Opposition politician Bezalel Smotrich said Tuesday that it would be right for synagogues to turn away members of Israel’s governing coalition, saying their political affiliations should place them beyond the pale of communal religious life.
The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, who is no stranger to controversy, also denied claims by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he and opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu had sicced protesters on the families of hawkish members of the ruling coalition, but he backed protests outside their homes as “free speech.”
“I maintain that anyone who is part of this government doesn’t need to be brought into a synagogue,” he said during a heated interview with Kan public radio. “It’s the most legitimate thing in the world.”
“Someone who lies, cheats, and steals votes. Someone who joins the radical left harming everything holy in Israel. Someone who sold out the state to the Islamic Movement and now is going to do the same to the terror supporters in the Joint List is certainly not worthy of being in the congregation, that’s completely legitimate,” Smotrich added.
Asked about the comment, the MK added that “I think people who turn their back on the public should feel unwanted.” He later backtracked slightly, saying he was just describing the “natural reaction” from right-wing synagogue-goers.
The comments from Smotrich came amid a renewed push by opposition figures to drive a wedge inside the broad alliance governing Israel, which includes nationalist parties that support settlement building alongside those on the left of the political spectrum and Islamist faction Ra’am.
The opposition is seeking to siphon off enough right-wing Knesset members to form an alternative government headed by Netanyahu or at least force the government to topple, especially focusing in on Bennett’s Yamina party. The party’s base, and many of its MKs, hail from the religious nationalist community in which synagogues are often a cornerstone of public life; Bennett is Israel’s first skullcap-wearing prime minister.
Responding to Smotrich, Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, a member of Yamina, accused him of pushing extreme scorched-earth policies to keep up with even more radical members of his party. “Now he is trying to sell his politics of hate to the synagogues. His divisive words will find no takers.
Efforts to split the coalition have included protests outside the homes of right wing MKs seen as particularly vulnerable to being poached by the opposition. The push recently netted coalition whip Idit Silman, who has joined the opposition while remaining one of six MKs in Yamina. Another MK, Amichai Chikli, defected in June, and others have entertained moving across the aisle in recent days.
On Monday, Bennett told Israeli TV networks that the families of Silman, MK Nir Orbach and other Yamina members had been hounded by right-wing protesters sent by Netanyahu and Smotrich as part of the bid to push them out of the coalition.
“They called her children’s Bnei Akiva [religious youth group] leaders and told them to boot the kids out of Bnei Akiva,” Bennett told Channel 13 news, referring to Silman.
Smotrich accused Bennett of being a serial liar, but also defended the alleged actions of protesters.
“Yeah, there are and were protests, but not from me or Netanyahu. The opposite, in fact, it’s Yamina voters who are disappointed, angry about the betrayal, the desertion,” he said, defending the protests as a form of “democracy” and “free speech.”
Smotrich himself has been present at some protests, and last week Netanyahu held a large rally in which he told protesters that members of the coalition from the political right need to “come home.”
Smotrich regularly comes under fire for his comments and ultra-conservative stances, which include being a “proud homophobe” and Islamophobic and anti-Arab remarks.
In February, the UK’s top Jewish body called for Smotrich to “get back on a plane,” tweeting that they “reject the abominable views and the hate-provoking ideology of Bezalel Smotrich.” Weeks earlier, he drew sharp rebuke by criticizing former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor mere hours after her death.