American Jews will protest Israel finance minister’s speech in DC

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a right-wing Israeli politician, is scheduled to speak Sunday (March 12).

Far-right Israeli lawmakers Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Bezalel Smotrich, right, attend the swearing-in ceremony for Israel's parliament, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/ Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

(RNS) — On Sunday, an Israeli government minister is expected to give a speech at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Outside, a wide swath of American Jews will protest.

The highly unusual juxtaposition is the latest outgrowth of an escalating clash between Israel’s new right-wing government and American Jews who have rarely publicly opposed speeches by Israeli government leaders.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a right-wing Israeli politician, is scheduled to speak March 12 at a conference of Israel Bonds, a group that underwrites debt securities issued by Israel.

Smotrich has repeatedly called for annexing the occupied West Bank. Last week, after a resident of the Palestinian village of Hawara killed two Jewish brothers, Smotrich said the village should be “wiped out.” Jewish West Bank settlers rampaged through the Nablus-area town, setting homes and cars on fire and killing a Palestinian resident. Smotrich has since apologized for the comment, which a U.S. government spokesperson described as “repugnant” and “disgusting.”

Earlier this week, 73 American Jewish organizations, including the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, the two largest denominations in the U.S., pledged not to meet with Smotrich during his U.S. trip.

“The vast majority of American Jews want to tell Netanyahu’s Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, to go home,” according to a statement by the Progressive Jewish Network, which organized the pledge. “His racist and discriminatory policies, extremist and violent rhetoric, and the plan he supports to crush Israel’s democratic institutions have no place here.”

On Thursday, the U.S. government approved Smotrich’s visa to travel to the U.S.

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Only one Jewish group, the Orthodox Union, acknowledged publicly it would meet with Smotrich during his trip. Orthodox Jews represent about 9% of the American Jewish population.

“We take every opportunity to 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,” Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said in a statement.

FILE-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich and leaders of all Israel's political parties pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Israel's designated prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced a coalition deal with a hardline pro-settler party on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. The agreement will give Religious Zionism control over a number of key government ministries and a senior post over West Bank settlement construction. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

FILE- Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and far-right Israeli lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, right, and leaders of all Israel’s political parties pose for a group photo after the swearing-in ceremony for Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

Israel’s new government has partnered with right-wing nationalist and religious parties. One of its first priorities has been a judicial overhaul that would effectively eliminate the independence of Israel’s high court. The bill, which is expected to pass the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, would, among other things, allow the parliament to overrule Supreme Court decisions by a one-vote majority and also give the government the power to appoint judges.

Israelis have taken to the streets to oppose the changes, mounting the largest protest movement in the country’s history. Some Israeli expats will also attend the protest in Washington on Sunday.

The “No to Smotrich, No to Hate” rally outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel is expected to draw several hundred protesters.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Washington lobbying group J Street, which will also be represented at the protest, said the time for wavering on Israel is over. 

“There is no longer any room or time for hesitation or excuses,” he wrote on his blog. American Jews have a moral and historic obligation to protest, he said.

Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said the demonstration isn’t just about Smotrich. 

“He’s only one symptom of the larger issue, which is an all-out assault on democracy that didn’t start in November,” she said. “It includes the occupation and past attempts to attack Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations and infringe on the right to protest.”

David Halperin, chief executive of the Israel Policy Forum, acknowledged that the interests of American Jews and the Israeli government, once united, have diverged.

“I think that relationship will continue, but it will look vastly different than it has in the past,” Halperin said. “We’re entering into a new era where support for Israel and criticism of Israel are absolutely aligned.”

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