Mr Smotrich comes to town

THE RECENT VISIT of Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the “Religious Zionism” party in Israel, to Britain, provoked an unprecedented strong response from leading Jewish organisations and an embarrassed silence from many orthodox rabbis.

Smotrich met quietly with representatives of Bnei Akiva and Mizrahi, the Religious Zionists’ movement and the chief executive of Chabad in London. He has previously attempted to cultivate all these groups in Israel and to pull them further towards the Right. Campaigning in the Diaspora brings with it the possibility of raising funds for his party.

Yet Smotrich underestimated British Jews. He had conjured up the image of a docile group, willing to acquiesce and remain silent on each and every contentious episode that may take place in Israel. This false assumption was punctured by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, when it stated that Smotrich was not welcome.

The Board itself has undergone a remarkable transformation during recent years. It has moved from being a staid, slightly nervous organisation to one that attempts to genuinely represent the broad spectrum of British Jews.

It has not been afraid to discipline and expel deputies who have voiced racist sentiments — particularly against Muslims. In essence, it is saying that it will not tolerate double standards — if antisemitism is condemned, then there can be no silence on Islamophobia, even when it comes from Jews.

It cannot be coincidental that such a change by the Board’s leadership over the last five years has come about while it has been composed mainly of women. Its president Marie van der Zyl and its vice-president, Amanda Bowman, have clearly shown the way out of the labyrinth of the past.

The new chief executive, Michael Wegier, recently succeeded Gillian Merron, a former MP who has now been elevated to the House of Lords. Wegier has been a leading voice in Jewish Education in Israel for many years and headed the UJIA in the UK for two terms.

It was his biting criticism of Smotrich’s visit that communicated the message to most observers. Wegier essentially told Smotrich to take the next flight back to Israel.

A fluent Hebrew speaker, he succinctly explained the Board’s stand to the Israeli media and attracted a good deal of attention in Israel. It is significant that support for Smotrich’s visit was thin on the ground – only representatives of Likud UK condemned the Board’s “rude and disgraceful” tweet.

The Jewish Leadership Council, the Abraham Initiatives UK and the Zionist Federation – not noted for blunt comment usually – all joined the Board in condemning Smotrich. Even those organisations whose representatives happily posed for photographs with Smotrich, have now distanced themselves.

While US Jews and their organisations have often voiced their criticism about official Israeli approaches, it is highly unusual for British Jews to do so.

With the passing of the generation that bore witness to the Shoah and to the rise of Israel, whereby even a scintilla of criticism was regarded as treasonous, the current generation does not accept this approach. Diaspora Jews are much better educated today about Israeli politics than previous generations.

In part, this has been due to the easy access to the Israeli press via the internet. British Jews know full well that the charismatic Smotrich has continually fomented public outrage in Israel, regarding his comments about those who did not subscribe to his world outlook.

Smotrich’s dislike of “the other” — gays, Reform Jews, Israeli Arabs — clearly did not chime with Jews who live among non-Jews in the Diaspora. One glaring example was his organisation of a “Beast Parade” in 2006 to counteract the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. He has also been active in attempting to undermine the independence of the Israeli judiciary and engaged in repeated assaults on the integrity of Avihai Mendelblit, the outgoing Attorney-General, himself an Orthodox Jew.

Bezalel Smotrich is the latest in a long line of Jews who adhere to the far Right. Yet it has been members of the Likud in Israel and their supporters in the Diaspora who have rushed to castigate British Jews and to praise Smotrich.

Ironically, it was Smotrich himself who depicted the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, several years ago as little more than a flaky liberal and rebuked him for using “the language of the Left”. Netanyahu’s offence was to occasionally use the term, “the West Bank” rather than “Judaea and Samaria”.

Moreover, the Likudniks’ support for Smotrich also belies an ignorance of their own history.

Almost a century ago, “the father of the Israeli Right”, Vladimir Jabotinsky, was exasperated by the adulation of the maximalist wing of his Revisionist movement for Mussolini’s regime — albeit before it passed antisemitic legislation in 1938. Its central advocate, Abba Ahimeir, an intellectual and writer, penned a regular column, titled From the Notebook of a Fascist, in the Hebrew press.

Many maximalists in Jabotinsky’s movement were not averse to giving the fascist salute at Zionist meetings and expressed respect for Oswald Mosely in their publications when he was in transition towards founding the British Union of Fascists in the early 1930s.

Jabotinsky wrote that his generation grew up “in the firm conviction that a regime based on general and equal suffrage…is the best and complete answer to all political troubles”. Ahimeir however thought differently and argued in March 1933 that antisemitism was on Nazism’s periphery and not at its core. He wrote that “Hitler has not yet treated us badly as Stalin has done…the antisemitic shell must be discarded, but not its anti-Marxist kernel”.

It is not by chance that Itamar Ben-Gvir, an MK for ‘Religious Zionism’ and devotee of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, recently argued that the UK Board of Deputies was “infected by leftists and Reform”.

“Religious Zionism” is the latest conglomeration of far-right factions in Israel that periodically coalesce and fragment — driven less by ideological concerns than by ego and ambition. They owe their genesis to those members of the Likud who defected when Menahem Begin signed the Camp David peace accord with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1979.

Yet ‘Religious Zionism’ is light years away from religious Zionism — from the views of the founders of Mizrahi, the religious Zionists’ group at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the early years of the state, Religious Zionists were represented mainly by the National Religious Party (NRP) in Israel. It fought strongly for the rights of religious Jews such as keeping Shabbat and respecting kashrut in the new state.

After 1967, it proved unable to bridge the chasm between those struggling to cement religious life in Israel and those who have concentrated on the settlement drive on the West Bank. The NRP subsequently disintegrated into several fragments and was replaced by an array of far-Right parties.

This was accompanied by an ongoing process of radicalisation, spurred on by episodes such as the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the devastating suicide campaign against Israeli civilians by Palestinian Islamists.

However, Smotrich’s coalition of far-right parties is different from the past in that it is distinguished by the presence of Otzma Yehudit, a Kahanist party with its message of full-bloodied intolerance. In Israel, its policies have produced a backlash by many religious Zionists who, while supporting settlement on the West Bank, could not abide Otzma Yehudit.

In addition, there have been numerous books since Kahane’s killing in 1990 which have revealed the subterranean murkiness of his political activities and the moral shallowness of his private life.

Smotrich’s canvassing of yeshiva students in violation of army regulations in settlements such as Itamar and Elon Moreh on the West Bank have further irritated many religious Zionists.

All this seems to have been missed by those representatives of Bnei Akiva, British Mizrahi and Chabad who met Smotrich. They believed that he was surely one of them. He is not.

Smotrich’s subsequent rebuke of his Jewish critics, focusing on antisemitism in the UK, was little more than a deflection strategy and demonstrated a deep ignorance about the community. With only six Knesset seats, Smotrich and his followers will likely sink into political oblivion like their predecessors, probably to be succeeded by an even more radical grouping that will promise future salvation.

By contrast, the emphatic response of the British Jewish leadership to his brand of intolerance looks likely to reset discourse about Israel in the UK for some time to come.

Plus61j 18 February 2022

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.