Prime Minister Naftali Bennett fired back at MK Bezalel Smotrich on Wednesday, after the far-right leader said synagogues should turn away members of the governing coalition and claimed that their political actions should exclude them from communal religious life.
“Saying ‘we all love each other, but we won’t sit with them,’ ‘we all love each other but he won’t enter my synagogue’ — what is this?” Bennett said at a conference on Wednesday morning.
“For a Jew to boycott another Jew in a synagogue, as a certain politician has called for — this was what caused the destruction of our previous state 2,000 years ago,” the prime minister said, alluding to rabbinic texts that explain the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of the ancient Israelites as a consequence of the toxic relationship between rival Jewish sects in Jerusalem.
“I am on the right and there are people on the left in the government; our views are completely different. But do you know what I discovered? Even people with very different views deeply love the State of Israel and this land,” Bennett said.
“Therefore, I call on everyone: Let us unite against the external enemy. The enemy is not internal but external — the terrorists who are trying to break our spirit,” he said. “They will not break our spirit. Nobody will break our spirit if we are stronger together.”
Smotrich — who now leads the opposition Religious Zionism party but was once Bennett’s close political ally — said Tuesday that anyone who is part of Bennett’s government should be prevented from entering a house of prayer.
“I maintain that anyone who is part of this government doesn’t need to be brought into a synagogue,” Smotrich said in a radio interview. “It’s the most legitimate thing in the world.”
“Someone who lies, cheats, and steals votes. Someone who joins the radical left that harms all that is held sacred in Israel, someone who sold out the state to the Islamic Movement and now is going to do the same to the terror supporters in the Joint List, is certainly not worthy of being in the congregation — that’s completely legitimate,” Smotrich declared.
His comments were met with fury by several politicians. Reiterating Bennett’s comments, his senior political partner Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said Wednesday that such statements were dangerous to Jews everywhere.
“[Smotrich] has apparently forgotten the words of the Sages against shaming others in public. He thinks that worshipers should kick me out of my synagogue,” she said.
“Up until yesterday I didn’t understand the context that led to the… destruction of the Second Temple,” she added.
The secular minister noted that she attends the same synagogue her father used to take her to as a child during holidays and other special occasions. “I always felt welcome there, that every Jew has a place they can come pray at,” she said.
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, also a member of Bennett and Shaked’s Yamina party, accused Smotrich of embracing extreme scorched-earth policies to keep up with even more radical members of his faction. “Now he is trying to sell his politics of hate to the synagogues. His divisive words will find no takers,” Kahana said.
Responding to criticism, Smotrich wrote in a Facebook post that “members of Yamina who knowingly defrauded their voters and sold the State of Israel to the radical left and the Islamic Movement deserve to feel unwelcome among the general public, and their attempts to position themselves as the victims on this issue are bizarre.”
Yamina is leading a disparate coalition of unlikely partners, including left-wing parties and an Islamist faction, despite having been elected on a right-wing ticket and promising it would not join forces with parties from the left side of the aisle.
“Everyone is of course welcome to visit synagogues, but it’s quite amazing to see those who have partnered with the enemies of Israel boycotting half of the nation in order to win in an internal debate,” said Smotrich.
The Religious Zionism leader has often come under fire for his provocative comments and ultra-conservative policies, including stating in the past that he was a “proud homophobe.”
His latest comments came amid a renewed push by opposition figures to drive a wedge inside the broad alliance governing Israel.
The opposition is seeking to siphon off enough right-wing Knesset members to form an alternative government headed by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, or at least topple the government and force new elections, especially focusing on Bennett’s Yamina party.
The party’s base, and many of its MKs, hail from the religious-nationalist community, in which synagogues are often a cornerstone of public life; Bennett is Israel’s first skullcap-wearing prime minister.
Efforts to split the coalition have included protests outside the homes of right-wing MKs seen as particularly vulnerable to being poached by the opposition. The push recently netted coalition whip Idit Silman, who has joined the opposition while remaining one of six MKs in Yamina. Another Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, defected last year, and others have entertained the prospect of moving across the aisle in recent days.