In Israel, Smotrich isn't just one bigoted apple. The entire political system is rotten

In Israel, Smotrich isn't just one bigoted apple. The entire political system is rotten
5 min read
28 Feb, 2022
Far-right Israeli politician Bezalel Smotrich’s visit to the UK rightfully drew condemnation from the Jewish community and beyond, but his bigotry cannot be separated from the policies of the state he represents, writes Sara Husseini.
Smotrich celebrates with far right Israelis on the anniversary of Israel's capture of East Jerusalem, chanting slogans such as "Death to Arabs" at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on June 15, 2021. [Getty]

Earlier this month, Israeli parliamentarian Bezalel Smotrich touched down in the UK. His visit, reportedly to meet with “UK Jewish communities”, quickly drew near-universal condemnation from across the spectrum of the British Jewish community, and many others, for his extremist views.

We should all be concerned about, and indeed outraged by, someone who has declared himself “a proud homophobe”, supported the segregation of Jewish and Palestinian women on maternity wards, and abused fellow Knesset members - Palestinian citizens of Israel - saying it was a “mistake that Ben-Gurion didn't finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948”.

At the same time, it is important to remember that Smotrich is only one individual. In fact, for every day that he was touring Europe, Israeli authorities were carrying out material and systematic acts of discrimination and racism throughout the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

"For every day that [Smotrich] was touring Europe, Israeli authorities were carrying out material and systematic acts of discrimination and racism throughout the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea"

Two days before Smotrich landed in the UK, the first reading of the bill known as “The Citizenship Law” passed in the Israeli Knesset. The law, which had been in place as a renewable emergency law for 18 years before it expired in July 2021, prevents Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza from living with their spouses on the other side of the Green Line. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Interior Minister, was unapologetic in citing “demographic reasons”, code for sustaining a Jewish demographic hegemony.

As Smotrich began his visit to France, on February 12, his fellow member of the Religious Zionism Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced the opening of his “office” on land forcibly seized by Jewish settlers from the Salem family, in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Images of Ben-Gvir together with a group of far-right ethno-nationalists dancing and singing racist chants at the Palestinian community, quickly spread. Some attacked the Salem family and their property with stones and pepper spray, including 70-year old Fatima, the family matriarch.

Underpinning the actions of this far-right mob is a discriminatory law which allows Jewish Israeli citizens to take control of property they claim was acquired in Jerusalem before 1948.

There is no such provision for Palestinians who lost property during that same period, despite the fact that all of the families facing expulsion in Sheikh Jarrah are prevented from returning to their original homes in Jaffa, West Jerusalem and other areas now inside the State of Israel.

For more than 30 years, the Salem family have had little choice but to engage in a legal battle in the Israeli courts to stay in their home, despite Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem contravening international law and consensus.

On January 31, it was announced that the family could be forcibly expelled as early as March 1. Popular protest has forced the court to suspend the expulsion for the time being, but that will only be a temporary comfort, as the family's fate remains at the whim of an occupying power.

Voices

These are but two examples of the many ways in which the laws and policies of the State of Israel systematically privilege one group of people over another. 

Forced expulsions, home demolitions, residency revocations, mass political arrests, and the routine maiming and killing of Palestinians serve to subjugate one group of people, while the expansion of Jewish-only settlements throughout the West Bank privileges another group of people in the same area of territory - in violation of international law and contradiction to international consensus, including British government policy.

This is what Palestinians face on a daily basis, what Palestinian scholars, lawyers, and human rights defenders have been describing for decades, and what has led two major international human rights organisations and Israel’s own largest human rights organisation to conclude that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid - the most recent being Amnesty International, barely a week before Smotrich landed in the UK.

"Smotrich’s visit and the reaction it prompted should be an invitation to look beneath the surface, and examine the underlying systems and institutions someone like him represents"

Smotrich’s visit and the reaction it prompted should be an invitation to look beneath the surface, and examine the underlying systems and institutions someone like him represents.

It is an opportunity to question the distance between his views and that of other representatives of the State of Israel, and reflect on the ways in which the bigotry he so proudly espouses is experienced daily by Palestinians in Israeli laws and practices.

It must come with a challenge of the fundamental inconsistency in condemning the racism of one Israeli parliamentarian, while at the same time smearing a human rights report detailing persistent and systemic acts of racism by the State in whose parliament he sits.

It is also an invitation to listen, especially to the people and communities that are most affected. When Palestinians refer to Israeli policies as racist or apply the legal term of apartheid, this must not be shut down as anti-Semitic or dismissed out of hand as “unhelpful rhetoric”.

It should be a prompt to engage, deeply and seriously, with the facts presented and the lived experience of people like Fatima Salem and her family.

It was absolutely right to raise the alarm about Smotrich, who has come and - thankfully - gone. But his bigotry cannot be opposed in isolation from the policies of the state he represents. Don’t neglect the bigger picture – we Palestinians have no such luxury.

Dr. Sara Husseini is Director of the British Palestinian Council, an independent voice on British policy towards Palestine. She has previously served as an advisor to the PLO, including the Chief Negotiator and Palestinian Ambassador to Germany.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.