Mondoweiss / March 11, 2023
The condemnation of Bezalel Smotrich by the pro-Israeli establishment in the US should not lead us to see Netanyahu as the lesser evil: it is he who brought us to this point in the first place.
Israel’s ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is visiting the United States to speak to the Israel Bonds conference. It’s a visit unlike any other in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Smotrich has become the prime target for liberal pro-Israel and Jewish groups to vent their anger about the new Israeli government. Primarily, they speak about the government’s assault on Israeli “democracy,” a quality of the state whose existence was always dubious. Some also express concern that by increasing the already brutal policies of the Israeli occupation (which, of course, is not how they frame it) that Israel risks “escalating the cycle of violence.”
These concerns, though never expressed quite as forcefully and critically as they are now, are not unusual for liberal supporters of Israel. But they are also coming from pro-Israel sources more thoroughly committed to absolute silence when it comes to criticism of Israel.
Reaction of the American Zionist establishment
In Chicago and Seattle, two rabbis Michael Siegel and Jay Rosenbaum, respectively, raised their voices in protest against the Netanyahu government, targeting Smotrich and fellow extremist Itamar Ben Gvir in their remarks.
There’s nothing unusual about rabbis joining protests against Israeli actions, of course. But these rabbis are lifelong, lock-step supporters of Israel, and part of the Conservative movement of American Jewry.
Conservative communities have tended to maintain public silence on criticism of Israel, often trying to keep even their complaints about the orthodox Jewish establishment in Israel trying to marginalize them “in house” as much as possible.
Not now. With the Israeli government trying to destroy its own judiciary, they are out and loud.
They focus their ire on the Netanyahu government working to undermine the democracy that exists in Israel only for its Jewish citizens, but even this is a remarkable development for what Haaretz described as “people affiliated with AIPAC who have never joined the more left-leaning parts of the community in criticizing Israel.”
Comparing the current Israeli government to the followers of Donald Trump, Rosenbaum told an anti-Netanyahu demonstration, “I don’t have to tell you, as an American citizen, how much damage a democratically elected government can do to the soul and fabric of a nation in a short time.” Siegel wrote a letter to his congregation where he said: “However, this is the first time that I am calling upon members of the congregation to speak out against the government of the State of Israel. The words and actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his appointed ministers in government threaten the foundations of modern Zionism, the unity of the people of Israel, and the relationship between Israelis and world Jewry. For those who care deeply about Israel, this is the time to act.”
Unsurprisingly, these comments are unconcerned with Israel’s aggression against Palestinians.
Yet it is still noteworthy that these criticisms of the Netanyahu government are so public and clear and they do not attempt to distance themselves from those who are calling on Israel to pull back on its increasing violence in the West Bank and are highlighting Smotrich’s call to wipe out the Palestinian town of Huwara. Smotrich has said he didn’t intend for those words to be a call to genocide, an assertion which just doesn’t match what he said. He has also apologized at length for his statements — that is, to the Israeli military, particularly the air force, for upsetting them by saying the state should use them, rather than Jewish settlers, to massacre Palestinians.
Smotrich, through many statements he has made over the years, has set himself up as the face of Israeli bigotry, of Jewish supremacy. But his newfound prominence in the government has forced even many die-hard “Israel-right-or-wrong” types to speak out.
Even more telling is a letter issued by the Israel Policy Forum recently calling for Smotrich to be shunned by one and all. That letter included condemnation of Smotrich’s call to eradicate Huwara, and even stated: “We reject the notion that someone must be accorded respect simply by dint of serving in the Israeli government.”
Some of the people who signed that list have been fierce defenders of Israeli violence, including a former head of AIPAC, the founder of the anti-Palestinian group Zioness, former presidents of various Jewish Federation chapters and Jewish Community Relations Councils, a former vice chair of Hillel, and more. It even includes former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and well known anti-Arab voice and former head of the ADL, Abe Foxman.
Smotrich is having his turn as the face of the new Israeli extreme right. Last year, Itamar Ben-Gvir was the featured fascist. It is likely that the two of them, due to their unabashed bigotry and violent extremism as well as their prominent places in Israel’s governing coalition, will continue to alternate in the featured role depending on the circumstances of the moment, as long as this government survives.
That is as it should be, but it will be important not to lose sight of who is really at the heart of this government and who it is that drives the increasingly draconian Israeli policies that are increasing the slaughter, degradation, and dispossession of Palestinians throughout the land governed by Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu.
Reaction of US officials
Members of Congress, on the other hand, seem to understand who it is that is driving Israel toward even greater violence against Palestinians and toward shedding the façade of democracy that Israel’s U.S. supporters have staked so much of their strategy on. A letter from over 90 House Democrats, led by prominent pro-Israel members Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, carefully avoids naming any names, but it is unusually straightforward in expressing its concern about Israeli behavior.
The letter shares the congress members’ “deep concern regarding the planned changes to the structure of the Israeli judiciary, the fragile security situation in the West Bank, and the threat of partial or full annexation of areas that would most certainly be part of a future Palestinian state.” The concern over annexation comes late, but it is one that the Biden administration would be wise to heed; while the transfer of authority over the West Bank to Smotrich amounts to annexation (explained in depth here), it is still something that can be reversed.
But even Democrats are not united on this point. In a statement clearly intended as a rebuke of the DeLauro-Schakowsky-McGovern letter, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Jared Moskowitz of Florida warned Congress against any criticism even of this Israeli government. “Israel remains our most vital ally in the Middle East. It is also its own democracy. Regardless of our personal views and concerns, Congress should not publicly intervene in ongoing negotiations of a key democratic ally.“
Republicans, of course, also recognize that Smotrich is merely the more honest face for Netanyahu, and the easier target. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas offered up a full-throated, if completely insane, defense of Netanyahu, accusing Democrats of working to undermine him. The basis for this rant was a small grant the State Department gave to an Israeli NGO, the Movement for Quality Government. The grant, which since 2020 has amounted to around $38,000 and is for teaching Israeli high school students about the principles of democracy, was approved by the Trump administration.
As Smotrich faces protests in Washington and Netanyahu faces them throughout Israel, it will be important to maintain the proper perspective and focus. There is a reasonable case to be made that Israel’s cannibalizing of its own judiciary — a part of its government that, despite occasionally modifying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, both under occupation and within Israel’s citizenry, has always been a key part of the structure maintaining an apartheid system and Jewish supremacy — is indeed an issue internal to Israel and really not the business of anyone outside of it.
Such an argument, however, is not reasonably made about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, whether within Israel or under occupation. Just because the issue of the judiciary is an easier target shouldn’t mean it’s the preferred one.
Similarly, the blatant extremism of Bezalel Smotrich is an easy target right now, and it is correct, both ethically and strategically, to protest him, bar him from travel if possible, and generally expose him for the racist and fascist he is.
But it is important that this be done in a way that does not allow Netanyahu to appear the lesser of two evils. It is Netanyahu who is driving the authoritarianism and anti-democratic forces that are causing both the pro-Israel protests over the judiciary and the pro-justice, pro-humanism outcry over the pogroms and greatly increased violence of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers. That must not be obscured or forgotten.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics