This article originally appeared in “The Landline,” +972’s weekly newsletter. Subscribe here.
A few years ago, having just arrived in Israel-Palestine on a research trip, I was in a cab going from the airport to Tel Aviv when we drove past a huge Hebrew billboard reading “Father and Mother = Family,” and below, “The courage to be normal.” It was Pride month, although the vast majority of tourists who travel to Tel Aviv for the event each year – and will surely have worn the same sign – would not have understood what they were looking at.
Many such posters were displayed around the country at the time, as part of a homophobic campaign by an organization called Hazon (“Vision”), whose members co-founded the anti-LGBTQ party Noam — of which Knesset now sitting in Avi. Maoz, who is also a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Maoz understandably focused most of the concerns about how poorly Israel’s ruling coalition is doing things for the queer community — especially since his new responsibilities include controlling outside programs in schools. But comments leaked by their electoral colleague, leader of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich, remind that the threat posed by the new government to LGBTQ people is coming from multiple directions, including some of the most powerful people in office.
In the recording, which was made in the last few months, Smotrich can be heard telling a supporter that basically, no matter what he does for the LGBTQ community, he won’t lose voters because of it. Why? Because those he considers his base, Mizrahi Jews visual, “don’t give a damn [about ‘gays’].” Furthermore, he continues, his biggest asset as far as his voters are concerned is his anti-Palestinian record – specifically, his refusal to sit with the Islamic Ra’am party he was part of of the previous ruling coalition.
In many ways, Smotrich’s comments merely reaffirm what is already common knowledge. We know he is a committed homophobe. He broadcasts that fact himself; it’s part of Smotrich’s brand – from protesting against Pride parades and calling them a “bite” to declaring himself a “proud homophobe”. His level of malice towards pure people is perfectly illustrated by the quid pro quo he suggests in the leaked recording: “I won’t listen to gay people [to death], and you will not force me to eat shrimp.” The right to keep kosher and the right to defend against violent death are, apparently, on equal footing.
We know, too, that anti-Palestinian racism — the kind of degenerate persecution that celebrates its own violence — is the central value that unites most parties in power, and that animates many of its voters. Smotrich understands this well, which is why his assessment that he can do what he likes to other minority communities is almost certainly accurate, as long as he hits the Palestinians the hardest of all.
But it is telling that Smotrich chose to project this calculus onto the Mizrahim in his constituency, since no group in Israeli-Jewish society has a monopoly on anti-Palestinian hatred, and since his base is more traditional, mostly Ashkenazi. A religious-Zionist minority has led the obsessive culture wars against LGBTQ people in recent years. Perhaps this is just Smotrich’s way of showing that he has increased his appeal, even as he chooses a predictable racist expression to do so by claiming that it is Mizrahim above all who are governed by their hatred of the Arabs.
Whatever Smotrich’s true motivations are behind his comments, one thing is clear: the Israeli far-right’s engagement with the discerning public is escalating from social incitement campaigns to institutional harassment and possible persecution. This combined approach has always informed Israel’s pressure on the Palestinians. But as history has shown us time and time again, a state designed to exclude a particular group will never stop naming new targets. As well as wondering how well it’s going to get worse for those on the far right, then, there’s another pressing question: who’s next?