newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Simcha Rothman: ‘If they try to force you out, you dig deeper in’

The Knesset member sat down with JNS on the sidelines of the CPAC conference in National Harbor, Md.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman at the legislature in Jerusalem, June 20, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.
Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman Simcha Rothman at the legislature in Jerusalem, June 20, 2023. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90.

Once a minor force in Israeli politics, the electoral success of the religious Zionist movement and its role in the coalition government mean that it is now frequently discussed in the halls of power in Washington. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of one of the two religious Zionist parties, and other conservatives in the Israeli government could cause Israel to lose global support.

“Israel has had the overwhelming support of the vast majority of nations,” Biden said during an interview in New York with comedian Seth Meyers. “If it keeps this up with this incredibly conservative government they have, and Ben-Gvir and others—I’ve known every major foreign policy leader in Israel since Golda Meir—they’re going to lose support from around the world.”

In a sit-down interview with JNS on the sidelines of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference in National Harbor, Md., Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member in the Religious Zionist Party and one of the architects of the coalition’s judicial reform effort, described a very different picture than the one painted by the U.S. president. 

The Biden administration’s decision on Friday to label “settlements” as “inconsistent with international law” was no way to treat an ally in a time of war, the Knesset member said.

“You can say, ‘We don’t like it.’ You can say, ‘It’s against our policy.’ But once you abuse the term ‘legal,’ when suddenly the guy who has his house there, suddenly his house is ‘illegal’ because you said so, that’s not not the way law works, not international, not local,” said Rothman.

The leader of Rothman’s party, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, announced the approval of housing units on Friday in response to a deadly terror attack near Ma’ale Adumim. The announcement was “an appropriate Zionist response” to the attack, he said.

Rothman explained that responding to terror attacks by constructing housing undermines the logic of those who seek Israel’s destruction.

“We know that terror comes from the hope of kicking us out of the land of Israel,” he told JNS. “If they try to force you out, you dig deeper in. That’s the appropriate answer, because then it shows that we’re here to stay.”

“The fact that people are trying to intimidate Jews for living in their ancient homeland, whether it be with terror attacks, with sanctions, with U.N. declarations or other declarations just makes us stronger in understanding that we need to connect to our land and live there and stay there,” he said.

‘Deeply flawed’

Rothman entered politics in 2013 when he founded the Movement for Governability and Democracy, a nonprofit devoted to carrying out judicial reform in Israel. Rothman, who is frequently described as the architect of the judicial reform movement, was first elected to the Knesset in 2021.

“I saw that the system is deeply flawed and in need of reform and in need of respect for the choice of the people of Israel,” he told JNS.

Previously a member of Likud, Rothman said that the difference between the Religious Zionist Party, Likud and the other coalition parties on the right arguably has more to do with social emphases than ideological differences.

“There are three major values that we need to push forward, which are the land of Israel, the nation of Israel and the Torah—the religious part of Israel,” he said. 

“The ‘regular’ right can say, ‘I am very nationalist, but it’s not connected to my religious views.’ The ultra-Orthodox would say, ‘We’re very religious, and we might be nationalists, but it’s not connected. We can be very religious and left-wing, or think that Israel should not be in Judea and Samaria, it doesn’t matter.’”

“The connection between those three is the religious Zionist ideology, which created a social group, which created a party,” he said. “It’s more thinking about the religious aspect of Jewish life in Israel that is the religious Zionist ideology.”

Knesset member Simcha Rothman at a panel discussing the Law of Return, in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Hostages

The Religious Zionist Party has faced criticism in Israel in recent weeks after Smotrich said that he would prioritize destroying Hamas over securing the release of hostages.

On Sunday, Smotrich said he would vote against the latest ceasefire-for-hostages proposal as it was outlined in Israeli media reports on Saturday.

Rothman had not seen those new details when he spoke with JNS on Friday and didn’t know if he would support a new hostage deal. But he explained why he was likely to oppose a new deal with Hamas, as he opposed the previous one.

“The only paper I want them to sign is their unconditional surrender or death certificate,” he told JNS.

“We need to eliminate them, and once we are moving forward to eliminate them, that will bring the most hostages back,” he said. “Either with the IDF releasing them, as happened, or by people surrendering with the hostages they are holding because they don’t want to die.”

Gaza’s past, future

Biden administration officials have repeatedly insisted that Gaza is Palestinian land and that Gazan civilians should not be permanently resettled in other countries.

“We have been clear, consistent and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land, with Hamas no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller wrote in a statement in January.

Simcha Rothman
Simcha Rothman (third from left), a member of Knesset and one of the judicial reform architects, speaks at CPAC on Feb. 22, 2024 in National Harbor, Md. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have rejected that notion, suggesting that Palestinians could voluntarily leave the Strip. Ben-Gvir went further, saying that a resettlement of Palestinians could open the way for Israeli civilians to return to Gaza, after Israel disengaged from the Strip in 2005.

“Really appreciate the United States, but with all due respect, we’re not another star on the American flag,” Ben-Gvir wrote, in Hebrew, in January. “The United States is our best friend, but first and foremost we will do what is best for the State of Israel. The migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the [Jewish] residents of the enclave to return home and live in security.”

Rothman said that he thinks the 2005 disengagement produced a “terrible outcome” in the Oct. 7 attacks, but said it was premature to be talking about a renewed Israeli civilian presence in Gaza.

“Displacing Jews from Gaza was a terrible act,” he told JNS. “I think this, for lack of a better name, ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the State of Israel of its own people was immoral and illegitimate.”

However, he continued, “Is this the right time to speak about returning to Gaza? I’m not sure, because I feel that before we talk about it, we need to eliminate Hamas.”

He noted that many residents of southern Israel were still not back in their homes.

“Before we talk about it [resettlement of Gaza], we need to make sure that the surroundings of Gaza, like the people of Sderot, can go back to their homes. That the people in the north can go back to their homes. That more recent crisis needs to be addressed,” he said.

Rothman believes Jews have a right to live anywhere in the land of Israel, including Gaza. Jews should have a right to live anywhere in the world, he said.

“If people said Jews cannot live in the Upper East Side—it’s not the land of Israel—if people said Jews cannot live in Texas, we wouldn’t accept it,” he said. “Why would we accept the idea that Jews cannot live in Gaza?”

“The anti-Israel, and some would say antisemitic, way of thinking is so deep in our system that we think it’s legitimate to say that Jews cannot live in their ancient homeland because it’s a war crime,” he added.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Topics
Comments
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates