"The Union of Right-Wing Parties is the Israeli Republican Party. I want to be the leader of the conservative stream in Israel,” MK Bezalel Smotrich, No. 2 in the bloc made up of the National Union, which he leads, Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit, said this week.
Comparing Israeli and American politics is always a tricky game to play, since the big issues are so different. Still, it seems like so many of Smotrich’s arguments can be summed up with catchphrases historically used by the American Right – the moral majority, focus on the family – and characterize some of its positions to this day. He views himself as being at the vanguard of a cultural war in Israel, using the more American-style terms “conservatives” and “progressives,” even in Hebrew, instead of the more common local references to Right and Left.
“The agenda [the Left] would impose… homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change [Israel] wants. It is not the kind of change [Israel] needs and it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call [the Jewish State].”
OK, that’s not a quote from Smotrich. It’s from Pat Buchanan, when he was running in the Republican primary in 1992. But with a few word changes, the message is not so different from what Smotrich told the Magazine, while downing two mango-banana-melon shakes at a café near URP headquarters in Airport City.
Smotrich has long been the Israeli Left’s bogeyman, since he entered the Knesset in 2015. The 39-year-old father of six from the West Bank community of Kedumim – reportedly in a home built illegally, as in, not on state land – grew up in Beit El, is the son of a rabbi, and attended the flagship yeshiva of religious Zionism and the settler movement, Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem. An attorney by education, he went on to become an executive in the Regavim movement
, which is known for activism against illegal Palestinian and Bedouin construction. Even before he entered the Knesset, he was known for fiery rhetoric and the kind of fast-talking, logical gymnastics one could expect from someone who is both a lawyer and spent many years learning Talmud.
As a lawmaker, Smotrich made a name for himself as one of the Knesset’s most effective members, with a focus on trying to apply Israeli law to settlements – the Right’s preferred way of saying “annexation,” because, as their argument goes, you cannot annex land that already belongs to you – and a fierce opponent of judicial activism. The Left took up an argument that says that Smotrich was the real prime minister of Israel; the logic was that he influenced then-Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who in turn would insist on the far-Right policies in the cabinet, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would follow suit. It’s a bit of a stretch, to say the least, but at the same time, he undeniably got a lot done in the past four years.
Smotrich made waves again this week after a recording of a speech he gave was broadcast on Israel’s most-watched news program on Channel 12.
“For many years, there has been religious coercion in the education system,” he began. “Civics [curricula] force all of us to learn the religion of liberal democracy. If I become education minister, I will cancel the coercion in the education system. We will be much more pluralist and open to different attitudes, while at the same time making sure every child recognizes the identity and heritage of the Jewish people.”
The shocked reaction from some was twofold: Is Smotrich going to be education minister? Is he going to stop having schools teach Israeli kids about democracy?
Smotrich compared the situation to the biblical prophet Balaam, who sought to curse the Israelites but then blessed them. He shrugged off the reaction, saying that while the segment was meant to make him look bad, he’s sure it strengthened his support in some quarters.
The next day, Smotrich explained, talking a mile a minute, “You’ll want to record this to catch it all.” He clarified that Netanyahu hasn’t promised him the Education Ministry. In fact, Netanyahu said he wants the Likud to retain the portfolio, though coalition negotiations may get in the way. The deal forming the URP involves Smotrich receiving the most senior cabinet post given to the faction, and, as is traditional for religious-Zionist parties, his first choice is education.
“Religious-Zionists have always known that education is important,” Smotrich said. “It determines the future for the next generation and it is our real security. We should preserve a lot of good that is already there in the Education Ministry and change what’s bad.”
Smotrich brought up a topic favored by the Right in much of the West in recent years: leftism on college campuses.
“Social sciences and the humanities are ultra-progressive, and professors are silenced if they’re conservative,” he lamented. “One of the main values of academia is freedom of expression and pluralism, yet in many areas of social sciences we see the opposite, a thought police. Whole areas of research into the area of gender are silenced.”
Asked how to combat the phenomenon without the government serving as a censor, Smotrich said the question is a difficult one, but that he doesn’t mean to “be a bull in a china shop” and would tread delicately.
In this regard, he pointed to Culture Minister Miri Regev as a model.
Smotrich said Regev tried to “move the cheese a little” and was met with “accusations of instituting a thought police, because she wants to bring some pluralism.” Current Education Minister Naftali Bennett “tried to open education up a bit, and [the Left] acts like he’s North Korea. It’s nonsense,” he added. “There must be room for a conservative conversation in the education system. It can’t be that all conservatives are anathema.”
As for his specific comments on “religious coercion,” Smotrich said he was referring to “the religion of progressive liberalism.”
The problem, Smotrich said, is with the textbooks, which take a long time to change for a reason he accepts, so that there will be stability in the school system.
Still, he said, “We have to move the steering wheel to be Jewish, national and Zionist, and civics is a major vector. These changes have to be made slowly and responsibly, but they have to be done.
“The ethos in this country is of Zionism, of liberation, of the return to Zion after 2,000 years, and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. After we establish that, we can talk about how we look, how we behave and how to be a light unto the nations,” he added.
What about values of coexistence and minority rights?
“I’m not against it, but there needs to be a balance” in how they’re taught, he said.
