ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 66

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Lapid: Netanyahu 'captive in the hands of racist extremists'

Smotrich: My voters don’t care if I’m a homophobe or fascist; my word is my bond

In recording from a few months ago, far-right minister heard saying he could act against LGBTQ community without repercussions from his base; ‘I won’t stone gays [to death]’

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he was confident he could take active measures against the LGBTQ community without suffering any repercussions from his political base because his voters “don’t give a damn” about “the gays,” according to a recording from a few months ago broadcast on Monday.

The recording, published by the Kan public broadcaster, reveals Smotrich — the far-right head of the Religious Zionism party and a key figure in the new government  — saying his voters know about his longtime anti-LGBTQ positions but are more interested in his opposition to bringing Arab parties into government.

“I may be a far-right person, a homophobe, racist, fascist, but my word is my bond,” he says in an apparently sarcastic attempt to use his detractor’s words.

Without saying where the conversation took place, or whether it was before or after the November 1 national election, Kan said Smotrich had told a businessman who supports him: “A Sephardic, traditional person, you think they care about gays? They don’t give a damn. They tell me ‘I don’t have a problem with them,’ [but] do you think they care about me being against them?”

Asked specifically about active steps he might take against the LGBTQ community, Smotrich said supporters of his Religious Zionism party — including the head of the merchants union in Jerusalem’s popular Mahane Yehuda Market — are far more interested in his policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in his blanket refusal to join a coalition that relied on the Islamist Ra’am party, an ideological stance that sent Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the opposition for 18 months as Ra’am joined forces with the opposing political bloc.

“Listen, [the voter] knows I’m [against LGBTQs]. It doesn’t matter to them. I’m the only one who didn’t go with Ra’am and safeguards the Land of Israel for their grandchildren. They will have my back,” says Smotrich, who is now part of a hardline Netanyahu government widely seen as the most right-wing in Israel’s history.

He then appears to lay out the limits of how far he is willing to go in applying biblical mandates, in an apparent reciprocity: “I won’t stone gays [to death] and you won’t force me to eat shrimp.”

The recording comes to light with the government planning to change anti-discrimination laws — at Smotrich’s demand — in a way critics warn could enable private companies to refuse service to certain groups. A clause in the coalition deals stipulates that the law will be amended “in a way that will prevent harm to a private business that refrains from providing service or a product due to religious faith, on condition that it is a service or product that is not unique and for which an alternative can be found nearby and for a similar price.”

An LGBTQ rights protest in Tel Aviv against the new government, December 29, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last month, Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman asserted that if a hotel wanted to refuse service to LGBTQ people on religious grounds, it would be entitled to do so.

“A business owner can do whatever he likes in his business. He created the business and he doesn’t owe anyone anything,” Rothman told Kan at the time. On the same day, fellow party MK Orit Strock — now the national missions minister — said doctors should be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that contravene their religious faith, as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied his government intends to infringe on LGBTQ rights. But he has also tapped Avi Maoz, leader of the one-man Noam party, whose main ticket is opposing LGBTQ “propaganda,” as a deputy minister set to be given control of external programming in the education system.

MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy, Likud)

This has raised an outpouring of criticism and concern, with numerous local municipalities saying they will not allow the introduction of anti-LGBTQ or otherwise illiberal content in their schools.

Smotrich has a long history of anti-LGBTQ activism, although he has limited his public statements on the matter in recent years. In 2006, he was involved in organizing an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem in response to the city’s annual Gay Pride parade. Anti-gay activists marched throughout the city with goats and donkeys to spotlight what they called “deviant acts” of same-sex relationships. He has since said he regrets that, but in 2015 he said in a meeting with high school students that he is a “proud homophobe.”

Opposition chief Yair Lapid slammed Smotrich’s newly exposed remarks on Monday, saying the recording “reminds us once again how weak Netanyahu is and how dangerous it is that he’s captive in the hands of racist extremists. This isn’t a question of left or right, it has become a bigger question: Love or hate.”

Tali Friedman, the head of the Mahane Yehuda Market merchants union mentioned in Smotrich’s recording, said the union “is an apolitical body,” rejecting “statements that stigmatize the market” and adding that she has never met Smotrich.

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