formed the group UnXeptable to protest the Israeli government and helped organize Sunday’s protest.

“Demonstrating against the Israeli government for so many of our brothers and sisters here in America — I know it is unnatural, I know it goes against your DNA, but we all know that this is an emergency,” he added, ostensibly referring to a longstanding Israeli political tradition to not air dirty laundry while abroad.

Jewish Voice for Peace members protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Israeli protesters back home have also zeroed in on the coalition’s effort to radically restrict the Supreme Court’s power, castigating those who have shown up to their rallies brandishing Palestinian flags amid fears that they will scare away right-wing leaning Israelis from joining.

But the speakers at the Washington pro-Israel rally against Smotrich demonstrated the more dovish nature of American Jews, many of whom aren’t willing to separate their support for Palestinian rights from their support for a strong Israeli democracy.

“When we talk about democracy, we also have to talk about occupation and Palestinian rights,” said Jill Jacobs, who heads the T’ruah rabbinic human rights group.

Despite political differences on the Palestinian issue, the Israeli ex-pats and liberal American Jews came together later that evening to protest together, as inside, Smotrich extolled the virtues of unity and struck a more conciliatory tone than he has to date.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrive at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

“Judaism has always known controversies. We can even say it was built on controversies. Disagreement is not something that should scare us. On the contrary, it enriches us,” Smotrich said.

“There are among us religious and secular people, reform, conservative, unaffiliated, and others,” he continued. “In Israel, we have big differences, but for one moment we must not forget that we are brothers.”

“Despite all of the differences, despite the many colors that make up the Jewish mosaic, we are one,” Smotrich added, noting that they all had the same goal of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, a watchword for many progressive American Jews he once disparaged.

“Together I have no doubt that we will succeed,” he added.

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