WASHINGTON (JTA) — The leading institutions of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements are among a coalition of liberal Jewish groups calling on American Jews to snub Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s far-right finance minister, when he visits the United States next week.
But the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jews, has confirmed to JTA that it will meet with Smotrich.
The non-Orthodox groups were among more than 70 organizations to sign an open letter denouncing Smotrich. About half of the signatories on the letter, which was published Thursday, are synagogues. It was organized by the Progressive Israel Network, a coalition of groups that support progressive policies in Israel, after Smotrich said earlier this month that a Palestinian village should be “wiped out.” He has since repeatedly walked back the statement.
The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist umbrella groups represent the vast majority of synagogue-attending U.S. Jews and, in previous years, have welcomed senior Israeli officials to their events. Their presence on the open letter underscores the extent to which Smotrich and his far-right allies have alarmed parts of the organized American Jewish community.
“We pledge to not invite Smotrich to speak at our congregations, organizations, and communal institutions during his visit and to speak out against his participation in other fora across our communities,” the letter says. “We call on all other Jewish communal organizations to join us in this protest as a demonstration of our commitment to our Jewish and democratic values. Our communities must reject Bezalel Smotrich and his party of hate.”
The boycott by the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist groups stands in contrast to the O.U., whose executive vice president, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he believes Smotrich “will use the opportunity to build greater understanding of and familiarity with the American Jewish community and its institutions.”
“We look forward to welcoming Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to our offices as part of his forthcoming visit to the United States,” Hauer said in a statement. “We appreciate every opportunity to welcome and interact with Israeli elected officials as it is our responsibility to build mutual familiarity and understanding that will contribute to the deepening and strengthening of the relationship between the State of Israel and American Jewry.”
Another Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, has no plans at this time to meet with Smotrich, its Washington director, Rabbi Abba Cohen, told JTA.
Smotrich arrives Sunday to speak to Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad and is closely tied to the Finance Ministry. Smotrich is also responsible for civilian affairs in parts of the West Bank, which he has called to annex to Israel. He also supports the judicial reform being advanced by the Israeli government, which would sap the Supreme Court of much of its power.
Smotrich has a history of remarks denigrating minorities. But he has drawn especially harsh criticism over the past week and a half after saying that the Israel Defense Forces should “wipe out” a West Bank village, Huwara, where a gunman killed two Israeli brothers. Israeli settlers rioted in Huwara following the attack, burning buildings and cars, and injuring residents. A Palestinian died amid the riots.
In the wake of Smotrich’s statement, the Biden administration said it would not meet with him. In recent days, Smotich has repeatedly walked back the “wipe out” remark, and his latest disavowal came in a lengthy and impassioned Facebook post on Wednesday. Smotrich wrote that a friend who is an Israeli combat pilot explained that Smotrich’s call to destroy Huwara could be taken literally, and that pilots believed they could get orders to bomb the village. Smotrich said his friend linked that concern to a recent decision by 37 reservist combat pilots to boycott part of their training. The main aim of that boycott was to protest the planned judicial reform.
Smotrich said that he meant, at most, that buildings lining the road through Huwara, which is a main West Bank throughway, should be removed.
“And so after I failed in this responsibility, and believe me I am still rattled by the thought that I was understood this way, I must apologize to the army and its commanders, especially to the Air Force, if I was part of a breach of the important trust between the Israel Defense Forces, the army of the people, and the elected political echelon,” Smotrich said.
He added that the experience of being misunderstood by his ideological opponents has made him consider how he may have misjudged those he disagrees with.
“If there is a giant gap between who I am and how I am perceived on ‘the other side,’ to the extent that I could be accused of calling for the murder of women and children, who knows what kind of gap exists between how I perceive people… on the other side, and who and what they really are?” he wrote. “Maybe I make the exact same mistake.”
His apologies have done little to assuage concerns. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, meeting Thursday with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant, alluded to the Smotrich dilemma when he decried inflammatory rhetoric as well as violence by settlers and Palestinian terrorists.
“I am here as a friend who is deeply committed to the security of the State of Israel. The United States also remains firmly opposed to any acts that contribute more insecurity, including settlement expansion, and inflammatory rhetoric,” Austin said. “And we’re especially concerned by violence by settlers against Palestinians.”
A number of other groups are not planning to meet with Smotrich, but would not elaborate further. Most prominent among them is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Haaretz reported Thursday that two rabbis known for their closeness to AIPAC the pro-Israel lobby, have joined protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party in particular. An array of left-leaning Jewish groups is planning to picket Smotrich’s speech.