Middle East Eye / February 16, 2022
Denouncing Smotrich might not be a reflection of a principled anti-racist stance, but rather part of a strategy to shield Israel and its racist infrastructure from criticism.
“You are not wanted here,” reads the final sentence of a recent tweet written in Hebrew and posted by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella outfit of mainstream Jewish organizations in the UK.
In that same tweet, the organization also rejects “the abominable views and the hate-provoking ideology of Bezalel Smotrich“, calling on “all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door”.
To ensure that its message was heard, the Board of Deputies (BoD) tagged major Jewish newspapers in Israel, the UK and the US. And sure enough, within just a few hours, the Jewish organization’s refusal to host the Israeli member of the Knesset and former minister of transport made headlines.
While it might have been long overdue, I was pleasantly surprised by the harsh criticism that the Jewish organization voiced against the racist and LGBTQ-hating views of the Israeli parliamentarian.
After all, Smotrich is a politician who, in 2016, demanded that a segregation policy between Jews and Palestinians be upheld in Israeli maternity wards, tweeting not long after his wife gave birth that “It’s only natural my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years.”
A year later, he published an essay called “Israel’s Decisive Plan“, in which he claimed that “Ending the conflict [between Israelis and Palestinians] means creating and cementing the awareness – practically and politically – that there is room for only one expression of national self-determination west of the Jordan River: that of the Jewish nation.” Therefore “those who wish to forgo their national aspirations can stay here and live as individuals in the Jewish state”.
Where, then, does this decisive plan leave Palestinians who are unwilling to forgo their national ambitions? They, according to Smotrich, “will receive aid to emigrate to one of the many countries where Arabs realise their national ambitions, or to any other destination in the world”. Palestinians who are unwilling to accept these two options are characterized as “terrorists” and “will be dealt with by the security forces with a strong hand…”.
Ultimately, Smotrich gives Palestinians three options: live as stateless people in their ancestral land, emigrate, or be killed.
Singling Smotrich out
Smotrich’s views are not only considered by many to be racist, but he also characterized himself as a “proud homophobe“. In 2006, he helped organize the anti-gay “Beast Parade” in response to the gay pride parade in Jerusalem. He has also accused LGBTQ organizations of controlling the media and silencing those who share conservative views like his.
These are just a few examples that help illustrate who is this politician that the Board of Deputies rebuffed. And while I understand and applaud the decision taken by the BoD, I also wonder why they decided to single Smotrich out.
Are, for example, the views of Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK, so very different?
Many consider the answer to be no. Yet, the Board of Deputies invited Hotovely to be a plenary guest speaker. There was some resistance in the organization, particularly from one of the deputies, Tommer Spence.
Spence reminded his fellow deputies that during a debate in the Knesset in 2017 – a video of which is still on her personal YouTube channel – Hotovely described Palestinians as “thieves of history”. She has also repeatedly denied that the Palestinian people have any connection or claim to the land that lies between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea, stating when she was deputy foreign minister in 2015: ‘This land is ours. All of it is ours.”
Spence went on to document how, earlier in her political career, Hotovely had invited the notoriously racist organization Lehava to speak in the Knesset about preventing relationships between Jews and Arabs. Lehava has organized violent protests in Jerusalem, where its members chant “death to Arabs” and attack Palestinians in their homes; it has also urged its followers to infiltrate and disrupt gay pride events.
Moreover, Hotovely has appeared on panels together with Smotrich, where the two have shared their commitment to Jewish sovereignty over all of historical Palestine. Just over a year ago, she claimed that the Nakba was an “Arab lie” and a “made-up story”.
An important clue
To be fair, at the time a few of the deputies did criticize Israel’s decision to make her ambassador to the UK. But, ultimately, the organization has seemingly embraced her. In addition to inviting Hotovely to plenaries and events, the Board of Deputies vocally condemned students who staged a legal protest against her outside the London School of Economics. These students simply insisted that Hotovely should never have been invited onto campus, given the university’s anti-racist policy.
The real question, in my mind, then, is why has the Board of Deputies decided to reject Smotrich yet embrace Hotovely?
I reached out to the Board of Deputies for an answer, but no response was received.
Israeli far-right lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich (R) and Itamar Ben-Gvir take part in the ultranationalist March of the Flags near Jerusalem’s Old City, 15 June 2021 (AFP)
In an interview for Israel’s news channel i24, Michael Wegier, the Board of Deputies chief executive, explained why his organization posted the anti-Smotrich tweet and, in so doing, provided an important clue.
“The reason for this statement,” he explained, “is that a good deal of the work of the board is fighting antisemitism, fighting anti-Zionism, fighting racism in general. And specifically in the last week, we have been very involved in a campaign to condemn the disgraceful Amnesty report which labels Israel as an apartheid state. In order for us to have credibility in those campaigns against hatred against Israel and the Jews, we have to be honest with ourselves.”
Amnesty’s apartheid report
Many consider Wegier’s statement to be disingenuous. Defending the Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians arguably undermines any statement about a sincere commitment to anti-racism.
Yet, his claim that the decision to attack Smotrich needs to be understood within the context of Amnesty International’s apartheid report, which had appeared about a week earlier, does appear truthful.
Published on 1 February, Amnesty’s 280-page report demonstrated how Israel has legislated laws and adopted policies and practices meant to ensure the domination of one ethnic group over another. The human rights group further claimed that Israel’s repressive policies towards Palestinians were systematic and therefore constituted a crime against humanity.
Based on evidence and backed-up by over 1,500 footnotes documenting every single claim, Amnesty’s accusations cannot be so easily brushed off.
Thus, by singling out Smotrich – whose views, despite being on Israel’s far right, are considered not to be so very different from those held by many members of Likud, Yamina, New Hope, Yisrael Beiteinu, to name just some of the more extreme political parties – it seems that the Board of Deputies would like us to believe that a few rotten apples, rather than a structure of oppression and domination, are responsible for the prejudiced laws and policies in Israel.
Denouncing Smotrich is, in other words, considered by many to be a far cry from honesty. The condemnation – even though articulated clearly and sharply – is not necessarily a reflection of a principled anti-racist stance. Instead, it could be interpreted as part of a strategy to shield Israel and its racist infrastructure from criticism.
When the Board of Deputies posts a similar tweet against Hotovely and when it seriously engages with Amnesty’s apartheid report, then, perhaps, I might be convinced that it does indeed really care about racism in Israel.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation; his most recent co-authored book is Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire