After pivotal judicial reform vote, US Jewish groups unleash their newfound voices on Israeli domestic policy


WASHINGTON (JTA) — For months earlier this year, mainstream American Jewish groups waffled on how much to weigh in on Israel’s internal political debates, something many had studiously avoided in the past.

But that felt like a distant memory on Monday after Israel’s parliament approved a law that its authors and critics — including many of those American Jewish groups — alike said would reshape the country.

Reactions poured in immediately, many of them deeply critical of what Israel’s right-wing government had just done in signing off on a law that diminishes the power of the Supreme Court to review government decisions.

The American Jewish Committee had a statement ready to go as soon as the law passed expressing “profound disappointment” over the passage of the law which removes from the courts the right to judge laws against a standard of reasonableness.

“The new law was pushed through unilaterally by the governing coalition amid deepening divisions in Israeli society as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets,” the AJC said.

The Anti-Defamation League soon followed. “This initiative and other judicial overhaul proposals could weaken Israeli democracy and harm Israel’s founding principles as laid out in the Declaration of Independence,” its statement said.

The Jewish Federations of North America said it was “extremely disappointed that the leaders of the coalition moved ahead with a major element of the reforms without a process of consensus, despite the serious disagreements across Israeli society and the efforts of President [Isaac] Herzog to arrive at a compromise.”

The ADL, the AJC and the JFNA, like President Joe Biden did in a statement, urged the Israeli government and its opposition to continue to seek a compromise even in the wake of the passage of the momentous law. Groups to their left, including the Reform movement, urged American Jews to step up the pressure on Israel to make changes, and J Street said the Biden administration had a role in leveraging that pressure. The Conservative movement said that the passage of the law “represents a clear and present danger to the country’s independent judiciary, which may still come under further assault.”

The force of the pronouncements shows how much has changed since as recently as March when some of the same legacy organizations were struggling with how far to go in objecting as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared ready to ram a package of judicial legislation through with alacrity. A bid in March to come up with a statement uniting all the legacy Jewish groups nearly collapsed amidst last minute changes.

Speaking out forcefully against an Israeli government has never been a happy place for the legacy groups. For decades, their doctrine had been to let Israelis decide what’s best for them unless it directly impacted Diaspora Jewish communities. The years-long battle over organized non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall was one of the exceptions that proved the rule.

But in recent months, the reluctance to speak out changed, and not just because weakening the courts undermines the branch of Israeli government that has protected the non-Orthodox. American Jews, rattled by perceived antidemocratic tendencies at home, seem more attuned to the threat the same tendencies pose in Israel, according to a poll last month by the Jewish Electorate Institute. It showed pluralities of U.S. Jewish voters concerned about erosions of democracy in both countries.

“This is our fight too – and the vast majority of American Jews believe in a Jewish, democratic Israel that lives up to its founding values of equality, freedom, and justice for all,” said Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national public policy group, in a statement on Monday.

The Israel Policy Forum, a group with deep roots in the American Jewish establishment that advocates for a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the changes in the law risk alienating the Diaspora.

“This move is particularly dismaying to many American Jews, who support Israeli democracy and will now have a more difficult time identifying with Israel and defending it from those who seek to demonize it, leaving Israel today more of a state exclusively for Israeli Jews and less of a state for Jews around the world,” it said.

Liberal American Jews, who have taken the lead in the past in protecting the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, have raised alarms about pledges by some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners to diminish the rights of both sectors.

“The Israeli LGBTQ community has been protesting these proposals for months because it is the Supreme Court that has helped to safeguard the civil rights of all Israelis, including the LGBTQ community,” said a fundraising appeal emailed after the vote from A Wider Bridge, a group that has advocated for Israel in the American LGBTQ community.

Not all U.S. Jewish groups expressed dismay. Some groups on the right praised the enactment into law of the “reasonableness” bill, the piece of the legislation approved on Monday.

“What’s unreasonable to one is reasonable to another,” said Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization America, in a statement praising the new law. “This is an absurd basis and power the Supreme Court has arrogated to itself, which is nothing short of judicial tyranny and judicial dictatorship.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations maintains under its umbrella groups as diverse as ZOA and the Reform movement. It sounded alarm without weighing in on the specifics of the legislation.

“We must remember the dangers that discord and division can pose to the Jewish people,” the group said in a statement. “We call on Israel’s leaders to seek compromise and unity. Responsible political actors must ease tensions that have run dangerously high.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee declined to comment on the legislation. Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group within the Democratic Party that often reflects policies close to those of AIPAC, took a cautious approach.

“While we believe it was a serious mistake for this government to ignore the pleading of the majority of its citizens, as well as its president, and pass this bill without significant compromise, it was done democratically,” it said in a statement. “As in any democracy, including the United States, governments are empowered to make decisions however disappointing or unwise we may believe them to be.”

Nathan Diament, who directs the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, told the New York Times that his community generally favored the legislation, but feared the repercussions of its passage.

“There are many people in the American Orthodox community whose view on the substance is sympathetic or supportive to the reforms,” he said, “but nonetheless are worried about the divisiveness that the process has caused.”

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