Small following, big mouth

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich has established himself as the ruling coalition’s enfant terrible.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tucked between the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem’s Rose Garden has seen over the decades hundreds of protests for myriad causes, some colorful, some noisy and some violent, but the squadron of donkeys and goats it saw in autumn 2006 was unique even for this elegant park.
With the city’s fourth gay parade under way in the nearby Hebrew University Stadium, a Land Rover jeep emerged amid the livestock, a set of loudspeakers on its roof and a sign reading “proud beast” stretched across its hood.
From behind the jeep’s wheel, a bearded but boyish-looking activist led the commotion, in line with his sloganeering to the media in those days that the idea of a gay parade is “worse than what beasts do,” and that the Israeli public “abhors” the parade as “the act of a group of beasts.”
Thirteen years on, that man is Israel’s transportation minister, and a member of its security cabinet.
Now a father of seven and the No. 3 candidate for the right-wing Yamina list headed by Ayelet Shaked, the 39-year-old Bezalel Smotrich later said he regrets what he did back then, suggesting he has become more levelheaded since the days when he was 26.
It is an assessment many dismiss, apparently to the delight of the newly appointed minister who during less than half a decade in the Knesset has become the ruling coalition’s enfant terrible.
SMOTRICH’S latest provocation came in the wake of a public row surrounding a planned separation of men and women at a religious singer’s concert in the northern town of Afula.
Following a court ruling (later overturned) that forbade gender separation in a city-sponsored event, an enraged Smotrich blamed the saga on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the tweeted words: “A weak prime minister that this entire craziness is happening during his shift: zero leadership, zero governance. Dina Silber is the real prime minister,” he wrote, referring to the deputy attorney-general, and by extension to the entire judiciary.
Netanyahu fumed, and summoned Smotrich for a tense meeting in which he reprimanded and threatened to fire the minister who had been part of his cabinet for hardly three weeks. Reportedly, Netanyahu showed Smotrich an unsigned dismissal letter. Smotrich got the message, and apologized in front of a well-attended election meeting where he conceded, “I said things in an inappropriate manner.”
It was the same pattern displayed during the gay parade last decade: first grandstand, then apologize. If it won’t be Smotrich, then someone else will emerge to clean up after him.
That is what happened in June, when he said at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, the nationalist-religious flagship that is his alma-mater, “Israel should be run according to the laws of the Torah,” before elaborating: “We want the Justice Ministry because we want to restore the Torah’s law,” and “the state of the Jewish people will return – God-willing – to be run the way it was in the days of King David and King Solomon.”
Having been made while he was still negotiating his cabinet position, the comments were part of Smotrich’s struggle to succeed the previous government’s charismatic justice minister, Shaked, who had just been fired by Netanyahu along with her colleague, education minister Naftali Bennett, following their electoral trouncing in April’s general election.
Netanyahu responded to Smotrich’s statement with a one-two punch: verbally, he said “there will be no halachic state in Israel,” and politically, he ignored Smotrich’s request, and in fact gave the Justice Ministry to Amir Ohana, an openly gay lawyer who with his boyfriend is raising a pair of twins.
Having failed to snatch the Justice portfolio, Smotrich targeted the Education Ministry, a quest he also summarily lost, as Netanyahu chose the much less provocative and more mature Brig.-Gen. (res.) Rafi Peretz, a former chief rabbi of the IDF and combat pilot who is a quarter-century older than Smotrich.
Peretz and Smotrich technically originated in separate parties, the former inheriting Bayit Yehudi when Bennett set up the New Right, and the latter inheriting the National Union, after it chose him over Uri Ariel, at the time the agriculture minister and now a retiree.
The difference between the two parties used to be deep, with the National Union submitting to rabbinical leadership and espousing a messianically inspired militancy that Bayit Yehudi, under the modern-Orthodox Bennett, avoided.
One aspect of this gap was the attitude toward homosexuality. Bennett openly supported gay rights “as individuals,” as he put it, which meant he opposed gay marriages but otherwise thought society should treat people’s sexual preferences as their private business.
Though by now a banality elsewhere in the Jewish state, for a religious Israeli politician that stance was novel, as was his appointing as his press secretary an openly gay woman while she was living with her partner and their two children.
Bennett’s relative liberalism was anathema to many Zionist rabbis. One, halachic authority Yisrael Rosen (1941-2017), resigned in protest of Bennett’s leniency toward homosexuality. In this abstract regard, Smotrich and Peretz are on the same wavelength, as the new education minister implied in a television interview with Channel 12’s Dana Weiss, in which he said “conversion treatment” for homosexuals is feasible.
Peretz, an educator who spent decades preparing high school graduates for their enlistment, said he was taken out of context. Rather than refer to ostensible medical treatment, which he found repulsive and forbidden, he said he was referring to conversations he conducted with students, which at most ended with him sending them to consult experts.
