Hundreds from Jewish groups protest Smotrich's meeting in Washington
Over the weekend, hundreds of Jews from different groups demonstrated against far-right Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich's visit to Washington, DC.
On a rainy Sunday evening, a crowd of several dozen gathered across the street from the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown. As the evening continued, hundreds more showed up outside the hotel. The groups ranged from the leftist Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, Americans for Peace now, the more centrist J Street, to the relatively new, more pro-Israel UnXeptable.
Many demonstrators from across the spectrum held signs condemning Smotrich, who has called himself a "homophobic fascist". Where they diverged was how they described Israel. Where they diverged was in their descriptions of Israel. Many left-wing protesters were carrying signs reading "No Democracy Under Apartheid", while on the other side of the police tape at the hotel's entrance, were signs reading "Save Israeli Democracy".
"I'm with Jewish Voice for Peace. We're calling for the end of unconditional US military aid to Israel at the tune of US$3.8 billion a year in US taxpayer dollars," Evelyn Frankl, demonstrating with JVP, told The New Arab.
"We're also calling for divestment from Israel bonds. More than 90 state and municipal governments in the US spend over US$3 billion, in addition to universities and synagogues, etc., to invest in Israeli bonds. Altogether that amounts to well over US$6 billion a year. It's something we can do something about. Barring that, I don't see the Israel government stopping the policies they've been implementing against Palestinians that amount to apartheid," she said, adding that it's US funding that enables these policies.
This weekend's demonstration in Washington was one of many across the United States held by Jewish leaders and activists condemning Israel's far-right government, part of a growing trend since the new government was voted in last year, uniting different segments of the Jewish community.
"In the wake of the horrific pogrom in Hawara, [Smotrich] said it should be levelled. That was the impetus for a lot of coming out from across the political spectrum saying: this man doesn't stand for us. This man doesn't represent what we believe in as Jews," Josh Burg, a volunteer with IfNotNow DC, told TNA.
What has long been the domain of leftist groups like JVP or pro-Israel liberal groups like J Street is now being joined pro-Israel centrist groups like unXceptable. However, though they all showed up to protest Smotrich, there were clear ideological divisions between the groups, who largely stayed amongst themselves.
"It's really a question of what folks see as the problem," said Burg. "For the folks next to us, we agree with them. We agree that the current Israeli government is really a shame for who we are as a Jewish people. But we go a little bit further. We say it's not just about individual leaders."
"It's not just about one bad apple. It's the whole system that's rotten to the core. The Israeli government has been ruling over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for decades now. And individual leaders like Smotrich are just a symptom of the deeper problem of occupation and apartheid," he said.
Burg said that when his group was singing about peace, the more conservative group drowned them out with louder noise. In at least one instance, a demonstrator in a section of Israeli flag wavers told someone carrying a Palestinian flag that he was in the wrong place.
Nevertheless, the more left-leaning demonstrators seemed to appreciate the high turnout, even with their divergent views.
Burg said, "We want as many people as possible to be coming out and saying what's happening in Israel right now is wrong. And we want to push people to go in that next step. Ultimately, we're very happy to see people waking up to the reality that we've been seeing for decades."
The demonstration lasted until late in the evening without Smotrich emerging from the hotel. A group of rabbis wearing t-shirts reading "Another Rabbi for Divestment" were escorted out of the hotel by police, and no other protesters were allowed to enter the hotel after that. The protesters say they will continue their regular demonstrations against the far-right Israeli government for the foreseeable future.