Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with a host of American Jewish leaders following his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday for a charged meeting where the premier is said to have dodged questions about the more extremist members of his hardline coalition.
The discussion also included a separate, heated exchange between the premier’s wife, Sara, and a leader in US Reform Jewry who is a critic of the overhaul.
Senior representatives of some 25 organizations attended the meeting, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), AIPAC, the Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs told The Times of Israel that during the Q&A portion of the sit-down, he raised how rabbis at just about all Reform synagogues across the US gave sermons during the High Holidays in which they expressed how much they love Israel but also how distraught they are by their belief that its democratic pillars are under threat due to the government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary.
“We feel very concerned about those who might become more vulnerable such as women, the LGBTQ community, non-Orthodox Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Jacobs said he told Netanyahu, explaining that those minorities are less safe when democracies are weakened.
Jacobs said he went on to hail Netanyahu’s effort to reach a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia but asked him if he could also comment on the internal Jewish divisions because “we’re coming apart at the seams.”
In response, Netanyahu gave a lengthy response about what his government was trying to accomplish with the divisive judicial overhaul, insisting that he was seeking as broad a consensus as possible for the revamp, even though he has the votes to pass the laws unilaterally.
Jacobs said Netanyahu told the Jewish leaders that he was close to reaching a compromise in the negotiations brokered by President Isaac Herzog, but that ultimately the opposition’s intransigence led to the talks falling apart. He insisted that he still wanted to secure consensus backing for his overhaul where neither bloc would have control over the selection of judges.
“They were under pressure from the protest [movement] that does not want a compromise, but wants to overthrow the government,” Netanyahu was said to have told the Jewish leaders, according to Walla.
Jacobs said he asked a follow-up question in which he recalled how Netanyahu has accused the anti-overhaul protest movement of being violent and aggressive, “when the protests have been largely peaceful” and have featured speakers who speak about their love for Israel and their commitment to Israeli democracy.
The Reform leader asked Netanyahu whether he wanted to say something to those protesters ahead of Yom Kippur.
Upon hearing the question, Sara Netanyahu interjected and asked if she could ask Jacobs a question as well, the rabbi said. The premier’s wife went on to speak emotionally about how she, her family and senior members of the government have been threatened with physical violence in recent months amid the judicial overhaul protests. Sara Netanyahu asked Jacobs whether he would condemn such actions.
“Absolutely,” Jacobs said he responded while clarifying that what Sara Netanyahu described has not been the dominant narrative that he’s heard and recalled how the prime minister accused the anti-overhaul protesters of aligning with Iran and the PLO against the government.
Netanyahu drew outraged reactions on Monday, before his departure to the US, when he accused protesters against the judicial overhaul of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities against him abroad, which he framed as being against Israel rather than against the actions of his hardline government.
Protesters have been hounding Netanyahu on his travels and during his scheduled meetings and his UN speech, and have vowed to continue doing so. They are part of the widespread mass protest network in Israel and abroad that sprouted after the hardline coalition revealed its contentious overhaul bid in January.
The government’s push to curb the independent powers of the Supreme Court has also revealed the deep schisms in Israeli society with supporters of the overhaul arguing that profound changes are needed to rein in an activist judicial system and critics arguing that the hardline coalition’s proposed changes, and the manner in which it has gone about legislating them, posed grave harm to Israel’s democracy.
Despite the massive opposition, the coalition passed the so-called “reasonableness” law in July, legislation that prohibits the courts from reviewing government action using the judicial standard of reasonableness, whereby it can determine that a decision was invalid because it was made without properly assessing key considerations, or while using improper considerations. The law is now being challenged in the Supreme Court, in a legal dispute that is threatening to devolve into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
The coalition has now set its sights on passing a core bill to remake the Judicial Selection Committee, which will give the government near-complete control over the selection of almost all of the country’s judges.
Jacobs also recalled another tense portion of the meeting on Friday where a prominent Jewish community leader in the room stood and told Netanyahu that US Jews defend Israel every day but are having a harder time doing so as of late “when senior members of your government speak out in racist voices.”
The individual asked Netanyahu why he has tolerated such rhetoric from his coalition partners, to which he responded that he cannot control everyone and that there are many other countries that have a bigger problem with this phenomenon, Jacobs recalled, admitting that the premier cut his answer short to get to as many questions as possible.
Jacobs clarified that he was grateful to have been included in the meeting along with several other progressive Jewish community leaders and appreciated that Netanyahu opened the floor to Q&A and took the time to answer everyone’s questions.
National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz told The Times of Israel that she also appreciated being included in the hour-long conversation and that it was far more open than she expected.
However, she admitted to feeling a vast disconnect between the more theoretical conversation in the room about the judicial overhaul and the fears she is hearing from activists on the ground about the ramifications the reforms could have for women and other minorities.
“I’m very very afraid of the results of the overhaul and what it would mean for women and other marginalized groups,” she said.
Katz recalls how the pro-choice movement in the US was told not to worry about losing abortion access before Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer and says a similar dynamic seems to be taking place in Israel where anti-overhaul activists are told by the government that rights are not at risk.
“We’re debating legal concepts, and those are important, but what matters to me is whether people will be okay,” Katz said.
ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted Friday that he “welcomed the opportunity for this exchange” with Netanyahu, and to “share our community’s commitment to a Jewish and democratic, as well as shed light on how developments in Israel have an impact on Diaspora Jewry.”
Greenblatt said other key issues discussed during the meeting included “the promise and peril of AI,” a possible normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, threats posed by the Iranian regime, as well as antisemitism and online hate content.
AJC CEO Ted Deutch said in a statement that US Jewish leaders held a “productive meeting” with Netanyahu, “in which we discussed the key issues affecting the global Jewish community and the State of Israel, including the rise of global antisemitism, widening the circle of peace in the Middle East, and the many threats posed by Iran.”
He also said the AJC has reiterated its “firm belief that dramatic changes to Israel’s judicial system should result from a deliberative and inclusive process that upholds the democratic values of maintaining checks and balances, respecting minority rights and civil liberties, and preserving essential judicial independence.”
“We are continuing our conversations with government officials and members of Israeli civil society to strongly urge the need for consensus,” he said.