The visit by Israel’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to Washington is a landmark moment in the slow but steady weakening of Israel’s special alliance with the United States and its relationship with American Jews. Not since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress in 2015 to speak against the Iran nuclear deal, a speech hailed by Republicans and slammed by many Democrats has an Israeli leader’s visit to Washington been steeped in such controversy. As with Netanyahu’s 2015 visit, Smotrich’s visit is not a simple blip in time but a representative moment and one that underlines a crisis in the long-term strength of the US-Israel relationship.
Smotrich, who is visiting to speak to an Israel Bonds gathering, is being shunned by the United States government and by the vast majority of American Jewish organizations. This unprecedented treatment of a high-ranking Israeli minister is due to his extremist positions and statements that undermine the core principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence that have long been at the heart of support for Israel in Washington and in the American Jewish community. Yet Smotrich is unfortunately not an outlier, even if he has become the face of a new Israeli extremism, and he personifies the challenges to the broad Zionist vision of Israel as a secure, Jewish, and democratic state. The real scandal is not about Smotrich’s words but rather his actions.
In addition to being the finance minister, Smotrich concurrently serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry with oversight of civilian affairs in the West Bank. In this role, he is pushing the legalization of outposts determined illegal even under Israeli law, expanding Israeli settlement construction,, and accelerating demolition of Palestinian homes, while openly pursuing a policy of de facto and de jure annexation. He has stated that he would like to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, a development that would force Israel to assert full administrative and security control over 3 million Palestinian living across the West Bank, and he most recently called for Israel to “erase” the Palestinian village of Huwara.
Smotrich has since backtracked on his comments regarding Huwara, following nearly two weeks of condemnations, but he has yet to condemn the rampage of Israeli settlers who burned homes, businesses, and cars in what was described by the IDF’s Head of Central Command General Yehuda Fuchs as a “pogrom.” And while the Jewish terrorism in Huwara was shocking due to its scope and ferocity, it was one of hundreds of such incidents during the past year, all of which have gone uncondemned and have been excused by Smotrich and others in the Israeli government.
The rising wave of terrorism targeting Israeli civilians is at its worst level since the second intifada when more than 1,100 Israelis were killed in unrelenting violence and the IDF responded by militarily reoccupying Palestinian cities, events that scarred a generation on both sides and led to a hardening of their political positions. Yet rather than focus solely on how best to support Israeli security, American policymakers and Jewish community leaders are understandably diverted by Smotrich’s comments and actions, while the IDF has its hands full with settler attacks on Palestinians and on IDF soldiers themselves. Smotrich’s agenda of annexation and unfettered settler empowerment is making Israel less secure on the ground as international support for Israel steadily evaporates.
Smotrich’s goals also undermine Israel’s democracy. The Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul led by Smotrich’s fellow Religious Zionism partner Simcha Rothman is designed to gut the power of the Supreme Court, in part to subvert its rulings preventing illegal construction of settlements and outposts on private Palestinian land. As Smotrich seeks to deepen Israel’s presence in the heart of Palestinian population centers for the purpose of preventing a potential Palestinian state, he is not only striking at a viable two-state outcome, an official United States policy goal, but at Israel’s future as a viable democracy.
Support for Israel’s existence as a Jewish state that represents all Jews is also threatened by Smotrich’s Jewish supremacy. Smotrich, who has called Reform Judaism a “fake religion,” supports amending the Law of Return to bring it in line with Orthodox Jewish interpretations of who is considered Jewish, consistent with his desire that Israel adopt a more narrow vision of Judaism. Not only will his proposals impact the lives of Israeli Jews, they will fundamentally transform the relationship between the Jewish State and the millions of Jews around the world who are not Israelis. Israel will still be a Jewish state, but one that represents only a single, minority stream of Judaism, a concept of Judaism that would have been anathema to Israel’s founders.
It cannot be said more clearly or bluntly: Smotrich and what he represents are a threat to the foundations of modern Israel and to the state as it has existed for three-quarters of a century. Israel’s security, democracy, and broad Jewish character are at risk if Smotrich and his ideological compatriots continue to ascend the ladder of Israeli politics. That is why more than 150 prominent American Jewish leaders – including stalwarts of pro-Israel advocacy — and more than 70 Jewish organizations have joined to oppose Smotrich being given a platform in the US. This is a defining moment for those who care about the vision of Zionism that once united not only a majority of Israelis but a majority of Jews around the world. American Jews will continue to speak up and mirror the hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting week after week in cities across Israel, as we continue to transmit the message that our support for Israel compels rejecting the extremism that Smotrich represents.