President Isaac Herzog on Monday criticized the Board of Deputies of British Jews for boycotting Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich.
“I want to deal with another topic, which has to do with a member of Knesset whose name is Bezalel Smotrich,” he said in an address to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors. “He leads a very well-known right-wing party, which has support in the Israeli public. I have never supported the opinions of Bezalel Smotrich, but I respect democracy.
“You also know that I am a firm believer in open, sincere communication and dialogue. The three years we spent together at the Jewish Agency were an ongoing dialogue with all parts of the Jewish people. We met and spoke with every stream, community, synagogue and NGO in Israel and in the Diaspora. This approach of constant dialogue stems in part from my own upbringing, which stems from the British Jewish community, which has always been open and willing to converse with other Jews and other Judaisms.
“This is why I found the Board of Deputies’ recent English and Hebrew tweets concerning MK Smotrich a few weeks ago deeply inappropriate. The Hebrew version was downright insulting and elicited great discomfort,” Herzog said.
“Just as Jewish communities correctly expect their leadership to be respected in Israel, similarly I would expect Israeli leaders to be treated with respect in the Diaspora,” he said.
“For a few years now, Member of Knesset Smotrich has conducted a sincere dialogue with many Jewish communities, which have substantially different values and agendas,” he added. “He has done so independently, as well as through Jewish Agency MK delegations to Jewish communities abroad.
“His beliefs are strong, and his willingness to see and connect with someone he may see as ‘the other’ is something that he has done, and many of you have met him, including the leadership of the Board of Governors and the leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements.”
During his visit to the UK and afterward, Smotrich stayed in touch with Herzog, who supported him privately.
“I’m certain the [UK Board of Deputies] message was retweeted and applauded,” Herzog said. “But now, what have we gained? The gap has grown.”
“Have we not enough anger or disputes amongst us? Have we not all experienced or witnessed enough hatred and toxicity? Have we not had enough of the destruction of the temple due to hatred?
“I believe in dialogue, and I urge my dear friends on the Board of Deputies to take a pause and invite Bezalel Smotrich to a conversation. Sound your pain; express your views and reservations. Protest and debate, but do so as you sit down and talk.
“We cannot allow ourselves another rift in the Jewish people. And I say so because I am working with my team on the Kotel [Western Wall] issue, which I believe must be dealt with quietly, not vociferously, which does not help; it only lights more and more flares of hatred, which we do not need.
“My team and I are investing huge efforts together with the parties concerned to advance a dialogue that will find amicable solutions at the Kotel. And I urge all parties concerned to lower the tensions and lower the activities and enable an open and sincere dialogue and activities, including some activities the Israeli government is dealing with, including issues discussed this morning between Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett and the leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements, and I hope things move.
“But one thing must be clear. Tafasta merube lo tafasta. It means, from our Sages: If you think you’ve got everything, you haven’t got anything. You can’t have it all. If you want, in the current era of so many challenges, so much antisemitism and so much hate, we have to be responsible.
“I call upon everyone from this house, the house of the Jewish People and the house of the Israeli people, which encompasses all facets of Israeli society, to come together and talk together and respect each other and love thy neighbor as thyself,” Herzog said.
The audience applauded with many standing ovations.