Hundreds of American Jews gathered inside and outside of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on Sunday to protest against the presence of Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who was granted a US visa despite calls for him to be barred entry into the country.
The far-right minister addressed the Israel Bonds national leadership summit, just two weeks after calling for Israel to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwwara.
Smotrich spoke to about 150 leaders at the private event for Israel Bonds, which sells Israeli government bonds to investors abroad, and attempted to gain continued support for Israel’s economy.
At the hotel where the event was taking place, the organisation Jewish Voice for Peace demonstrated inside, while Jewish groups including J Street, T’ruah, IfNotNow, and the New Israel Fund led a rally outside. People outside chanted and held banners with phrases such as: “No blank check for pogroms” and “No democracy under apartheid.”
IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish organisation, said that seven of its members were arrested by DC Metro Police.
“There can be no democracy under an apartheid system that dispossesses Palestinians,” IfNotNow member, Ellie Cooper, said in a statement.
“The freedom of Palestinians, Jews, and all others can only come from a free and equal society. This evening, American Jews from all walks of life affirmed that we will strive for such a society.”
In February, as hundreds of Israeli settlers attacked Huwwara, Smotrich said: “I think the village of Huwwara needs to be wiped out.”
At least one Palestinian was killed and nearly 400 were wounded in settler attacks on Huwwara and other occupied West Bank towns and villages in the Nablus area on 26 February. Hundreds of Israeli settlers, flanked by soldiers, attacked Palestinians and torched their cars and properties, following a shooting that killed two Israelis in Huwwara earlier that day.
At the conference in Washington, Smotrich walked back his comments and addressed “the elephant in the room”, he said.
“As I have already said and written and repeat now with sincere regret, my comments about Huwwara created a completely mistaken impression,” he said.
“I stand before you now as always committed to the security of the state of Israel, to our shared values, and to the highest moral commitment of our armed forces to protect every innocent life, Jew or Arab.”
Calls to ban Smotrich from US
The US condemned Smotrich’s “wiped out” comments last week. State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials to “publicly and clearly” disavow those comments.
“I want to be very clear about this. These comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant. They were disgusting,” Price told reporters. “And just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.”
Last week, a growing number of rights and advocacy groups called for the US to issue an entry ban on Smotrich. Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn) called for both Smotrich’s visa to be revoked and for him to face sanctions.
Among those calling for a ban on Smotrich’s entry were also Jewish groups, including T’ruah, a Jewish human rights group representing more than 2,300 rabbis and cantors in North America.
And despite the pressure to deny him entry into the country, the US approved the “diplomatic visa” request for Smotrich. The White House announced that although he would be entering the US, the administration would not be meeting with him.
Israel Bonds continued to defend itself for hosting the far-right minister. In a statement, the organisation said that it does not endorse the 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. To date, Israel Bonds has secured 48 billion dollars for Israel,” the organisation said. “In other words, there are forty-eight billion reasons to keep Israel Bonds out of politics.”
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