Smotrich says Israel should follow Torah law, drawing ire of Liberman

United Right lawmaker says he is striving for religious state, echoing past incendiary comments; Yisrael Beytenu party chief calls remarks ‘unbelievable’

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a URWP party conference in Lod, July 22, 2019. (Flash90)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a URWP party conference in Lod, July 22, 2019. (Flash90)

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Monday spoke out in favor of an Israel governed by religious law, echoing controversial comments he has made in the past and drawing the ire of Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman.

“We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha,” Smotrich said to a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.

But the nationalist MK, a member of the United Right party, said that the prospect was not yet feasible because “there are other people who think differently and we need to get along with them.” Even liberal rabbis in the religious Zionist community agreed with him, he claimed.

Smotrich said that, as transportation minister, he would work to prevent construction, infrastructure and maintenance work on Shabbat, and defended the state’s intervention in marriage and divorce.

“The state gets involved in our lives every day,” he said. “The question isn’t whether the state is allowed to get involved and determine whom I can love and whom I can marry, because it does that all the time, just like it outlaws incest. The question is whether it is important enough to the public interest to justify enforcement.”

He said that liberal values infringed on the rights of religious Israelis, such as their right to enjoy gender-segregated public spaces, and as a result, “we also have a right to enforce, on the condition that we know how to explain it to ourselves and also convince others that it’s really justified.”

Liberman laced into Smotrich for the remarks.

“It’s unbelievable that yet again, without even blinking, Minister Smotrich declares that if it was up to him and his friends, they would annul the laws of the State of Israel and force a halachic state on us.”

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“We have news for you: There will be no need for you to get along with us, because on September 18 we’ll establish a broad, liberal, national government, without you and without anyone who tries to force a halachic state on us,” Liberman said, referring to the day after the upcoming September 17 national vote.

Smotrich, responding to the criticism, said in a statement Tuesday morning that media reports had distorted his remarks, apparently by emphasizing his wish for Torah law while downplaying the clarification that it wasn’t possible at this time.

“There is something frustrating in the ease with which one can distort what you said and make it a top headline,” he tweeted, along with a screenshot of a story on the Ynet website.

“I understand Avigdor Liberman, a cynical leftist with zero credibility and zero achievements. What does he have left besides lying and sparking dispute. But Ynet’s insistence on losing the tiny shred of credibility it still has left — that I am having more trouble understanding,” he wrote.

Smotrich’s party, United Right, expressed similar sentiment in a statement, blasting the “media lynching.”

“Minister Smotrich spoke last night at the conference about his personal belief, and simultaneously emphasized that he cannot and isn’t interested in forcing it on others,” the statement said. “Whoever listened to his remarks heard that he clearly said we must live here together and consider the entire population, out of respect rather than coercion.

(L-R) Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz announcing a merger between religious right-wing parties, to be called United Right, July 29, 2019. (Courtesy)

“The media lynching of him now is an ugly silencing by the left, Liberman and a specific part of the media, who are driven by hatered of Judaism and political interests,” the statement continued. “Freedom of speech doesn’t only belong to one side.”

Smotrich made similar comments in early June while he was angling to replace Ayelet Shaked as justice minister. He said that the Israeli justice system should adhere to religious Jewish law and asserted that the country should aspire to run itself as “in the days of King David.”

“We want the justice portfolio because we want to restore the Torah justice system,” Smotrich said, hours after Shaked was fired from her post by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Smotrich told the Kan public broadcaster that “the Jewish people is a special people that needs to live according to the Torah.”

At the time, the prime minister panned Smotrich’s remarks.

“The State of Israel will not be a halacha state,” Netanyahu tweeted.

Following the comments, Netanyahu tapped Likud loyalist Amir Ohana for the justice post, angering the URWP.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference hosted by the Israel Hayom newspaper in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 27, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Smotrich’s statements also drew outrage and ridicule from his political opponents, including Tamar Zandberg of Meretz and Yair Lapid of Blue and White.

At the time, Liberman said: “These are no longer comments coming from a delusional hilltop youth, but a statement of intent,” referring to ultra-nationalists in the West Bank. “We will prevent that. We won’t lend those efforts a hand. Jewish law is an important and critical part of the Israeli justice system, but Israeli law cannot be Torah law.”

Liberman had refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition, shortly before the uproar, over the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill, while stressing that his secular right-wing party opposes a “halachic state.”

When he was appointed transportation minister in mid-June, Smotrich said he “works for God” — and not for Netanyahu, who appointed him.

Smotrich’s Union of Right-Wing Parties on July 29 closed a deal to merge with Shaked’s New Right faction. The joint slate, called United Right, sees Shaked and former education minister Naftali Bennett running alongside the Jewish Home and National Union factions that formed URWP. Education Minister Rafi Peretz of URWP is placed second on the slate, followed by Smotrich. Former New Right chair Bennett is placed at four, followed by URWP’s Moti Yogev and Ofir Sofer. Latest polls suggest the United Right may be headed for about 11 seats.

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