Blue-eyed Bezalel Smotrich, 35, is good with words. An increasingly noticeable figure on the far right – he eschews the term “extreme” – Smotrich is not one to stumble when he speaks. No “uhms” or “you knows” from this handsome father of five with the perennial five o’clock stubble and the big knitted kippa on his head.
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Indeed, Smotrich, a settler and former youth activist who studied law and plays classical piano, and was elected to parliament last year on the nationalist religious Habayit Hayehudi’s roster – today he serves as the Knesset’s deputy speaker – is the kind of person who is very calculated with language.
Take his use, or rather his selective refusal to use, the word “terrorist.”
By definition, claims Smotrich, a Jew cannot and should not ever be called a terrorist in Israel. The lawmaker has been making this argument over and again recently – first in an article he penned last month for B’Sheva, a newspaper closely linked to the settler movement, and then repeatedly on his Facebook page, on various radio talk shows, and finally during a long interview Friday evening with Channel 2, Israel’s most popular commercial television channel.
This is no mild academic note or simple semantic quibble on Smotrich’s part. It comes at an explosive time, after two young Jewish settlers were indicted in connection to a July firebombing attack in the West Bank village of Duma.
Three members of the Palestinian Dawabsheh family – including 18-month-old Ali – were burned to death in that widely condemned attack.
“The murder in Duma, with all its severity, is not a terror attack. Period. Those who call it terror are perverting the truth, unjustifiably inflicting great harm to human and civil rights and cheapening the concept of terror,” Smotrich wrote in B’Sheva, his comments clearly aimed at the government and its Shin Bet security service, which cracked down hard on the Jewish suspects, placing them, as it does with Palestinian terror suspects, in administrative detention, barring them from meeting lawyers and reportedly interrogating them using harsh tactics.
“Terror is exclusively violence by an enemy as part of a war against us, and only this justifies the harsh steps taken [by the security forces],” Smotrich continues, explaining his logic. The Shin Bet, he concludes, has “crossed all red lines.”
Smotrich does not condone the violence in Duma. Far from it. If indeed the Jewish suspects are found guilty of murder, Smotrich says he assumes they will be jailed for life – and he is fine with that. He repeatedly calls their deeds “terrible.” Smotrich feels the same way about the young men filmed recently as they danced and celebrated at a Jerusalem wedding, waving knives, rifles, pistols and a Molotov cocktail aloft, along with a photograph of the murdered Dawabsheh infant – which they stabbed with knives.
But still, as Smotrich charged in the Channel 2 interview, none of these Jewish murder suspects or wedding dancers should be called terrorists or terror supporters. Rather, he prefers to call them “well-intentioned youngsters” gone astray, unable to “overcome their disappointment” with the realities in Israel.
“They are on the very fringe,” he stresses, but then adds: “Like many of us, they are disappointed. The difference is that they are impatient and can’t deal with complexities It takes a lot of patience not to lose one’s mind here.”
In his article, he insinuates that this very government attitude is actually to blame for driving would-be perpetrators to carry out more violent anti-Arab attacks.
A government that “treats the most moral population in the State of Israel as a terror-supporting population loses its right to exist,” he writes. “When you push an entire community up against the wall, treat its [members] like terrorists, demonize it, trample on its rights, it ultimately explodes. Let no one be surprised when this should happen, when more and more people will be pushed, against their will, to carry out actions that are forbidden.”
Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads Habayit Hayehudi, publicly distanced himself from his young party member’s remarks. “Anyone who throws a firebomb at a house is a terrorist. Period,” Bennett tweeted.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, when calling on all Knesset members to condemn Arab terror Monday night, also singled out Smotrich, urging him, in turn, to denounce Jewish terror. “We are in the midst of a wave of terror attacks and murders, and I expect all parliamentarians to condemn these criminal acts,” Netanyahu demanded.
The current discussion over who can and should be called a terrorist is not the first instance in which the young parliamentarian who lives in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim has been caught nipping at Netanyahu and Bennett’s heels, scoring points with the more radical elements of the right. Smotrich, not a fan of the word “radical,” prefers to call his followers, he tells Channel 2, “the hard right.”
His first brush with the spotlight came a decade ago when, as a leader of the movement against the Gaza disengagement, he was put under surveillance and then arrested by the Shin Bet on suspicion of conspiring to disrupt and prevent the evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Strip. Reportedly caught with 700 liters of fuel and oil, Smotrich and four others were held in detention for several weeks before being released without charges.
Since then, throughout his time directing the settler rights NGO Regavim (an organization that claims its mission is to “preserve national lands,” which has come under fire for its allegedly racist agenda against Arabs), his days in the small far-right Tekuma political party, and increasingly this past year as a member of parliament, Smotrich has been making headlines. One of his first moves as a newly-minted Knesset member was to argue that developers in Israel should not have to sell homes to Arabs if they don’t feel like it. “Whoever wants to let Jews live a Jewish life without non-Jews is not a racist,” he stated.
But settlements, Palestinians, Arabs and terror are not the only issues Smotrich wants to talk about. He also has some nuggets to sprinkle on debates about a variety of subjects: When the report on poverty came out last month, for example, showing that one in three children in Israel is living below the poverty line, Smotrich all but laughed away the findings. “I have five children, and I do not think that two of them are hungry,” he retorted.
Smotrich has also been sharing his feelings about the LGBT community for years, starting in 2006, when he infamously helped organize the “Beast Parade,” in which he and his friends marched in the streets of Jerusalem with goats and donkeys as a way of spotlighting so-called “deviant acts,” and mocking the gay pride parade in the city. Although he has since distanced himself from that particular event, he remains opposed to gay marriage, continues to refer to gays as “abnormal” and has accused the LGBT community of controlling the media so as to silence views like his.
In a Facebook post last year he called the anti-violence protests following the stabbing of six people at the gay pride parade in Jerusalem – and the attack in Duma, which happened the very next day – a “left-wing witch hunt,” aimed at “inciting against and silencing” anyone who opposed the protestors’ views.
And, at a recent discussion with high-school students in Ramat Gan, Smotrich described himself as a “proud homophobe.” “I was just throwing it out there. I did not pay much attention to the language,” he later said, a rare admission from the word master.
“In any case, being a homophobe would mean I am afraid of homos, and I am not,” he added in the Channel 2 interview. “I am not afraid of homos or of Arabs I am not afraid of anything.”
Last week in parliament, Smotrich took the stand in the plenary and, citing as a reference the weekly Torah portion from Genesis, announced calmly that: “There is no such thing as Palestinians.”
Then, as members of the opposition yelled at him from their seats, he glanced up, his signature half-smile playing on his lips. “What, my friends, what have I said that is making you upset?” he sing-songed. “My friends in the opposition, we will annex [the West Bank], whether you want it or not. This is our Land of Israel. It was given to us by God.”
And then Smotrich raised his shoulders in a half shrug, as if to say: “What? Did I say something controversial?”