Conference of Presidents: Comments 'repugnant, disgusting'

Liberal American Jews urge US to revoke Smotrich’s visa over Huwara remarks

Two groups call for finance minister, set soon for US trip, to be denied entry for saying Palestinian town should be ‘wiped out’; other US Jewish leaders also condemn his comments

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two liberal American Jewish groups have called on the US government to revoke Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s visa and prevent him from visiting the country later this month over his recent call to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara.

In an onstage interview on Wednesday, Smotrich was asked about a recent rampage through the West Bank town by a group of Israeli ultranationalists that left one person dead, dozens wounded, and many homes and businesses burned, in revenge for a terror attack earlier that day that killed two Israelis. The finance minister, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, said he was against civilians conducting such retaliatory attacks and believed that the military should have done it instead.

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

The far-right lawmaker’s comments were swiftly criticized by many figures in Israel and were later condemned by the US State Department, which called them “irresponsible,” “repugnant,” and “disgusting.” They were not denounced by members of Israel’s ruling coalition, some of whom made similar calls for the collective punishment of Huwara.

Smotrich later put out a statement saying his original comment — reported here accurately — had been “interpreted in a distorted manner” by the media. Noting that Huwara “has become a key bastion of terror,” Smotrich said “To be clear, I didn’t mean wiping out Huwara but only to act in a pinpointed manner against terrorists.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog did reject the remarks, saying that regardless of any Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians, “it is absolutely not Israeli policy and it’s against our values to respond by wiping out civilian villages.”

The left-wing group T’ruah, which represents some 2,300 rabbis and cantors in the US, called not only for condemnation by the US but for the government to take concrete action against Smotrich by revoking his visa or at least barring US officials from meeting with him should he come to the country.

“T’ruah calls for the visa for his upcoming trip to the United States to be revoked on the basis of his incitement and endorsement of terror. Not only does his comment add to the pain of families and community members harmed by the violence in Huwara, it also adds to the increasing incitement from members of Netanyahu’s new far-right, extremist government,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah.

“We thank the US State Department for its strong condemnation of Smotrich’s statement, and call on all members of the Biden administration to decline any meetings with him if he is permitted to enter the country. We also call on all American Jewish organizations to condemn Smotrich’s words and refuse to engage with him and his allies,” she said.

Americans for Peace Now, which advocates for a two-state solution, started an online petition calling for the Biden administration to revoke Smotrich’s visa.

“This goes beyond his previous hateful incitement. This is calling for a war crime. And it’s doing so at a time where it’s more evident than ever that incitement like this has fatal consequences,” the group said. “Now Smotrich wants to bring his hatred to US soil. He has plans to travel to the United States later this month. We’re here to say that he is not welcome.”

Smotrich’s remarks were also denounced by a number of major mainstream American Jewish groups, including the influential American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, and by the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We condemn this reprehensible call for violence and collective punishment by a government minister. It represents the opposite of the values and traditions of the State of Israel,” AJC said in a tweet.

The ADL called the minister’s comments “inexcusable” and “antithetical to the Jewish and Israeli values of respect for human life and the rule of law.”

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, said he agreed with the US State Department that the comment was “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting.”

Even before Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” Huwara, the far-right lawmaker and members of his Religious Zionism party were considered personae non grata by much of American Jewry. Indeed, members of his party noticeably did not address the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — many of whose members have publicly denounced Smotrich and his party mates — when the umbrella organization visited Israel last month.

US officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the administration was considering revoking Smotrich’s visa.

Smotrich is slated to travel to the US to speak at the annual Israel Bonds conference, which will take place March 12-14 in Washington. Smotrich’s office has yet to confirm his attendance but a source familiar with the matter confirmed the scheduled appearance to The Times of Israel last month.

A US official said Monday that no official meetings between Smotrich and Biden administration officials were on the books to date. The Treasury Department did not respond to a query last month as to whether its officials will meet with Smotrich, who has a long history of remarks against Arabs, Palestinians, the LGBTQ community, and non-Orthodox Jews.

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