WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials will not meet with Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli finance minister who called for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” then backtracked, and who is visiting the United States next week to meet with leaders of Israel Bonds, a U.S. organization.
At least five liberal Jewish groups want the U.S. government to consider barring Smotrich from coming here. Ned Price, the department’s spokesman, said at Thursday’s daily briefing that questions on Israeli ministers’ travel should be referred to Israel, and that he does not comment on the eligibility of individuals to enter the United States.
The trip comes as Smotrich and his far-right allies in Israel’s governing coalition have upended traditions of comity between establishment U.S. Jewish groups and Israel. Those relationships have become even more strained in recent days after Israeli West Bank settlers rioted in a Palestinian village following a shooting attack there. They also come amid raucous protests of the Israeli government’s plan to sap the power of the judiciary, which critics say endanger minority rights.
William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Smotrich’s remarks were “disgusting,” and a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, said the group would not be meeting with him.
Smotrich is also responsible for civilian affairs in much of the West Bank. His call to “wipe out” the West Bank village of Huwara came after a settler rampage through the village following a shooting there that killed two Israeli brothers. At least one Palestinian in another village died amid the riots.
“I think the village of Huwara should be wiped out, I think that the state of Israel should do it,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. A few hours later, he walked back his statement: “To remove any doubt, in my words I did not mean wiping out the village of Huwara, but rather acting in a targeted way against terrorists and supporters of terror, and exacting a heavy price from them in order to return security to local residents.”
This week, the State Department’s annual report on terrorism recorded a “substantial rise” in settler attacks on Palestinian in 2021, the first time it had made such an assessment. On Wednesday, Price called Smotrich’s remarks about wiping out the village “disgusting” and “incitement to violence.”
“Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence,” Price said in his briefing that day. “We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments.”
Netanyahu has yet to do so, and with Smotrich just days away from a visit stateside to give a speech to Israel Bonds in Washington D.C., five Jewish groups are saying the Biden administration should at least consider keeping him out and others will not sit down with him. AIPAC’s declining to meet with Smotrich is particularly noteworthy. It routinely meets with senior Israeli ministers.
“The administration should make clear that comments promoting grave violations of human rights, such as those made by Smotrich, are grounds for re-examination of a visa for entry to the United States,” J Street, the liberal Jewish Israel policy group, said in a statement.
Four other Jewish groups are saying outright that the Biden administration should keep Smotrich out, among them Americans for Peace Now, an affiliate off the Israeli left-wing group; the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel; T’ruah, a liberal rabbinic human rights group; and Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group.
The T’ruah statement referred to U.S. immigration law, which bans entry to those who have “incited terrorist activity with intent to cause serious bodily harm or death.” It said the threat Smotrich poses is especially acute since he assumed responsibility for administering civilian life in parts of the West Bank.
“Smotrich’s comments are even more dangerous now that Israel’s de jure annexation of the West Bank has made him effectively the governor of the territory, with broad oversight over most areas of civil administration,” the T’ruah statement said.
IPF, a group led by former lay leaders of mainstream pro-Israel organizations, also joined the calls. its policy director, Michael Koplow, told JTA, “We believe that there are sufficient grounds to deny Smotrich a visa.”
The Americans for Peace Now petition, addressed to Biden, garnered more than 1,100 signatures less than a day after it was posted.
“Smotrich wants to bring his hatred to US soil. He has plans to travel to the United States later this month. We’re here to say that he is not welcome,” the petition says. “We have seen how incitement in Israel-Palestine has led to devastating violence and we urge your administration to deny entry to Smotrich and his hateful rhetoric.”
A sixth U.S.-based liberal group, the New Israel Fund, which raises money for social justice organizations in Israel, said Jewish groups should make clear Smotrich is unwanted here. “Our responsibility right now as American Jews is to say ‘take your hateful racism, your homophobia your plans for an apartheid Israel and get out. We do not want you here’,” it said in a statement. Smotrich has called himself a “proud homophobe.”
Daroff, of the Conference of Presidents, declined to comment to JTA on whether he would meet with Smotrich. But he tweeted his agreement with Price. “I agree. His statement seeking to ‘wipe out’ Huwara was, as Ned Price said, ‘irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting’,” he wrote.
Israel Bonds, which promotes investment in Israeli government bonds, said in a statement that because it works closely with the Finance Ministry, welcoming the sitting finance minister to its events was a matter of routine. Smotrich will speak to the group’s Washington, D.C. leadership meeting.
“As part of their long-established responsibilities, Israel’s finance ministers from across the political spectrum have historically, over Israel Bonds’ 72-year history, attended our events,” a spokesman said, replying to a JTA query. “One of the organization’s most unique and paramount attributes is that it remains unbiased with regard to any political party or affiliation.”
Hundreds of rabbis have said they would not welcome Smotrich or his allies into their synagogues and would encourage their communities to boycott him. The Presidents’ Conference did not invite ministers from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party to address its annual colloquy in Israel last month, although they were invited to a luncheon for all Knesset members.
One group that backs settlements, the Zionist Organization of America, said not meeting with Religious Zionism leaders was a mistake.
‘Nobody has to agree with them or disagree with them,” Klein said. “But they should speak and whoever wants to challenge them, challenge them, criticize them, disagree with them.”