The danger of treating Smotrich as an anomaly

Edo Konrad

+972 Magazine  /  March 9, 2023

By marking one Israeli politician as unacceptable, U.S. Jews are sidestepping the need to reckon with the wider system that enables his genocidal views.

Two weeks after calling for a genocidal act against Palestinians, one of Israel’s most powerful government ministers will be landing in the United States, where he is set to encounter large protests and what will likely be an unprecedented shunning by U.S. officials. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and de facto overseer of the occupied territories, publicly expressed his belief that the West Bank town of Huwara should be “wiped out” after two Jewish settlers were shot dead while driving on its main road. Smotrich made the comments just days after over 400 Jewish settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, carried out a pogrom on Huwara and the neighboring village of Za’atara, where they torched Palestinian homes, businesses, and vehicles, and killed 37-year-old Sameh Aqtesh.

Smotrich’s statement was widely condemned by opposition Israeli leaders, journalists, and even the U.S. State Department, which described the remarks as “irresponsible” and “repugnant.” Sensing the growing fury, and after being publicly chided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Smotrich shamelessly tried to walk back his comments twice, claiming that when he explicitly insisted that Huwara be wiped out, he was, somehow, not really calling for it to be wiped out.

With the announcement of his arrival on March 12 for an Israel Bonds conference in Washington D.C., Jewish American establishment organizations, as well as prominent liberal Zionist groups, sprang into action, demanding that the Israeli finance minister be treated as persona non grata. Over 120 American Jewish leaders signed a petition calling for Jewish communities to boycott Smotrich’s visit. The lobby group J Street demanded the Biden administration “ensure that no U.S. government officials will legitimize [Smotrich’s] extremism by meeting with him,” and that it should interpret such remarks as “grounds for reexamination of a visa for entry to the United States.” Groups such as T’ruah and Americans for Peace Now openly called for Smotrich’s visa to be revoked.

Meanwhile, mainstream organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League said “it’s inexcusable for [Smotrich] to incite mass violence against Palestinians as a form of collective punishment.” William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, echoed the State Department’s words in calling Smotrich’s comments “irresponsible, repugnant, and disgusting.” Despite the outrage, Smotrich is still slated to speak at the conference.

It should go without saying that Smotrich — a man who self-identifies as a “fascist homophobe” and has a well-documented record of explicitly hateful comments about Palestinians, the LGBTQ community, and other groups — should be roundly condemned and denied entry into the United States.

This is true not only due to the sheer genocidal sadism of his Huwara comments, or the fact that Smotrich has officially become what legal scholar Eliav Leiblich dubbed the “overlord of the West Bank.” It is also because, at a time when murderous incitement against Palestinians continues to bear its deadly fruit, such positions from American Jews are showing that there are real steps that can be taken against a government that seems libidinally invested in burning everything around it in order to reconfigure the country in its own image.

And yet, one should take pause and marvel at the strangely rare occasion in which major American organizations, from the left to the right, are uniting to condemn and question the legitimacy of a senior Israeli politician. One need not look far to find other Israeli officials who have similarly called for or retroactively justified massive violence against Palestinians. And that’s partly because unlike Smotrich — the poster child of the Jewish fundamentalist far right — many of those politicians actually come from the Israeli center and Zionist left.

Take Benny Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff and later defense minister, who launched his 2019 election campaign as the centrist challenge to Netanyahu by bragging about how many Palestinians he killed and how he sent Gaza “back to the stone age.” Or take Matan Vilnai, former deputy defense minister from the Labor Party, who warned in early 2008 that Palestinians in Gaza would face a “holocaust,” less than a year before Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead,” which killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians in three weeks.

