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American Jewish leaders ‘dropped everything’ and flew to Israel to thwart controversial judicial plan

The emergency 24-hour visit, led by the Jewish Federations of North America, is unprecedented in recent history

JERUSALEM — The Jewish Federations of North America is usually loathe to intervene in Israeli politics, but it flew a delegation to Israel for 24 hours Tuesday to lobby against a judicial plan it fears will damage Israel’s relations with American Jews.

Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America Courtesy of Wikipedia

The plan, backed by the far right-led coalition that brought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a sixth term in November, is roiling Israeli society, but “also doing damage to Israel in America,” JFNA President Eric Fingerhut told the Forward on Wednesday.

He said he flew to Israel, with American Jews representing 30 federations, to share “intense feelings” and send the message that if the reform plan becomes law, it could “make it very challenging to continue to make the case about Israel’s modern democracy.”

Many fear the judicial plan will demolish the government’s system of checks and balances, and diminish rights for more secular Israeli Jews, Palestinians and LGBTQ people. Fingerhut said that by weakening Israel’s judiciary, the reforms would “lead to a whole slew of things” that Jewish Americans have historically opposed, and mentioned in particular their support for religious pluralism. Powerful members of Netanyahu’s coalition have expressed disdain for non-Orthodox Judaism. 

“The fact that thirty leaders representing different communities across the Federation system dropped everything on such short notice to fly to Israel for 24 hours is a testament not only to the dedication of our leaders, but to their deep-love for the Jewish Homeland,” said Jewish Federations of North America Board Chair Julie Platt in a statement. “We find ourselves at a critical time that demands of our leaders to raise their concerns directly with Israel’s senior officials and make our position clear.”

The federation delegation met with members of both Netanyahu’s governing coalition and the opposition, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who on Wednesday addressed the nation on his proposal for compromise on judicial reform. He warned of “real civil war” in Israel if compromise is not reached.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog after a White House visit with President Joe Biden on October 26, 2022. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Fingerhut said the Israeli president is the right person to serve as a mediator on the judicial plan. “And we are going to do everything we can to help him succeed,” he added.

The delegation also met with  Nir Barkat, the economic minister,  opposition leader Yair Lapid, as well as senior business leaders who oppose the reforms, according to JFNA. At the end of its mission the delegation said in a joint statement that it had made the trip to show its “unconditional and eternal support for the Jewish state, and to emphasize how important the preservation of Israel’s democratic institutions are to the North American Jewish community.”

Netanyahu, who was slated to fly to Berlin on Wednesday, has delayed his trip to focus on negotiations over the plan. 

The delegation has attracted some attention in Israel. On Tuesday evening, more than a dozen people gathered in the rain outside the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem after organizers learned that the federation delegation was staying there and meeting with Moshe Koppel, head of the Kohelet Forum. The group, which is backed by the Tikvah Fund, has provided government leaders with a roadmap for the judicial reforms Netanyahu’s government is pursuing.

A protester waves the Israeli flag during a massive protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plan on March 11, 2023 in Tel Aviv Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Anger in the streets

Over the past 11 weeks, Israelis opposed to the judicial plan have turned out in droves to denounce it. On Saturday, an estimated 500,000 Israelis protested in the streets. And on Monday, about 400 people demonstrated outside another Jerusalem hotel, where leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were staying. They condemned AIPAC for failing to speak out against the judicial overhaul plan.

The protests have also spread to the U.S., where about half the world’s Jews live. And numerous mainstream American Jewish groups, which like the federations usually refrain from commenting on Israeli politics, have advised the Israeli government to compromise.

The federation’s visit comes ahead of JFNA annual General Assembly in Israel in late April, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the nation’s founding. Netanyahu and Herzog are both expected to speak at the gathering. Fingerhut said that if Israeli politicians do not settle on a compromise plan by then, the issue will top the Assembly’s agenda.

The federations, philanthropic umbrella groups that serve Jews and their surrounding communities across North America, as well as Israeli nonprofits, aim to embrace Jews across the political and religious spectrum. The judicial plan, which would give Israeli lawmakers far more say in the appointment of judges, and enable a one-vote majority of the Knesset to overrule Israel’s Supreme Court, has alarmed North American Jews since it was first proposed.

In January, weeks after Netanyahu formed a new government, the head of the largest federation, New York’s, emailed supporters about the plan. “It eviscerates the role of the judiciary by allowing Supreme Court decisions to be struck down by the barest majority of the Knesset — undermining the very foundations of Israel’s democracy and subjecting all minority groups to the tyranny of the majority,” wrote Eric Goldstein.

 

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