By his own admission, Israel’s new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is a “fascist homophobe”. This declaration, which he made on January 16, should be enough to accentuate the violent nature of the new political concoction created by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last December.
Though Smotrich is not the only politician in Netanyahu’s cabinet with a track record of violence, both real and rhetorical, he is a special case. Unlike his boss, Smotrich does not feel the need for doublespeak or occasional diplomacy.
In recent months, Smotrich has become internationally famous, not because of his financial genius that could resolve Israel’s impending financial problems as a result of the weakening of the country’s legal system. Nor does the man have the answers, or even interest, in confronting Israel’s inherent socio-economic equality. None of this. Smotrich is mostly popular for his racism.
In 2016, Smotrich made headlines when he suggested that Jewish and Palestinian women should be separated in maternity wards. His logic is as bigoted as it was foolish: “My wife really isn’t a racist, but after giving birth she wants to rest and doesn’t want those mass parties that are the norm among the families of Arab women after birth.”
At that time, Smotrich was a Knesset member, representing the Jewish Home party, before later joining the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Yamina, the Jewish Home and Yamina, again, and, finally, his current Religious Zionist Party. This indicates that Smotrich, himself an illegal Jewish settler from Kedumim, near the Occupied West Bank city of Qalqiliya, found an ideological home in most of Israel’s current rightwing political platforms.
In Israel’s right-wing parties, racism is an important prerequisite to succeed in politics. In fact, this is precisely how Itamar Ben-Gvir rose from being a youth leader of the extremist Kach party to becoming the country’s national security minister. Now, both characters, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, hold the keys to the fate of many Palestinian communities, and both are eager to expand illegal Jewish settlements, regardless of the illegality of such action, and the bloodbath resulting from it.
When hundreds of illegal Israeli Jewish settlers torched the Palestinian village of Huwwara on February 26, burning many homes, killing one Palestinian and wounding over 100 others, Smotrich, now a minister, had something to say about the violence. He objected, not to the pogrom against a peaceful Palestinian community, but because, in his view, the village should have been “wiped out” by the Israeli army, not settlers.
Smotrich later explained his comments as a “slip of the tongue in a storm of emotions”, but such an unconvincing statement was a result of a compromise, due to practical concerns over Smotrich’s travel access to various western countries. When mainstream western media quickly bypassed Smotrich’s outright call for genocide in Huwwara, the man returned to his old, racist language.
There is “no such thing as Palestinians because there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people,” Smotrich preached to an enthusiastic crowd of supporters on March 19, during a recent visit to France. “The Palestinian people is an invention that is less than 100 years old,” he added.
To make matters worse, Smotrich was speaking from a podium that featured a map of the so-called ‘Greater Israel’, which includes modern-day Jordan and other Arab lands. Three days later, the Jordanian Parliament voted in favor of a resolution that recommends the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in Amman.
But where is Washington amid this Israeli political chaos? Following the Huwwara comments, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price referred to Smotrich’s comments as “repugnant” and called on Netanyahu to publicly disavow them. Of course, neither Netanyahu reined in Smotrich, nor did the US challenge Israel any further. Not even official Israeli calls for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians seem to impact the ‘unbreakable bond’ between Washington and Tel Aviv.
But throughout the discussion and rage over Smotrich’s comments, many of us, wittingly or otherwise, ignored some fundamental facts about racism in Israel and its founding Zionist ideology:
First, Smotrich is a high-ranking elected official and a member of the most stable government in Israel in years. He is not an aberration. His extremist ideology is now the mainstream thinking in Israel’s “most rightwing government in history”.
Second, Smotrich’s call for the destruction of Huwwara is not an alien position in Israel’s history of ethnic cleansing and “incremental genocide”. Aside from the destruction and depopulation of over 500 villages and towns in historic Palestine during the Nakba of 1947-48, Israel’s colonial expansion in the Occupied Territory is a continuation of the same violent legacy. Every illegal Israeli Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem stands atop Palestinian land, be it the ruins of an ethnically cleansed village, an orchard or a privately owned farm. Numerous Huwwaras had to be ‘wiped out’ for this colonial regime to be sustained.
Third, the map of the so-called “Greater Israel” is not a recent invention, neither by Smotrich, Ben-Gvir nor even Netanyahu himself. In fact, it is older than the state of Israel, as it was adopted by Zionist Revisionist groups, such as the Betar movement and the Irgun, who played a critical role in the establishment of Israel over the ruins of Palestine.
And, finally, the racist notion that Palestinians do not exist, although functional in terms of dehumanizing Palestinians, is also an old trope. It is directly linked to the old Zionist slogan that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land”. Many derivatives of this racist colonial slogan were uttered by Israeli politicians throughout the years, the most famous of which being that of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in an interview with the Sunday Times in 1969. “There were no such thing as Palestinians … They did not exist,” she said.
Though the world may have grown less tolerant of such racism, Israel itself remained the same. Indeed, the Smotrich and Ben-Gvir generation is but the logical descendant of that of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Therefore, condemning Smotrich’s comments, while continuing to embrace Israel and celebrate Zionism is not only hypocritical, but also useless.
Smotrich knows this well, thus his continued racism, desire for colonial expansion, and outright call for the destruction of entire Palestinian communities.