There is also Mordechai Gur, the IDF chief of staff-turned defense minister, also from Labor, who told Israeli daily Al HaMishmar in 1978 that he had his forces bomb four villages in Southern Lebanon “without authorization” and without making a distinction between civilians and combatants; Gur further stated that he “never had a doubt” that Palestinian civilians in those areas ought to be punished, telling the paper “I knew exactly what I was doing.” Or take David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and architect of the Nakba, who when asked in 1948 what to do with the Palestinians of Lydd and Ramle after the cities had been captured by Zionist militias, infamously motioned with his hand to order their expulsion (Decades later, Smotrich would publicly regret that Ben-Gurion didn’t “finish the job”).

How not to defeat the scourge

There is no big reveal here. The Zionist left (and what became much of the center) has always invoked its militarist credentials against the Zionist right. The point, then, is not to shame organizations into taking retroactive positions on past deeds, but rather to understand that the selective outrage over Smotrich, while justified, risks obscuring the fact that he is a product of a larger system of dispossession and subjugation. Like Meir Kahane, who was treated as far beyond the pale in Israeli society and much of the American Jewish community for his unabashed fascism, Smotrich is being turned into a pariah, yet with the effect of legitimating the apartheid apparatus he has inherited from his predecessors.

By marking one or two extremist politicians as unacceptable, Jewish communities can sidestep the need to reckon with the ways Smotrich and Kahane actualize the Zionist project’s deepest impulses. This same avoidance is occurring in places like the United Kingdom, where the Board of Deputies of British Jews, one of the community’s main establishment bodies, has openly rejected Smotrich, yet continues to meet with other far-right hardliners such as Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely and Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikly.

Smotrich, in this way, becomes the villain American Jews can rally against: messianic, racist, unapologetic. Figures like Ben-Gurion and Gur, meanwhile, remain heroes rather than men who destroyed untold numbers of lives. And while American Jewish groups can picket Smotrich at this month’s Israel Bonds conference, not a single one demanded the United States revoke Benny Gantz’s visa when he visited the White House last year, just months after he outlawed six leading Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations.” For Jewish communal institutions, to start calling into question who represents “Good Israel” risks crumbling the entire psychological edifice of their support for the state.

Washington, for its part, also has an interest in turning Smotrich into an outlier. As part of its pacification policy vis-à-vis the new Israeli government, the Biden administration is trying to exert at least some pressure on Netanyahu to keep his coalition in line. But at a time when Israel is engulfed by instability — due to a combination of an attempted judicial coup, Israeli army raids on Palestinian cities, unrestrained settler violence, and Palestinian attacks on soldiers and civilians — the best the White House can hope for is to coax Israel off the edge of the abyss it seems keen on jumping into headfirst.

For U.S. officials, that means playing bait and switch by engaging with Israeli leaders such as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant, while shunning “repugnant” ones like Smotrich or National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, all in the interest of “stabilizing” the situation — a task this government is making increasingly impossible with every passing day.

In this moment of severe crisis for the Israeli state, both Jewish Americans and the Biden administration are hoping that their strategy of damage control against Smotrichism might cajole Israel back toward a more palatable version of Israeli apartheid. One in which the army has legitimacy to raid and kill Palestinians in the refugee camps Israel banished them into, but not one in which top ministers actively call on settler vigilantes to “take matters into their own hands.” One that maintains the facade of an independent judiciary, but looks away when its courts approve nearly every discriminatory law or occupation policy. One in which there is always an individual outlier to blame, but not the colonial regime itself.

Yet the shortsighted attempt to compartmentalize Israeli extremists — to treat them as inherently more repugnant than “mainstream” hawks and nationalists — is not simply doomed to fail. It will, in fact, only enable more violence. Israeli society refused to recognize that Kahanism drew from the rivers of Zionism, rather than the other way around, only to find that it would return to dominate public life. American Jewish organizations are now making the same mistake. They hope that somehow, with just enough petitions or strongly-worded condemnations, they will defeat the scourge of Smotrich — without addressing the ideology and state structures that both encourage his call for genocide, and give him and his successors the power to fulfill it. They are dangerously wrong.

Edo Konrad is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine