Exclusive'Important to respect members of the Israeli government'

Smotrich met with two prominent US Jewish leaders during boycotted March visit

Heads of Conference of Presidents and JFNA — two of largest American Jewish umbrella bodies — quietly sat down with hardline minister even as AIPAC, 70+ organizations refused

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

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a meeting of his Religious Zionism party at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The CEOs of two of the largest Jewish umbrella bodies in the United States secretly met with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich after more than 120 American Jewish leaders and over 70 organizations decided to boycott the far-right lawmaker during his March visit to the US.

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations CEO William Daroff and Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut each met privately with Smotrich in Washington, the pair confirmed to The Times of Israel on Friday.

While both Daroff and Fingerhut had avoided publicizing the meetings, they offered Smotrich a degree of acceptance that he hadn’t appeared to secure from a large part of the organized Jewish community during his four-day trip to Washington and New York.

Even the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee avoided meeting with the finance minister, and only the conservative Orthodox Union and the Zionist Organization of America publicly confirmed their plans to sit down with him ahead of time.

The Conference of Presidents comprises over 50 Jewish organizations — including several that called to boycott Smotrich — and JFNA represents over 350 independent Jewish communities across North America.

Daroff spoke openly on Friday about his decision to meet with Smotrich, who was a particularly incendiary figure at the time for publicly calling for Israel to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara after two Israeli brothers were killed by terrorists there. The Biden administration weighed denying Smotrich a visa to enter the US, but he subsequently apologized for the remark.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, speaks at a conference on May 26, 2022. (Conference of Presidents/Facebook)

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

“It’s important to show respect to members of the Israeli government… But I respect the right and the obligation of organizations to be true to who they are and to their constituencies,” Daroff said.

“I would prefer that such decisions be handled quietly and off the record or not made into more than they are, but I appreciate that for some organizations and for some individuals speaking out is important — whether it’s on the left or the right, whether it’s about Mansour Abbas or it’s about Bezalel Smotrich,” he said, seemingly placing the chair of the Islamist Ra’am party and the head of the far-right Religious Zionism chairman at opposite ends of the political spectrum

Daroff stressed the importance of engaging with “with every facet of the Israeli political spectrum,” while clarifying that the meeting did not represent an endorsement of Smotrich’s views. “It’s just that — it’s a meeting.”

Asked whether he has any red lines for individuals or groups that he won’t meet with, Daroff avoided specifying.

He also declined to reveal the content of his discussion with Smotrich, but characterized it as a “frank and robust conversation.”

Eric Fingerhut, CEO and president of Jewish Federations of North America, announced layoffs and executive salary cuts in a message to board members and federation executives on May 6, 2020. (Courtesy of Hillel)

Daroff acknowledged the significance of Smotrich sitting down with the leader of one of the most prominent mainstream Jewish organizations in the US but also highlighted the “context” of the meeting.

“The meetings [was] private, low-key, and not about photo ops but about having a conversation,” Daroff said. “I think it is important for American Jewish leadership to ensure that the Israeli political leadership understands the key issues for American Jewry and understand more fully how the American Jewish community operates and that our views are important issues of common concern.”

For his part, Fingerhut sufficed with sending a statement to The Times of Israel confirming the meeting.

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“Jewish Federations have always engaged deeply with the leaders of the Israeli government to further our support of the State of Israel and to communicate clearly the views and concerns of our communities,” Fingerhut said.

“I believe that this meeting, like the other meetings we have had with members of the current government and opposition, helped give the minister a deeper understanding of the values, priorities and concerns of the North American Jewish Community,” he added.

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