Were UK Jews right to ban Smotrich? - editorial

UK Jews told MK Bezalel Smotrich to leave the UK during his trip to Europe to get support against the Knesset's religious reforms.

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021.  (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

In general, we are opposed to boycotts based on the idea that negating someone or something does not help in finding solutions or reconciliation.

This applies to the BDS movement which has singled out Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It has declared a desire to see the State of Israel eliminated and prefers that it disappear.

This also applies to the European Union which decided a number of years ago to label Israeli products made in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. What this achieves remains unclear. It is another example of singling out a specific country and choosing to label just its products while sparing other conflict zones. Making this even more absurd is that in the Golan, even the EU recognizes that Israel cannot just hand the land over to the violent murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, they decided to label Israeli products made there.

And this brings us to the decision last week by the British Board of Deputies to call on National Religious Party leader Bezalel Smotrich to leave the UK where he was visiting as part of a trip to Europe to galvanize support against religious reforms advancing in the Knesset.

“Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever,” the board said in a tweet. In a second tweet in Hebrew, the board noted his past statements against Arabs and the LGBT community, and said it rejected Smotrich’s “disgusting ideology that promotes hatred.”

 Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Head of the Religious Zionist Party MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally against the Israeli government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Smotrich initially responded by tweeting, “British Jews: I love you. All of you.” But he changed his tone dramatically in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday after Board of Deputies CEO Michael Wegier said, “British Jews cannot fight antisemitism, anti-Zionism and racism while condoning Smotrich’s views.”

Smotrich responded to the condemnation by comparing British Jewry to the German Jewish community ahead of the Holocaust.

“Those who say the way to deal with antisemitism is to hide who and what we are repeat the awful strategy of German Jewry ahead of World War II, who thought if there is antisemitism, let’s be more like the non-Jews and they will forgive and accept us. The opposite is true. The response to antisemitism must be a strong and secure Israel that can justify the Zionist vision and the belonging of Israel to the Land of Israel and the entire Jewish people, and the strong connection of the Diaspora to Israel, instead of trying, yet again, to find favor with the hegemony and renounce anyone because someone thinks they should, due to warped, progressive, almost sick dictates,” he said.

Should the Board of Deputies have called for Smotrich to leave London? That is a good question.

On the one hand, Israelis need to realize that what might be an accepted political opinion in Israel is not necessarily an accepted opinion elsewhere. Racist and homophobic rhetoric might be tolerated in the Knesset, but it is apparently not tolerated by some UK Jews. That is their right just like it is Israel’s right.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling in seeing a large and leading Jewish organization call to boycott an Israeli member of Knesset.

On the one hand, doing so is an extreme measure that gets a point across loudly. It makes it clear that Smotrich’s opinions - many of them definitely disgraceful - are not legitimate and not to be engaged with. Israel, by the way, has done the same in the past when refusing to meet with certain European parliamentarians due to their opinions or when banning members of Congress from even entering the country.

On the other hand, doing so achieves very little. The banned politician can play the victim card, can cry foul and receives media attention he or she otherwise never would have benefited. Did anyone even know that Smotrich was going to the UK? Did anyone even care?

Now, we all know that he was there and we all know that he was banned. He received tremendous publicity and, at least among his base, he is considered to be a hero.

For the UK Board of Deputies, this was a value statement. We appreciate the importance of that but we also wonder - now what?