Opinion |

Is Bezalel Smotrich the Future of Israel?

Habayit Hayehudi's rising star is seen as a bizarre, racist, homophobic extremist, who is of no interest except for his weirdness. But disregarding him is dangerously wrong.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, December 7, 2016.
Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, December 7, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Last weekend Ravit Hecht published an excellent portrait of Bezalel Smotrich, the rising star of the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi. Most secular Israelis primarily know three things about him: He said that he understands why his wife does not want to give birth alongside an Arab woman; that Reform Judaism is a “fake religion,” and that he had declared himself a “proud homophobe.” In brief: He is seen as a bizarre, racist, homophobic extremist, who is of no interest except for his weirdness.

Hecht, who got to know Smotrich well, paints a very different picture: Smotrich is not only a very crafty politician who has made a name for himself within a very short time in the Knesset, but an intellectually sharp mind with remarkable secular knowledge. He has an MA in international law, of which he makes skillful use in his argument for Israel’s right to annex all of the West Bank.

Most of all, Smotrich has a highly coherent, well-defined world view based on a single starting point: All of the greater Land of Israel belongs to the Jews by virtue of God’s decree. No human-made law can compete with God’s will.

Once this is fully accepted, he argues, it is clear that Israel must annex all of the West Bank, abort any Palestinian hope for a national home and leave them three choices: To leave, to fight against Israel and be destroyed mercilessly, or to accept living under Israeli rule. It seems pretty clear to me on the basis of other interviews he has given that he would give them the status of “Ger Toshav”, i.e. an inhabitant without political and voting rights. Smotrich comes across as suave, charming, with a good sense of humor, and has proven time and again that he knows how to handle secular media well. But while he does not say so explicitly, he is a full blown messianic believer. He has stated in other interviews that the Third Temple may come into being at any time; and his belief that the world will accept Jewish rule over the greater Land of Israel is ultimately theologically based on the many prophecies that the gentiles will recognize God’s kingdom on Earth and the Jewish people as the chosen people, and that Truth and Wisdom emanate from Zion.

For most secular Israelis, this makes him an extremist nutcase, and yet religious nationalism is taking over Israel’s education system and gaining an ever-stronger foothold in the IDF. This gradual takeover of central Israeli institutions by religious nationalism in part hinges on the craftiness of its politicians who use every bit of their leverage to transform the country in the vein of their ideology.

But there is a deeper reason for religious nationalism’s success: An ever-growing part of Israelis drifts towards this religious form of ultra-nationalism that portrays Jews as the superior, chosen people with God-given rights that trump simple, man-made notions like human rights and gender equality.

Psychology has long ago given a convincing explanation for phenomena like Israelis’ willingness to embrace this world view. Cognitive dissonance theory, one of the most successful paradigms in social psychology, has shown for half a century that, in the long run, human beings cannot live feeling that what they do is bad. If they cannot stop doing it, they change their beliefs to the point where they feel justified in acting as they do.

Israel has been an occupying power for almost fifty years, and two Israeli generations have grown up knowing nothing else. Many Israelis simply try to repress this inconvenient fact, and no longer want to be reminded of it. But a growing number of Israelis avoid feeling guilty by gradually adopting the national-religious ideology that justifies Israel’s actions.

This is why disregarding the likes of Bezalel Smotrich is dangerously wrong. Smotrich is an expression of the Israeli unconscious. His belief that Jews are the chosen people with more rights than others, is a religious version of the white supremacism that has been raising its ugly head through Trump’s election. And while I do not know how to fight the national-religious mentality, liberal-secular Israelis should take it very seriously. It may well be Israel’s future.

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