Inside story'We now understand that we can criticize Israel out of love'

Chaotic response to Israel’s turmoil reveals dilemma for US Jewish organizations

What was supposed to be a unified statement instead exposes the fissures between 5 large groups as they walk a tightrope issuing unprecedented criticism of the Jewish state

Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), delivers a speech on the stage during a protest against the judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/via JTA)
Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), delivers a speech on the stage during a protest against the judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/via JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Major American Jewish organizations that hoped to send a unified message about the turmoil in Israel instead found themselves tussling earlier this week, partly in the public eye, about what exactly they wanted to say.

Should they praise the massive anti-government protests that have taken shape in recent months? Should they criticize Israel’s sitting government? What, if anything, should they endorse as a next step in the ongoing crisis?

Five large Jewish organizations — all known for their vocal pro-Israel advocacy — began Monday afternoon trying to answer those questions in a unified voice that sent a positive message: praise for a decision to pause the government’s divisive judicial overhaul.

Instead, in a somewhat messy process that unfolded over the course of the afternoon, they ended up sending out a number of different statements that contrasted in subtle yet telling ways. The scramble to publish a statement reflecting consensus — and the resulting impression that consensus was lacking — was a reflection of how Israel’s politics have created a rift in the US Jewish establishment.

For decades, large American Jewish groups have publicly supported Israel’s foreign policy and mostly stayed quiet on its domestic conflicts. Now, a domestic policy issue threatening to tear Israel apart has compelled at least some of them to do two unusual things: opine on Israel’s internal affairs, and publicly chide the government that, in their view, is responsible for the crisis.

“For a long time any criticism of Israel, even criticism of very difficult policies, was thought to be disloyal, and couldn’t be spoken out of love,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which was not a signatory to the statement but is a constituent of the group that organized it. “I think we now understand that there’s plenty of legitimate criticism and activism that comes from that very place.”

Israelis protest outside a Jerusalem hotel where an AIPAC delegation met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as contentious judicial overhaul legislation was speeding through Knesset on March 13, 2023. (Nadav Galon)

The five groups that began composing the statement together were the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. All have historically been seen as centrist, pro-Israel and representative of the American Jewish establishment, speaking for American Jews in international forums and in meetings with elected officials. All have annual budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

Any vocal criticism from those groups has largely been limited to Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews. Because most American Jews are themselves not Orthodox, American Jewish groups have felt more comfortable advocating for policies that, they believe, will allow more of their constituents to feel welcome in the Jewish state.

But events this year have prompted the groups to speak out on another Israeli domestic issue: the judicial overhaul being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which aimed to sap the Israeli Supreme Court of much of its power and independence. The court has, in the past, defended the rights of vulnerable populations in Israel such as women, the non-Orthodox, Arabs and the LGBTQ community.

“The recognition that what happens in Israel, the policies of the Israeli government and a broader range of issues in this particular case — on judicial reform, the perception of Israel as a vibrant democracy for all of its citizens — that perception has a significant impact on American Jewish life and American Jewish engagement,” said Gil Preuss, CEO of Washington, DC’s Jewish federation.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on March 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Most of the five groups had previously endorsed calls for compromise on the judicial reform proposal. The federations had also come out against one of its key elements. So when Netanyahu announced on Monday — in the face of widespread protests and dissent from allies — that he would pause the legislative push to allow time for dialogue, they all hoped to express their support.

What to write after that sentiment, however, proved contentious. A version of the statement put out by the American Jewish Committee included sharp criticism of Israeli politicians that was not in the other statements.

The Jewish Federations of North America sent out an addendum to the statement that was sympathetic to anti-Netanyahu protesters.

And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee ultimately opted out of the statement altogether — but not before a version had already been released in its name.

None of the five groups responded to requests for comment on the process behind the statement, but insiders said the differences between the statements, and AIPAC’s opting out, had little to do with policy differences. Instead, they blamed the confusion on missteps in the rush to get the statement out in the minutes after Netanyahu’s remarks, which aired in Israel at 8 p.m. and in the early afternoon on the East Coast, where all of the groups are based.

