Israeli finance minister addresses ‘elephant in the room’ amid protests at Washington conference

Most major mainstream U.S. Jewish groups have stated they will not meet with Bezalel Smotrich during his U.S. visit.

By Mike Wagenheim, JNS

With an unlikely grouping of Zionist and anti-Zionist groups protesting his appearance on the streets of Washington, D.C., Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich forged ahead with his scheduled engagement on Sunday evening.

Smotrich keynoted a gala of Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad. Long detested by much of the American Jewish left for his right-wing policies and rhetoric, Smotrich has come under fire in recent weeks from mainstream American Jewry for recent comments supporting “wiping out” the Arab town of Huwara, where a terrorist killed two Israeli brothers on Feb. 26.

Smotrich apologized for the remarks on March 9 in a lengthy Facebook post, but has been largely unable to calm the firestorm around him.

Inside Washington’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, which was under heavy security, Smotrich told Israel Bonds leadership that he wanted to “say a few words about the elephant in the room. As I have already said and written and repeat now with sincere regret, my comments about Huwara created a completely mistaken impression.”

Smotrich, who doubles as a minister within the Israeli defense ministry and holds sway over some policies related to the administration of Palestinian civilian life in Judea and Samaria, said on Sunday that “I stand before you now, as always, committed to the security of the State of Israel, to our shared values, and to the highest moral commitment of our armed forces to protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.”

A controversial figure to much of non-Orthodox America Jewry, Smotrich attempted to build bridges between Israeli Jews and their diaspora counterparts, saying that “There are among us religious and secular people, reform, conservative, unaffiliated and others. In Israel, we have big differences, but we must not forget that we are brothers. Despite all the differences, despite the many colors that make up the Jewish mosaic, we are one.”

Smotrich also thanked those in attendance for “the unquestionable connection between Israel and diaspora Judaism. Judaism has always known controversies. We can even say it was built on controversies. Disagreement is not something that should scare us. On the contrary, it enriches us.”

Regardless, besides the Israel Bonds conference appearance, only two American Jewish groups—the Orthodox Union and Zionist Organization of America—confirmed they would meet with Smotrich, with the rest of the major mainstream American Jewish groups explicitly saying they would pass on the opportunity—a highly unusual situation for a sitting Israeli minister.

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Those not scheduled to meet with Smotrich include AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee, though none of the organizations were among those that explicitly announced a boycott. While those organizations have expressed in different ways their discomfort with the current Israeli government and its pursuit of changes to the judicial system, it appears that Smotrich’s comments about Huwara led to their declining an opportunity to meet with him.

Officials in the Biden administration are also refusing to meet with Smotrich, and the State Department only issued a diplomatic visa to Smotrich on Thursday, hours after his lengthy apology.

A number of mainly hard-left Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups protested on the streets outside the hotel on Sunday, making for an odd coupling of Israeli and Palestinian flags at a protest. One group was removed from the Grand Hyatt by security after staging its dissent in the lobby.

A group of Israeli tech entrepreneurs, economists and philanthropists in the United States held a press conference at Smotrich’s hotel prior to the Israel Bonds event.

Entrepreneur Offir Gutelzon, who co-founded the protest group UnXeptable—Saving the Israeli Democracy, told media that while “any decrease in the confidence the international community has in the Israeli political system threatens the investment stream,” as an Israel Bonds supporter, he said that for Americans considering purchasing those bonds, “there is no reason to stop the investment right now.”

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Susie Gelman, president of the left-of-center Morningstar Foundation and chairwoman of the Israel Policy Forum, said, “I do not want to see people stop investing in Israel, either economic or philanthropic.”

Gelman said the economic impact of judicial reforms was difficult to put into hard numbers, though she claimed it would not wipe out all foreign investment.

While all of the leaders at the press conference expressed harsh criticism of the Israeli government and its policies, none called for any investments to be pulled.

Smotrich’s trip to the United States is expected to last through Tuesday, though his office would not share his itinerary.