Israel’s Judicial Overhaul Plan Ignites Debate Among American Jews

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WASHINGTON — An Israeli government effort to weaken the country’s judiciary, which critics call a threat to the nation’s democratic foundations, is drawing unusually pointed protest from American Jewish leaders and organizations, including ones that generally avoid commenting on internal Israeli politics.

The alarm within the United States reflects growing concern among prominent Jewish political and religious figures — not just about the substance of the proposal, but also about its potential impact on U.S.-Israel relations at a time when polls have shown that Israel is losing support among younger Americans as its politics lurch to the right.

The response, from Washington offices to neighborhood synagogues and protests in some American cities, also increases public pressure on President Biden, who has called the defense of democracy abroad one of his top priorities. The Biden administration has not been openly critical of the plan, instead broadly encouraging democratic values and consensus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal would, among other things, allow Israel’s Parliament to overrule Supreme Court decisions by a one-vote majority, and also effectively give the government the power to appoint judges. To the government’s supporters, the changes it is pushing through Parliament are a way to curb the influence of unelected judges.

But critics say the overhaul would remove one of the few checks on government overreach and insulate Mr. Netanyahu from multiple corruption charges. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of an unprecedented power play in a country praised as a thriving democracy in the Middle East.

In the United States, the criticism is largely split along political lines, with Democrats and progressives far more willing to speak out than conservatives. But the concerns are increasingly coming from political moderates and nonpartisan groups that have generally shied away from divisive debates about Israel.

More than 80 House Democrats have signed a letter they plan to send to Mr. Biden on Thursday urging him “to use all diplomatic tools available to prevent Israel’s current government from further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions.” Activists in Washington are also planning to protest a speech next week by Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a key supporter of the judicial change who recently drew international condemnation for saying that a Palestinian village should be “wiped out.”

In Los Angeles last month, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered a sermon titled “The Tears of Zion,” in which she urged her congregation not to “sleep through a revolution” and to challenge Mr. Netanyahu’s “illiberal, ultranationalist regime.” In New York City, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a longtime defender of Israeli policies, wrote a March 5 guest essay in The New York Times saying that Mr. Netanyahu was “courting disaster” with a push that could threaten Israel’s security, economy and “the very democracy upon which the country was built.”

Last month, the Jewish Federations of North America, a philanthropic giant that raises and spends $3 billion annually, and that typically takes no position on Israeli politics, sent an open letter to Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s parliamentary opposition leader, Yair Lapid, objecting to the idea of judicial override and endorsing a call by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, for compromise and consensus.

“We recognize that any system of checks and balances will be different than those in our own countries, but such a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society,” the letter warned.

Mr. Netanyahu and his defenders — including some within the United States — say that the proposed changes are warranted by what they call an overreaching judiciary chosen by an unelected bureaucratic elite, and that Americans should not try to influence Israeli politics.

“The Supreme Court is the one power that the people on the left of center have to overturn center or right-of-center rulings,” said Morton Klein, the president of the nonprofit advocacy group Zionist Organization of America. Mr. Klein said that “liberal” and less religious American Jews “are screaming: ‘This is a disaster! This is the end of democracy!’ It’s ludicrous.”

Still, Jewish leaders and organizations that have been reluctant to criticize Israel’s policies appear more willing to speak out now, some observers said.

“This crisis is resonating with American Jews in a different way than past crises, which have mostly focused on security issues,” said Halie Soifer, the chief executive of the liberal Jewish Democratic Council of America. “This is a crisis of governance and democracy, which we have experienced here in the United States.”

Slightly more than half of all Jews in the United States identify as Reform or Conservative, branches that tend to be less religiously observant and less attached to Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism, described the Supreme Court as the “backstop” safeguarding the rights of minorities in Israel, including L.G.B.T.Q. people and Reform Jews, who say they are experiencing discrimination from right-wing politicians. Many Israeli Arabs also fear a loss of protections under the overhaul plan.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

“The Supreme Court has been the most important protector of civil and human rights,” Rabbi Jacobs said.

In an interview this week, Rabbi Brous said that many American Jews are mindful of rising antisemitism and pressure from right-wing American Jewish interests that can discourage and punish public criticism of Israel. For decades, she said, American Jewish leaders have “been guided more by that fear and sense of vulnerability than by a real moral obligation to speak out.”

Today, however, their ranks include some of the nation’s leading antisemitism watchdogs, including Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who told The Jerusalem Post in December that “if Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”

“Traditionally these differences have been conveyed privately,” said Jonathan Kessler, the founder of Heart of a Nation, a Florida-based group that works toward reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. “There seems to be more of an inclination to convey these things publicly.”

Rabbi Brous, who has close family ties to Israel, spent Sunday at a demonstration in Los Angeles organized by UnXeptable, an organization founded in 2020 by Israeli citizens living in the San Francisco area who were disturbed by their home country’s rightward turn.

Even amid the storm, some of America’s most prominent Jewish leaders have declined to criticize Mr. Netanyahu’s new ultranationalist governing coalition.

William Daroff, the chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wrote last week in The Jerusalem Post that his group was “concerned by the debate’s tone and lack of respect,” without casting blame on specific actors. He also expressed worry that “Israel’s enemies are crowing, arming themselves with every criticism and rejoicing in our public disagreements.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Washington-based organization that advocates pro-Israel U.S. government policies, also declined to weigh in on the substance of the matter, saying it was focused on Israel’s security against threats from enemies such as Iran. Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, said the “vigorous debate” underway in Israel was “reflective of the Jewish state’s robust democracy.”

It is unclear whether the current uproar might move the Biden administration.

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Jerusalem in January, he spoke generally about shared democratic values between the United States and Israel and the importance of governing “by consensus.”

Even those words were denounced by some hard-liners in Mr. Netanyahu’s government as unacceptable U.S. interference in Israeli politics.

Some defenders of Mr. Netanyahu said it would be best for Washington to keep silent on the matter altogether.

“Just as it would be inappropriate for a foreign nation to tell the U.S. Senate whether Supreme Court justices can be filibustered, judicial reform is a sovereign Israeli matter which should not be subject to the wishes and whims of the American Jewish community,” said Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Washington-based Republican Jewish Coalition.

“The agenda is to undermine the current government,” said Irving Lebovics, a co-chair of Am Echad, an Orthodox Jewish organization that he said is “not opposed” to the proposed changes. He said the protests were largely driven by secular Jews, whom he called anxious about changing demographics in an Israel that is growing more religiously conservative.

One key factor largely missing from the debate, some progressives said, was the status of the Palestinians, who many experts fear could stage another intifada amid rising violence in Israel and the West Bank.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the liberal Washington lobbying group J Street, which strongly supports a peace agreement with the Palestinians, argued that the judicial overhaul plan was driven by a desire to “get the court out of the way” of the right wing’s goal of annexing and controlling Palestinian territories, a factor critics should make more clear.

One Palestinian scholar and activist, Noura Erakat, an associate professor at Rutgers University, said she welcomed the debate as a “wedge in America’s loyalty to Israel,” which might lead to more favorable policies for Palestinians. But she said the discussion overlooked the idea that Palestinians have long been deprived of real democracy.

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