Even so, lurking behind religious Zionist leaders varied attitudes toward homosexuality is their growing ambivalence vis-à-vis modernity, a trend that Smotrich appears to be eager to personify, and amplify.
The place where modernity clashes most explosively with Smotrich’s version of religious conservatism is military service. It is also where his meteoric career may find its demise.
“Service in the IDF’s mixed-gender units,” Smotrich told Army Radio’s Gal Gabbai, “harms its battle readiness and its ability to fulfill its assignments.”
In itself, it is a position that in his corner of religious Zionism has long been consensual. Now, however, with his and Peretz’s united party running on one ticket with Bennett and Shaked – herself a veteran who served in the fabled infantry brigade Golani – Smotrich has allies whose views he seems unable to contain, and whose sensitivities he appears happy to provoke.
That his anti-feminist broadside annoyed the rest of the political spectrum, as he evidently intended, went without saying. “I have news for Smotrich,” said Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz. “Women will serve in any place where they can contribute to the IDF, and to everything else.”
As if to further improve Smotrich’s place in the limelight, the opposition leader’s irritated response came coupled with the prime minister’s, who said, “I am proud of our female soldiers and warriors who contribute to Israel’s security,” adding that “just last week,” female scouts foiled a terror attack from Gaza.
Ever bickering, Smotrich tweeted back that he too had only praise for the scouts, but he was referring to the mixed units only. “What’s the connection?” he asked cantingly, while confronting the prime minister again, barely two weeks since the same attitude nearly got him fired.
The connection is that Smotrich’s constituency indeed opposes women’s military service regardless of setting or assignment, in the spirit of the statement of one of its charismatic sages, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in an interview with Israel Radio’s Yaron Dekel and Baruch Kra: “Women should not be in politics.”
The 76-year-old Aviner spoke just before religious Zionism crowned Shaked as its leader, in a last-ditch effort to prevent her appointment because she is a woman. Seen through such an ultra-conservative prism, it is only natural that the issue of women’s military service also be dismissed outright by that circle as an abomination.
Men’s service, however, is an entirely different matter.
Unlike ultra-Orthodoxy, which accepts the secular Jewish state politically but denies its religious significance, the messianic rabbis Smotrich follows believe Israel is divinity’s act, the harbinger of the Redemption that the biblical prophets foresaw.
Seen this way, men’s service in the IDF is not only legitimate, but desirable, and in fact sacred.
Moreover, hundreds of thousands of modern-Orthodox Israelis who do not follow Smotrich’s messianic rabbis also see in Israel’s emergence God’s will, and in combat service in the IDF a religious value. That is why there are so many observant officers in the IDF, and that is why Bennett’s and Peretz’s distinguished service as officers in elite combat units was so politically effective.
However, Smotrich’s military record is less than impressive, and some in fact find it damning.
Reflecting his ultra-nationalist circle’s proximity to ultra-Orthodoxy, Smotrich enlisted for neither a regular three-year service, nor for the five-year programs that combine combat service and religious study. Instead, at 18 he used the ultra-Orthodox deferment arrangement, enrolled in Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, and did not enlist for a decade.
When he did enlist, it was for a minimal six-month program in which Smotrich did not join a combat unit but took a desk job in Tel Aviv. Moreover, as the National Union’s No. 9 Knesset candidate during the 2009 election, a distant slot in the list that ended up winning four seats, Smotrich obtained a special campaign leave, for which Knesset candidates are eligible by law.
Worst of all, during the years he was meant to dedicate to yeshiva studies, Smotrich enrolled also in the Ono Academic College, where he obtained a law degree.
This dubious record only became known recently, having been exposed by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, formerly the IDF’s OC Personnel, and himself a modern-Orthodox paratrooper officer.
Smotrich may not understand this, but this revelation all but precludes the possibility that in terms of shaping Israel’s future, he will never reach much farther than he already has.
Raised among like-minded nationalist-religious settlers, first in Haspin on the Golan and then in Beit El in the West Bank, Smotrich never really experienced Israel’s broad society, not in school, not in the army, and also not in university, which in his case was a special program for yeshiva students.
That is why his immediate circle is the only audience he has in mind when making his provocative statements, like the one about his wife refusing to give birth alongside an Arab mother due to “mental gaps” between Arabs and Jews.
Seen through this prism, it is apparently difficult for Smotrich to realize that his ultra-conservative religious circle tried repeatedly to run for the Knesset independently, and always yielded fewer than 5 percent of the electorate.
The humbling of Bezalel Smotrich is, therefore, only a matter of time, one way or another. Until then, however, he will think he is riding high, the way he felt that day in the Land Rover as he drove by the donkeys on which he planted his friends.