WASHINGTON (JTA) — For more than a week, American Jewish groups have debated how and whether to welcome Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, as he visits Washington, D.C.
On Sunday night, that debate culminated in protests, arrests, boycotts — and a speech by Smotrich urging American Jews to remain loyal to the Jewish state.
Inside the Grand Hyatt Washington, Smotrich spoke to Israel Bonds, a U.S. organization that encourages investment in Israel. In the lobby of the hotel, left-wing groups protested, sang songs and, in some cases, were escorted out in handcuffs. And outside the hotel, in the cold rain, hundreds of liberal Jews gathered to declare their dedication to the Jewish community — and to protest Smotrich and Israel’s government.
“This is a moral emergency,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, in a speech at the protest. “We must name this deep pain that so many of us feel for what’s happening in Israel right now, a place that we love. It is with that love that we come here tonight, standing with our Israeli siblings, saying there is nothing normal, nothing acceptable about this moment.”
The Israeli government is advancing legislation that would transform Israel’s system of government and has drawn sweeping protests across the country as well as concern by foreign investors and financial watchdogs. But little sense of emergency was present in the remarks given by Smotrich, who called on his audience to stay the course. The event was closed to press.
“This moment in the history of Israel is a miracle,” he said in remarks released by his office. “And for more than 70 years, Israel Bonds investors like you have helped make our Jewish State a reality. But, there is still work to be done, so don’t stop investing!”
Outside the conference room where Smotrich spoke, the left-wing Jewish group IfNotNow protested by singing and reciting maariv, the Jewish evening prayers. The group said seven of its members were arrested by police. The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace also protested.
The dueling speeches and actions on Sunday came at a time when even the staunchest advocates for Israel are publicly criticizing its government. They serve as the latest evidence that the coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is upending the Diaspora’s relationship with Israel like no government before it.
Much of the criticism has surrounded the government’s signature legislative effort, which would sap the Supreme Court of much of its power and independence. And a fresh round of criticism came this month after Smotrich called for a Palestinian village to be wiped out — a statement he has since walked back repeatedly and at length, including during his Israel Bonds address. In the past, Smotrich has also made statements denigrating LGBTQ people and Arabs.
Major Jewish establishment organizations and leaders, once loath to publicly criticize Israel, are expressing alarm about the judicial legislation as well as Smotrich’s incendiary rhetoric. They are watching as the country is roiled by frequent massive demonstrations that have brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets.
That criticism has manifested itself in a widespread boycott of Smotrich’s visit — a change of pace for Jewish organizations that are generally eager to meet with senior Israeli officials. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is snubbing Smotrich, and so is the Biden administration. His only known quasi-governmental interaction this week will be a guided tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Aside from his Israel Bonds appearance, Smotrich is meeting with officials from just two Jewish organizations, the Orthodox Union and the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, one of the few U.S. groups to support the judicial reform.
“The hateful views long expressed by Minister Smotrich are abhorrent, are opposed by a majority of Israeli citizens, and run contrary to Jewish values,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington said in a statement. “No public servant should ever condone or incite hatred or hate-motivated violence, and when they do, they will be fiercely condemned by a wide swath of American Jewry.”
Those comments were echoed by the speakers at the protest outside the Grand Hyatt, which was organized by an array of progressive Jewish groups. Despite their attitude toward the Israeli official speaking inside the hotel, the event was suffused with patriotic fervor, with piles of Israeli flags for protesters to wave. It started with a rendition of “Oseh Shalom,” the Jewish prayer for peace, composed by the Israeli Jewish Renewal group Nava Tehila, and finished with a rendition of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah.”
“Anybody who has authority in the community has to be ne’eman, to be faithful, has to be somebody who the community can trust like Moshe,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of the liberal rabbinic human rights group T’ruah, using the Hebrew name for Moses and quoting a rabbinic teaching.
Jacobs, who is a longtime proponent of curbing Americans’ giving to right-wing extremist groups in Israel, went on: “We’re here to say that the current leadership of Israel — including, of course, Bezalel Smotrich, speaking inside this hotel — they are not ne’eman, they are not people we can trust, they are not people who are leading Israel in the right direction.”
Smotrich emphasized the same themes — Jewish unity and mutual responsibility — but toward different ends. He thanked his audience of investors in Israel bonds “for the unquestionable connection between Israel and Diaspora Judaism.”
“We must not forget that we are brothers,” he said. “Despite all of the differences, despite the many colors that make up the Jewish mosaic, we are one.”
He also once again apologized for his call to “wipe out” Huwara, a Palestinian West Bank village where Israeli settlers rioted recently after a Palestinian gunman there killed two Israelis. He said his words “created a completely mistaken impression.”
“I want to say a few words about the elephant in the room,” Smotrich said. “I stand before you now as always committed to the security of the state of Israel, to our shared values, and to the highest moral commitment of our armed forces to protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.”
If anyone is finding new allies, it is not Smotrich but his opponents, who run the gamut from the Jewish left to once-reliable mainstays of the right. Miriam Adelson, the widow of casino magnate, Republican kingmaker and pro-Israel donor Sheldon Adelson, said on Sunday that Netanyahu’s rush to enact judicial reform was “hasty, injudicious and irresponsible.”
Those changes galvanized the protesters. “We are the Jewish establishment!” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said later in an interview that the “grounds are shifting” among American Jews. “Some of us here and in Israel have been on the ground fighting against the occupation and the attacks on democracy for years and years, and now it’s becoming clear to more and more American Jews and Israeli Jews that that was the right message,” she said.
The issue of whether to raise Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been a matter of debate amid the protests in Israel, where there have been reports that organizers have discouraged the display of Palestinian flags, fearing that Netanyahu will weaponize any sign of solidarity with the Palestinians.
The tension over whether the Palestinians should be mentioned played out before the protest in Washington as well, at a press conference featuring philanthropists and Israeli businessmen who said the judicial reforms were threatening Israel’s economic standing.
Susie Gelman, a philanthropist who chairs the Israel Policy Forum, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, said one of the key roles of the Israeli Supreme Court in recent years has been to protect some Palestinian rights and slow Israeli efforts to increase sovereignty in the West Bank.
“You can’t entirely separate judicial overhaul from the question of what’s happening with Palestinians in the West Bank in particular,” she said.
But Offir Gutelzon, a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who helped found UnXeptable, an anti-Netanyahu protest movement by Israelis living abroad, differed, saying the protesters’ top priority should be to save the courts’ independence. Achieving that goal, he said, required maintaining unity across the Israeli political spectrum.
“We have to save our Israeli democracy and then we can move on and talk about” the Palestinians, Gutelzon said.
Still, at the protest, speakers spoke of the occupation and its effect on the Palestinians, and there were no objections. Gutelzon led an Israeli contingent in registering cheers for every pronouncement by American liberals.