In highly unusual move, major US Jewish group decries proposed judicial overhaul

Jewish Federations, a massive umbrella group, departs from usual practice of being mum on Israeli politics, warns against ‘dramatic’ proposal to let Knesset override High Court

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with one of the architects of the government's judicial overhaul Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with one of the architects of the government's judicial overhaul Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jewish Federations of North America warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday against his government’s plan to legislate an “override clause” that would allow a bare 61-seat Knesset majority to overrule Supreme Court decisions, in a major break from the US Jewish group’s usual policy of keeping out of internal Israeli politics.

In a public letter, addressed to Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid, the organization — which represents hundreds of smaller federations across the US and Canada — warned that such a “dramatic change” would have major ramifications in North America.

“The essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights,” the group wrote in its open letter.

“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 group said.

The letter represents a major deviation from the long-term stance of JFNA and other mainstream Jewish organizations to refrain from weighing in on internal Israeli issues, deferring to the Israeli people and the Israeli government on such matters.

A JFNA spokesperson, however, denied that this represented a shift in its policy as it has in the past issued statements and open letters on government decisions relating to the Western Wall and religious pluralism in Israel. “The Jewish Federations have always stood up for the interests of North America’s Jewish community, which is why we’ve been active on issues such as the [Western Wall] agreement, religious pluralism, and an inclusive civil society in Israel for decades,” the spokesperson said.

However, those instances directly dealt with issues pertaining to international Jewry whereas the letter sent on Tuesday focused on a more clearly internal Israeli issue.

The organization, one of the largest and most prominent Jewish institutions in North America, stressed its “deep and abiding love for the State of Israel” and said it was concerned about the “increasingly acrimonious debate” currently taking place over the government’s plans to fundamentally change the relationship between the Knesset and the Supreme Court, singling out the so-called override clause as a particularly problematic proposal.

A panel discussion at the JFNA General Assembly in Chicago on October 30, 2022. (Jewish Federations of North America)

JFNA urged Netanyahu and Lapid — as well as the leaders of Israel’s other political parties, plus the two masterminds behind the judicial overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Chair of the Constitution, Justice and Law Committee MK Simcha Rothman — to “fully embrace” President Isaac Herzog’s calls for negotiations between the ruling coalition and the opposition.

“President Herzog has the respect and admiration of Jews around the world, as do both of you. Whatever the final resolution of these issues, this process will ensure that the views of all stakeholders are fully considered,” the letter read.

With its highly unusual letter, JFNA joined a growing list of international Jewish groups that have called for compromise between the government and opposition on the proposed judicial overhaul, which opponents warn will undermine Israeli democracy and erase the independence of the judiciary, giving total control to the ruling coalition.

Earlier this week, the international Conservative-Masorti movement also came out against the proposed changes, calling for all legislation to be halted and warning that the override clause would “eviscerate the already fragile balance of power between the branches of Israel’s government.”

Last week, the mostly right-wing religious Zionist World Mizrachi movement similarly called on Israeli political parties to meet and negotiate judicial reform, saying it is “deeply alarmed and concerned by the divisiveness and vitriolic tone” surrounding the current proposals to overhaul the judicial system.

World Mizrachi, an Orthodox movement, stressed the need for “broad consensus” before making major structural alterations to Israel’s governmental system, noting the lasting scars from previous times when “far-reaching controversial changes were made by the government, such as the Oslo Accords and disengagement from Gaza… with the thinnest of majorities and in a way where around half the citizens of Israel were forced into something they saw as catastrophic.”

“Past actions need to be learned from to ensure that positive and sustainable change can take place in a way that the internal fabric of Israel is strengthened and not, G-d forbid, threatened,” it said in a statement.

And also last week, the US-based Anti-Defamation League also called for negotiations on judicial reforms.

“We implore all parties to exert responsible leadership and avoid incendiary rhetoric,” the ADL said. “At a time of rising antisemitism worldwide, the Jewish people cannot afford such acrimony and division. We urge all sides in Israel and the Diaspora to remain committed to reasonable compromise and constructive discourse.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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