Hundreds of Israeli and American Jewish protesters gathered Sunday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the District as a three-day Israel Bonds leadership conference featuring Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as keynote speaker got underway.
The protesters condemned Israel Bonds for inviting Smotrich to speak, calling him a threat to Israel’s democracy and economy.
The protesters were crammed closely together by Metropolitan Police, who insisted they stay on the sidewalk and out of the entry to the hotel.
Smotrich, a leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has been under fire since he called for the Palestinian village of Huwara in the West Bank to be “wiped out” to end violence there. He later apologized to the Israel Defense Forces, saying that he was unaware that his words could be interpreted as an order to attack the village. In the past, Smotrich, an Orthodox Jew, has also made statements denigrating LGBTQ people and Arabs.
But the incident and the government’s judicial overhaul push brought out on Sunday even veteran supporters of Israel to protest the staid Israel Bonds organization’s association with Smotrich.
Some members of anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace entered the hotel atrium but were forced out by hotel security. They had planned to “take over the hotel’s atrium, planning to transform it into a Beit Midrash” or study hall, the group said in a statement.
Israel Bonds, a venerable Zionist institution, defended its invitation, noting in its 72-year history, it has always featured either the Israeli minister of finance or senior members of his staff, regardless of politics.
“We continue to maintain that any attempt to politicize Israel Bonds is unhelpful and misplaced. Israel Bonds does not endorse any political position of any politician, administration, or ideology. That is why we hope people will recognize the importance of ensuring politics does not impact our good work,” the organization said in a statement.
“To date, Israel Bonds has secured 48 billion dollars for Israel. In other words, there are forty-eight billion reasons to keep Israel Bonds out of politics,” according to the statement.At a press conference before Sunday’s protest, speakers hinted that they and other Jews may take their money elsewhere.
Susie Gelman, a philanthropist who chairs the Israel Policy Forum, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, said she hoped Jews throughout the Diaspora would continue to make philanthropic contributions to Israel while still making their voices heard.
However, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul becomes law, she believes there will be a shift in where the donations are directed.
“Money will go to those who support Israeli democracy,” Gelman said, adding. “I personally am not cutting back on my philanthropy. I may redirect.”
The Israeli government, in which Smotrich serves as a key leader, wants to pass legislation that would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn a Supreme Court decision. That would prevent certain legislation from facing judicial review, according to Gelman and the other speakers at the press conference.
Gelman cited a letter signed by her and other prominent Jews “who care deeply about the security and well-being of the State of Israel.” The signees noted their opposition to “the racism and incitement” they attributed to Smotrich.
American Jewish support for Israel “will be harmed by the actions of this government. We are in unchartered territory,” Gelman said. “This is a struggle for democracy, tolerance, equality and human rights.”
Another speaker at the press conference, Dany Bahar, associate professor at the Watson Institute of Brown University, said Israel’s shekel already is depreciating, and he fears that international venture capital money will dry up and Israeli start-up workers will leave the country.
“The start-up nation that we all know is under attack,” he said, adding, “This is a crisis of Israel’s own making.”
“What an irony this is,” that Israel’s enemies couldn’t do what its own government is doing, Bahar said during the press conference. “Capital is flowing out of the country. Business and investors are questioning whether they will see return on their investments if the independence of the judiciary is jeopardized.”
Outside the hotel, along 11th and H Streets, a multitude of people representing area synagogues and left-leaning organizations chanted, sang songs, waved Israeli flags and listened to speakers who called Smotrich a homophobe, someone who doesn’t consider Reform Jews Jewish, a supporter of segregated maternity wards for Jews and non-Jews and a person who considers women subservient.
Several members of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda attended the protest.
“Just like [former President Donald] Trump was endangering our democracy in America, I feel Netanyahu is, too. This is too important not to be here,” said Anne Rayman of Rockville. “Religion to me is all about ethics.”
Fellow congregant Charlie Richman of Bethesda said he grew up hearing stories how his mother collected pennies to buy land in Israel, and he has always been a strong Israel supporter.
However, he said, “There is no possible way we can front this kind of government.”
Cathy Schneider of Washington, D.C., said, “I’m horrified at the acceleration of what has been a regime that rests on racial exclusion.”
Senior Rabbi Jonathan Roos of Temple Sinai in D.C. was at the protest with more than 15 congregants. “We are here to continue to stand against hate and for democracy,” he said. “We believe in a Jewish homeland that’s democratic and not driven by hate.”
Rabbi Esther Lederman from the Union for Reform Judaism urged Jews to raise their voices. “I understand you are used to protecting her,” she said of Israel, but now is the time to protest. She called Smotrich “a fascist homophobe.”
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, called Smotrich’s views “unacceptable,” adding, “We cannot normalize this. We, the American Jewish community, will not stand idly by. This is a moral emergency.”
As the many speakers riled up the crowd, participants chanted such things as “Two, four, six, eight, We don’t want your racist hate,” and “No more racist settlement crime.” Many carried signs, including, “Human rights are not for sale. Not even for Israel” and “Smotrich Supports Genocide” and “Shame on Smotrich,” and “UnXeptable.”
Many protesters also carried signs calling for a two-state solution and support for the Palestinians.The protesters were active in T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund, J Street and many other organizations.
Members of J Street tweeted, “We are here to drown out hatred and other violent rhetoric with unity and songs of peace.”
That criticism has manifested itself in a widespread boycott of Smotrich’s visit — a change of pace for Jewish organizations that are generally eager to meet with senior Israeli officials. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is snubbing Smotrich, and so is the Biden administration. His only known quasi-governmental interaction this week will be a guided tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Aside from his Israel Bonds appearance, Smotrich is meeting with officials from just two Jewish organizations, the Orthodox Union and the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, one of the few U.S. groups to support the judicial reform.
“The hateful views long expressed by Minister Smotrich are abhorrent, are opposed by a majority of Israeli citizens, and run contrary to Jewish values,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington said in a statement. “No public servant should ever condone or incite hatred or hate-motivated violence, and when they do, they will be fiercely condemned by a wide swath of American Jewry.”
Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.
Ron Kampeas of Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this article.