Smotrich lands in DC, where hundreds plan to protest speech at Israel Bonds confab

Finance minister to meet with leaders in Jewish, global business communities; but US officials, liberal Jewish groups are boycotting him after ‘wipe out’ Huwara remark

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

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)
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)

WASHINGTON — Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich landed in Washington on Sunday morning, where he was to speak later in the day at the Israel Bonds conference, an appearance clouded by the controversy caused by his remarks earlier this month calling for a Palestinian town to be “wiped out.”

Hundreds of American Jews are expected to protest outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel where Smotrich will be the keynote speaker at the evening gala of Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad.

Smotrich — who has since walked back his call for the State of Israel to wipe out Huwara — said he would also be meeting with leading economists and business leaders along with the heads of American Jewish communities during his three-day trip to Washington and New York. Those will include representatives of the Orthodox Union and the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, which were not among the 73 progressive Jewish groups that signed a pledge last week vowing not to meet with the far-right minister. Even before his call to wipe out Huwara, Smotrich was a controversial figure for Diaspora Jews due to previous remarks against the LGBTQ community, Arabs, Palestinians and non-Orthodox Jews.

Even major mainstream organizations that avoided signing onto statements in support of boycotting Smotrich will not be meeting with him. Spokespeople for the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the ADL told The Times of Israel they would not be sitting down with the finance minister.

Smotrich appeared to acknowledge the controversy surrounding his arrival, saying in a statement prior to taking off, “The message I am departing with is that as in Israel, so too in the Diaspora, it is okay to have differences of opinion and arguments between us, but nothing will break our bond. We are stronger together.”

Focusing on his private appearance at the Israel Bonds conference, the finance minister said the organization “symbolizes the indisputable connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” having raised over $50 billion for the Jewish state since its establishment.

Some Jewish community leaders fear, though, that the extent of that funding may be impacted by the growing divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, which appears to have intensified since the establishment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government on December 29.

With nearly three-quarters of American Jews voting Democrat, and the new coalition widely considered the most right-wing in Israeli history, the shared values that the two sides enjoy touting appear to be shrinking. Those abroad continue to believe in the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as a growing number of those at home feel that it is not feasible, let alone near the top of anyone’s agenda.

An additional sign of the dissonance could be seen in the elevated priority Israelis have begun giving to the country’s Jewish character above its democratic character, a preference that is less likely to jive with American Jews who are largely more secular. A majority of American Jews belong to the Reform and Conservative denominations, whose members tend to view Jewish values through a more universalist lens.

Smotrich has far less exposure among such groups, having come from the heart of the hardline national religious community in Israel and living in the Kedumim settlement in the northern West Bank.

Still, he stressed Saturday before departing that he was not giving up on the “important” Israel-Diaspora relationship, despite the differences.

At least two protests against Smotrich will be taking place on Sunday evening, one being led by a group of Israeli ex-pats and another by the Progressive Israel Network, which includes J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, and the T’ruah rabbinic human rights organization. A third demonstration organized by the far-left If Not Now anti-occupation Jewish group will be held outside the White House.

Jewish Democratic Council of America CEO Halie Soifer, whose organization is one of the more mainstream pro-Israel groups participating in the protests, will be addressing the rally led by the Israel ex-pats. That protest will also focus on speaking out against the Netanyahu government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, which has sparked months of mass protests in Israel.

T’ruah CEO Jill Jacobs said, “Smotrich has no business in the United States, or in the Knesset. American Jews are making it known that Smotrich and his far-right allies in the Knesset, who are corrupting Judaism to turn Israel into a fascist theocracy, do not speak for us.”

T’ruah was one of several organizations that called for Smotrich to be denied a visa into the US. While the Biden administration did hold discussions on the matter, it sufficed with announcing that no US government officials would meet with the minister after his Huwara remark.

Smotrich on March 1 said Israel should “wipe out” the Palestinian town where two Israeli brothers had been killed in a terrorist attack, and where hundreds of settlers later carried out a deadly rampage.

Smotrich condemned the latter incident and eventually walked back his “wipe out” remark while blaming the media for distorting his words. As the outrage refused to abate, he issued a lengthy apology last week in which he acknowledged that his comments warranted “soul-searching” on his part. He said that he did not realize that they would be interpreted as a potential call for the military to indiscriminately eradicate an entire Palestinian village.

Also on Sunday, a group of top Israeli economists will be holding a press conference at the same hotel as the Israel Bonds gathering where they will “condemn Smotrich as a threat to Israel’s democracy and the country’s status as the “start-up nation,” according to a press release issued by organizers.

Speakers will include Morningstar Foundation president Susie Gelman, who is also chair of the center-left Israel Policy Forum, EverCompliant CEO Ron Teicher, Cyberreason co-founder Yonatan Striem-Amit, Keepy CEO Offir Gutelzon and Brown University economist Dany Bahar.

Organizers said the panel will echo the call of 400 Israeli tech leaders who wrote to Netanyahu last month, warning that his government’s efforts to radically curb the power of the High Court of Justice will harm the industry. Netanyahu has dismissed such forecasts as politically motivated and alarmist, insisting that the moves will end up strengthening the economy.

Smotrich acknowledged that the financial status of the country may take a hit due to the overhaul but argued that this would only be because of what he called a campaign by protesters to pull their investments in the country in order to coax the coalition to walk back its effort.

“The Israeli economy is strong and I am working to open up the State of Israel to additional economies and investments,” the finance minister said Sunday.

“The Israeli economy is a small and manageable market, and in this turbulent time… we can be an island of stability and economic security,” he continued. “I will do everything in my power, with God’s help, to create a climate for the State of Israel to continue to grow with a strong and prosperous economy.”

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