Breaking the Bonds that tie - opinion

WASHINGTON WATCH: Money raised by Bonds sales goes to the Israeli treasury for the government to spend as it wishes – which, in effect, means Smotrich.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for former prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, in 2018. We trusted the Israeli governments to use our investment wisely; we can no longer do that, says the writer.  (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a memorial ceremony for former prime minister Golda Meir, in Jerusalem, in 2018. We trusted the Israeli governments to use our investment wisely; we can no longer do that, says the writer.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

I got my first Israel Bond 68 years ago this week. It was a bar mitzvah gift from my grandparents. Since then, I’ve received, purchased and given many, and I’ve helped sell probably thousands more by speaking at Bonds events around the country, including High Holiday solicitations. I was very proud of my small role.

I liked to share with audiences Golda Meir’s pitch at the first Bonds fundraiser in 1951 at Madison Square Garden when she was David Ben-Gurion’s minister of labor. “You have a stake in every drop of water we pour into our land, in every mile of road built, in every kilowatt of power, in every field, in every factory,” she said. The idea resonated; it was about nation-building. We trusted the Israeli governments over these decades to use our investment wisely.

We can no longer do that. That is why I won’t be buying any more Israel Bonds or advising others to do so. Today it smacks more of nation-destroying than building. That’s because of who decides where and how to spend the money.

A disturbing situation worsened this month when leaders of the Development Corporation for Israel, Bonds’ official name, invited Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most extreme leaders of Israel’s extremist government, to address next week’s annual meeting in Washington. That’s because the money they raise goes to his ministry to spend. And that’s the problem. Its web page says 2022 US Bond sales exceeded $1 billion, and over $46 billion since 1951. The corporation gets a commission on the sales.

“The money is fungible and not earmarked,” a former ministry official told me. That means the money raised by Bonds sales goes to the Israeli treasury for the government to spend as it wishes – which, in effect, means Smotrich.

Smotrich found himself in government simply because "he was there"

Tal Shalev wrote in The Jerusalem Post that as finance minister Smotrich “holds the most significant seat in the government” because “he simply has his hands on the faucet.”

He has called for expelling Arab politicians and other Arabs who do not recognize that “the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people,” reported the Times of Israel. Smotrich calls himself a “proud homophobe,” holds Conservative and Reform Jews in contempt, opposes egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and rejects non-Orthodox conversion.

He has advocated segregation in hospital maternity wards between Jewish and Arab mothers and has said he wants Israel’s judicial system to ultimately be based on Torah Law.

Smotrich is an outspoken advocate of aggressively expanding settlement construction in the West Bank and eventually annexing the area to Israel, something strongly supported by the Netanyahu government and equally strongly opposed by the mainstream of the American Jewish community and the US government. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Smotrich has expanded authority that has led to some calling him the governor of the West Bank.

If buying Bonds was a traditional way of showing support for the State of Israel, refusing to buy Bonds can demonstrate disapproval of not only the settlement and annexation policies, but the government’s plan to overhaul the nation’s judicial system as well.

HUNDREDS OF thousands of Israelis are regularly protesting what they, and much of the Diaspora and Israel’s friends see as a dangerous lurch away from democracy.

At the time of writing, the US State Department has not decided whether to give Smotrich a visa to come here, but has made clear no administration officials will meet with him. That would be an unprecedented move in the long US-Israel alliance, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) reported. The tone-deaf Bonds leadership claims the invitation has nothing to do with politics.

They haven’t been listening to their “customers.” Mainstream Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations; the Jewish Federations of North America; the Anti-Defamation League; the American Jewish Committee; Americans for Peace Now; J Street; and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are telling Smotrich to stay home or if he does come, they don’t want to see him.

A letter signed by 120 leading American Jews urged that he should not be given a platform in this country, and hundreds of rabbis have said they would not welcome him or his allies into their synagogues.

Several Jewish groups are organizing protests outside the hotel where the Bonds leaders are planning to meet with the Smotrich.

Bonds have long been popular bar and bat mitzvah gifts, but the big purchases are corporate and union pension plans, state and local governments and large investment funds. They in effect are enablers of Smotrich and other nationalist and religious extremists whose politics can only lead to more violence, more isolation for the Jewish state, and more divisions in a divided Israeli society.

The leader of a major Jewish community organization told me he expects Jewish organizations to shrink their investment in Israel to a minimum just to show their disapproval of this extremist government’s policies. Whether that trend is reversible with a more moderate government is unknown at this time.

Smotrich’s visit raises the profile of Israel Bonds in a way it should wish to avoid. It ties the organization, which once portrayed itself as the fulfillment of Golda’s vision, to the ultra-nationalist, anti-democracy forces now in power.

Smotrich sanctioned a pogrom by hundreds of settlers last week that left one Palestinian dead, dozens injured, and many homes and vehicles damaged in the West Bank Palestinian village of Huwara. He set off a political firestorm when he said the village should be “razed to the ground.”

Several days later, and only in the face of public outrage, Smotrich suddenly decided his comment was only a “slip of the tongue.” Netanyahu, 73, gave his finance minister, 43, a paternal pat on the head for saying it was just an “inappropriate…choice of words.” The State Department called it “repugnant.”

Netanyahu is extra tolerant not just because he shares many of Smotrich’s goals but also because he needs him to fulfill his highest priority as prime minister – dropping the criminal corruption charges he currently faces in the court and keeping out of prison. Little wonder some protesters carry signs calling him the “Crime Minister.”

Smotrich’s call – belatedly corrected – to wipe out a Palestinian village is one more example of why Israel and Diaspora Jews keep moving farther apart under Netanyahu’s leadership. Survival of Israeli democracy is at stake, but he and his partners apparently have other priorities.

I am hearing from friends who feel the best way they can send a message to the Israeli government is to stop buying Bonds. Typical was this from a longtime community leader: “2022 was the first year in many that I didn’t purchase Israeli Bonds at our Synagogue’s annual Rosh Hashanah appeal, neither for gifts nor for ourselves; we didn’t even reinvest, as we often do. To me, the proposed Israeli government’s ‘judicial reform’ reads like a precursor to the demise of their democracy.”

Whether or not Smotrich comes to the Bonds meeting has become irrelevant; he is the organization’s new poster boy. Will Bonds break the bonds that tie the Diaspora to Israel?

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant and lobbyist, and the former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.