The statement that ultimately appeared, after declaring that the groups “welcome the Israeli government’s suspension” of the reforms, said that the raucous debate and protests over the legislation were “painful to watch” but also “a textbook case of democracy in action.”

A key line included rare advice to Israel from the establishment Jewish groups: “As a next step, we encourage all Knesset factions, coalition and opposition alike, to use this time to build a consensus that includes the broad support of Israeli civil society.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces a pause to the judicial overhaul in a nationally broadcast speech, March 27, 2023. (GPO Screenshot)

The Conference of Presidents was the first to release the statement, just past 2 p.m., less than an hour after Netanyahu had completed his remarks. It listed its co-endorsers as the AJC, the ADL and JFNA.

Five minutes later, the AJC put out a version of the same statement that added AIPAC to the endorsers. It included the same sentence offering advice, plus another two that added criticism and a caution: “Israel’s political leaders must insist on a more respectful tone and debate. A hallmark of democracy is public consensus and mutual consideration.”

Statements from JFNA and ADL, which went out subsequently, hewed to the Conference of Presidents version. An AIPAC official told JTA that the group did not want to sign onto the statement because it had wanted more time to add edits.

Just before 3 p.m., more than 40 minutes after its initial email, AJC sent out an email advising recipients that its inclusion of AIPAC was an error.

But its new statement still included the line criticizing politicians, which the other groups had eschewed. In the end, AJC removed that line, too: It is absent from the version of the statement posted on the group’s website.

AIPAC ultimately settled on posting a tweet that stuck to praising Israel for its democratic process, without further comment.

“For many weeks, Israelis have engaged in a vigorous debate reflective of the Jewish state’s robust democracy,” it said. “Israel’s diverse citizenship is showcasing its passionate engagement in the democratic process to determine the policies that will guide their country.”

Israelis protest outside the Knesset government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

JFNA, in an explanatory email to its constituents attached to the joint statement, was more pointed in its criticism of Netanyahu. On Sunday night, the prime minister had summarily fired his defense minister, Yoav Galant, for publicly advocating a pause on the legislation. That decision sparked protests across Israel, which in turn prompted Netanyahu to announce exactly the same pause and compromise that Gallant had proposed.

“The response across Israeli society was immediate and angry,” said the email signed by Julie Platt, the chairwoman of JFNA, and Eric Fingerhut, its CEO. “Spontaneous protests gathered in the streets and commentators expressed shock at a decision to fire a Defense Minister for having expressed concern about the risks to the country’s military position … Netanyahu’s own lawyer in his corruption trial announced that he could no longer represent him.”

The groups weren’t alone in releasing pained statements about Israel’s volatility — which has also stirred anguish among groups that have previously defended the Israeli right.

This week, Rabbi Moshe Hauer of the Orthodox Union, who met earlier this month with far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, praised Israel’s leaders for “the recognition of the value of taking time, engaging with each other with honesty and humility, and proceeding to build consensus.” (Smotrich, for his part, supports the overhaul and opposed pausing the legislation.)

“Our Sages taught, ‘Peace is great; discord is despised,’” Hauer, the group’s executive director, said in an emailed statement to JTA. “We are deeply shaken by the upheaval and discord that has gripped our beloved State of Israel. In recent weeks, the Jewish tradition and the democratic value of vigorous debate have been replaced by something very dangerous and different.”

The two largest non-Orthodox movements were open about their opposition to the overhaul. “We believe ardently that the proposed judicial reform is fraught with danger and goes against the principles of democracy,” the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement Tuesday.

A statement from the leadership of the Reform movement, including Jacobs, castigated Netanyahu for agreeing to create a national guard under the authority of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, and for being “willing to risk the safety and security of Israel’s citizens to keep himself and his coalition in power.”

That strong language, Jacobs suggested, reflects the wishes of those who fund establishment Jewish groups and congregations. He said those groups were hearing from donors whose frustration with the Netanyahu government is reaching a boiling point.

“I hear of donors telling organizations, ‘I have to tell you, I don’t hear your voice, speaking out in favor of Israel’s democracy at this very vulnerable moment. So I’ll tell you what, why don’t you hang on to my phone number when you find your voice?’”

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