“I want to teach democracy. What did Abraham Lincoln say? A government of the people, by the people, for the people – not progressivism or a dictatorship of judges.”
For Smotrich, the meaning of democracy in Israel is a matter of debate and of levels. He pointed to judicial activism as a part of that debate.
“Plato opposed democracy. He wanted an aristocracy, rule of the intelligentsia, because when the nation ran their own affairs, they killed Socrates. The court is following that model. Instead of the nation deciding, this small group of smart people think they should run things,” Smotrich explained. “I’m not there. I want to bring power to the people.”
In that vein, Smotrich recounted his proposal to have an “override clause” added to Basic Law that would allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws canceled or changed by the Supreme Court. He called this “a constitutional dialogue in which the parliament gets the last word.”
Smotrich also proposed a bill to allow legal advisers to ministers be political appointees, because he views the position as too powerful.
“Legal advisers should advise and not decide for ministers,” Smotrich, who was an attorney before entering electoral politics, said. “A minister with a stance should have his day in court to defend it. It’s absurd that legal advisers tell him what his opinion has to be. The Knesset should form the agenda. We elect them,” as opposed to the legal advisers.
Any conversation with Smotrich about democracy and rights will inevitably hearken back to disparaging comments he made about Arabs and the LGBT community in Israel. In his years as an MK, he has said Jews should not sell homes to Arabs and that his wife shouldn’t have to be in a hospital room together with Arab women. He has boasted of being a “proud homophobe,” but in a speech this week, he said “I have no phobias,” and that he did not express himself well. In 2006, he brought livestock to protest Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, in what became known as the “Parade of Beasts,” though he has expressed regret for doing so, and in this week’s interview said it’s not reasonable to go back to something that happened 13 years ago.
Smotrich says that since he’s become an elected official, he wants to be “respectful and not use insulting expressions.”
At the same time, he said, “No one can silence me. No one will pretend that I am backwards and they are enlightened… I don’t want to insult anyone, but I am clear on what I think is good and what my values are for the good of Israel.”
Israeli Arabs should have “equal civil rights and zero national rights,” Smotrich said. “Whoever lives here as an equal citizen and accepts the Jewish identification of Israel and doesn’t try to undermine it, the doors are open for them to enjoy the advancement and good and abundance Israel brings… we will happily let all the residents enjoy it, as long as they accept Israel as Jewish.
“They can preserve their culture in a personal way, but no national aspirations,” he stressed.
However, he said the Israeli-Arab leadership “identifies with our enemies and I won’t accept that.” Those who don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state “can go to Europe to help turn around their low birthrate or to the Arab world with ISIS all around.”
Smotrich differentiated between Arab parties like United Arab List-Balad, which URP voted to have the Central Elections Committee ban from the Knesset, and Otzma Yehudit, the extremist party running on the URP list.
“It’s very dangerous in a democratic society to exclude a whole group. When you push them into a corner, they look for other ways to express themselves,” he warned of Otzma.
When it comes to Arab parties, he said the importance of representation in a democracy “applies to whoever doesn’t identify with an enemy that wants to destroy us,” whereas UAL-Balad “denies my right to exist.”
“Whoever wants to be a citizen of this country, which is a Jewish state, doesn’t have to agree with me. We can argue, but they should accept the rules of the democratic game,” he added.
Smotrich refused to clarify the differences between his views and those of Otzma, which was founded by the students of Rabbi Meir Kahane
, who was banned from the Knesset for racist incitement and whose Kach movement was designated as a terrorist group. He said they’re in an election campaign and it’s not the right time to emphasize differences.
As for LGBT rights, Smotrich said he’s “not against anyone,” but that he wants to “promote the traditional family.”
“I’m against policing the discourse. That’s what’s happening in Israel in many ways. People say we can’t talk about norms in the family,” he lamented. “This is a cultural debate and not about an individual person and whether we can work with them. It’s a lie to say this is about individual rights. Society has a norm that reflects what is good for the majority.”
As to how that translates into policy, Smotrich said he was for “incentivizing certain behaviors.”
“I don’t want to go into anyone’s home, but I want to make clear what is good for the community,” whereas LGBT people “are trying to erase the idea of the norm. They don’t want to feel unusual, so they want to say norms don’t exist anymore… Every rule has exceptions and we have to think how to respond to them, but they can’t come from erasing the norms.”
Gay Pride parades, he said, “are not about rights. They’re about waving a flag and saying this is normal.”
Smotrich said he doesn’t “want the minority to force its views on the majority. If this weren’t a cultural battle, I’d be much calmer about finding solutions for the individual – but that’s not what they want. They want to delegitimize the norm.”
Though he’s openly spearheading a culture struggle, Smotrich doesn’t buy the criticism that he is the one trying to impose his values on others.
“Politicians deal with values all day. What’s a state budget? It’s deciding what to invest in,” he said. “The other side, the liberal view, is super values-based. When [Deputy Attorney-General] Dina Zilber doesn’t let religious people hold gender-separated events, liberalism is becoming fundamentalist, and isn’t letting people live according to their views.
“I don’t believe in extremist liberal democracy. As a conservative person, I am much more open to let people live according to their views,” Smotrich argued. “Liberals are trying to force themselves on us much more.”
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