The ancient Jewish practice of cherem, variously described as “ban,” “separation from the Jewish community” and “excommunication,” is rarely invoked today. But just last week the Board of Deputies of British Jews, U.K. Jewry’s mainstream umbrella organization, placed a cherem of sorts on Israeli MK Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of a small religious ultranationalist Jewish faction in the Knesset that is currently in opposition.
Smotrich was in Britain to drum up opposition to the Israeli government’s plan to reform state-controlled Jewish religious services. But the Board of Deputies wanted no part of Smotrich or his message. Indeed, they didn’t even want to hear what he had to say. Their tweets were clear: “We call on all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever.”
The unusually direct and dismissive approach of the Board of Deputies prompted the expected responses. Those offended by many of the highly charged and discriminatory statements made by Smotrich over the years applauded the move. And those more sympathetic to his ultranationalist views or who otherwise support his political objectives were critical. But everyone recognized that the unusual pronouncement of the normally staid Board of Deputies of British Jews was significant.
Smotrich, the youthful-looking politician who heads the right-wing Religious Zionism Party, brought a lot of weighty baggage to his confrontation with the British arm of Diaspora Jewry, including years of anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. His nasty, demeaning statements about Israel’s Arab population and ill-informed and accusatory proclamations about gays are just plain offensive.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews was so offended by Smotrich’s intolerance and racism that they wanted to silence him entirely. For an establishment organization to take such an aggressive public position regarding a visiting Israeli MK must have required significant internal deliberation and discussion. And the result was understandable, even if we would have reached a different conclusion.
We have long supported engagement, dialogue and respectful debate even with those with whom we disagree. Smotrich and his intolerant views fall squarely in the category of someone with whom we disagree strongly. But he is an elected representative of the Israeli people, and he represents a significant constituency of Israelis. Shunning and refusing to engage with him and his supporters seems the least effective way to convince them to rethink their views. Instead, if the logic and wisdom of contrary views is as compelling as the Board of Deputies believes, why not engage, expose and educate Smotrich and others, and lead them to acceptance of a more tolerant and reasoned position?
We are also concerned that the Board of Deputies’ “dismissal” of those with perceived offensive views could encourage others to follow suit, with the result that engagement and dialogue on important issues will cease. No one gains from that approach. As much as we disagree with the hateful rhetoric and intolerant views of Bezalel Smotrich, the better course would have been to engage with him in respectful dialogue and make clear why he is wrong.