Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich flew to Paris on Tuesday for an international gathering, but faced difficulty securing meetings with French officials and Jewish community leaders apparently opposed to his hardline ideology.
French officials and leaders of the three main Jewish community organizations in the country were said to be refusing to sit down with Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party. The minister was in Paris for an annual two-day ministerial summit hosted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Smotrich’s office reached out to multiple French counterparts for meetings and was turned down, a French official told The Times of Israel.
However, Smotrich tweeted a picture of a meeting which he said included representatives from the CRIF umbrella group, the Central Consistory representing Orthodox communities, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Agency, and rabbinical leaders, among others. The minister said they met to discuss ties between Israel and French Jewish communities, challenges facing French Jews and the role of the state, and “strengthening aliyah [immigration] from France to Israel.”
Earlier reports said the CRIF umbrella group, the Central Consistory, and the Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU) had all refused meetings with Smotrich. Senior Israeli government officials usually meet with members of the local Jewish community when traveling abroad in order to maintain and build ties with the Jewish State.
The minister is expected to meet French businesspeople on Wednesday.
בערב קיימתי מפגש עם נציגי הקהילות והארגונים היהודים – הקריף, הקונסיסטואר, קק"ל, הסוכנות, רבני קהילות ועוד – לדיון על קשרי ישראל והקהילות היהודיות בצרפת, על אתגרי הקהילות ותפקידה של המדינה, ועל חיזוק העליה מצרפת לישראל שמוביל ידידי שר הקליטה @ofir_sofer. pic.twitter.com/KeSBUrixYc
— בצלאל סמוטריץ' (@bezalelsm) June 6, 2023
When last in Paris earlier this year, Smotrich attended a private memorial service where he declared that Palestinian people are “an invention,” drawing condemnation from France. He also raised Amman’s ire after speaking from a podium that featured a map of “Greater Israel” that included the territory of modern-day Jordan, in accordance with hardline aspirations by some early Zionist groups.
Before leaving Israel for France on Tuesday, Smotrich said the purpose of the trip was “to strengthen the cooperation between Israel and the OECD organization and its member states,”
His office said in a statement “the minister will participate in many discussions around bilateral trade agreements, growth engines and promoting infrastructure between and within the countries.”
While at the OECD gathering, Smotrich “is expected to hold several meetings with senior OECD officials.”
After arriving in the French capital Tuesday, Smotrich paid a visit to the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket where four Jews were killed in a 2015 terrorist shooting.
“I came here to strengthen and embrace the Jewish community in Paris. Our uniqueness as a Jewish people and as a sovereign state is the special connection for every Jew in the world,” he declared.
Smotrich visited the US in March for a fund-raising event, but was ignored by US officials. That visit came less than two weeks after he drew criticism — including from Washington — for a saying a Palestinian village that was the scene of a deadly terror attack on Israelis should be “wiped out.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is composed of his right-wing Likud party along with ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties. The ideology of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and its ally Otzma Yehudit has raised concerns from foreign officials and Jewish communities around the world.
In addition, the coalition has faced fierce pushback against a planned drastic overhaul of the judiciary which has prompted months of demonstrations in Israel. The government says the plan is needed to rein in what it sees as an over intrusive judiciary while critics say it will sap the High Court of its power to act as a check and balance against the Knesset, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character.
An Israeli expatriate group which has organized demonstrations against the plan abroad said activists in Paris would protest Smotrich, including outside the OECD summit. The UnXeptable protest group also published a video that it claimed showed Smotrich using a back door at an airport to avoid protesters.
We continue, now in Paris @bezalelsm is taken from the back door of the airport to avoid democracy protestors.
— UnXeptable – Saving the Israeli Democracy (@UnxeptableD) June 6, 2023
Lawmakers backing the overhaul have been regularly dogged by Israeli protesters during visits abroad.
On Sunday, protesters rallied against coalition MKs who participated in the New York’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade.