Israel activists in New York take aim at US group backing judicial overhaul push

Protesters hold rally at office of Tikvah Fund, closely tied to MK Rothman and Israeli think tank Kohelet, both deeply involved in government’s bid to rein in judiciary

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Israelis opposed to the government's judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund's offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israelis opposed to the government's judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund's offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Several dozen protesters gathered outside the offices of a conservative Jewish organization in New York City on Wednesday to protest its ties to the contentious judicial overhaul being advanced by the Israeli government.

The demonstrators charge the Tikvah Fund with supporting the legislation, which will have a dramatic impact on Israeli society if it passes in its current form, although the organization’s US leadership does not live in the country, pay taxes there or raise their families in Israel.

The Tikvah Fund, a New York-based nonprofit, is closely connected to the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank that is a key player in conservative Israeli politics and the government’s legislative push.

The demonstrators shouted “shame” in Hebrew and English outside the Tikvah Fund’s midtown Manhattan offices, and chanted “quit your job” at employees of the organization as they left the building, while security guards monitored the rally from behind metal shutters in the building’s lobby.

“Shame on the people who fund the fascist regime,” a demonstrator shouted into a megaphone. “We will never give up on democracy. We won’t let you ruin our country.”

“They’re working very hard to destroy our democracy but we’re here,” a demonstrator shouted. “They have much more money than we have but we have justice on our side.”

“Democracy or rebellion,” they chanted in Hebrew.

The Israeli protest group, mainly composed of ex-pats and temporary residents in the US, has been holding rallies most weekends in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. The focus on the Tikvah Fund marked a change in tactics.

“Tikvah Fund stands behind the Kohelet Forum. They are the people who are writing the judicial reform in Israel,” said Shany Granot-Lubaton, the protest organizer. “They are educating about it, they’re putting tons of money into it, campaigning about it.”

“If they would stop funding it, it won’t happen. These are the people who are responsible for it,” she said of the judicial overhaul. The Tikvah Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

The rally coincided with International Women’s Day. A number of protesters dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a motif that has come to symbolize the repression of women and progressive values at demonstrations in Israel and abroad.

“The first people who would be hurt by the judicial reform would be women and minorities,” Granot-Lubaton told The Times of Israel. “These are people who are extremely conservative, right-wing, and they don’t care that women’s rights in Israel won’t be as they are today.”

Shany Granot-Lubaton, an Israeli protest organizer, at a rally outside the Tikvah Fund’s office in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Israeli protest group is part of a loose organization of ex-pats called UnXeptable that has been holding rallies against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the US and other countries. The group is planning a protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in Washington, DC, during his visit to the US capital next week.

Kohelet has been deeply involved in the government’s push to diminish the judiciary, as well as providing legal backing for other contentious legislation in recent years, including 2018’s nation-state law and former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s declaration that West Bank settlements were “not inconsistent with international law” in 2019.

Kohelet drafts legislation for lawmakers, provides legal justification for policies, and works to foster a conservative network spanning Israel and the US, among other activities.

Israelis opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund’s offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Tikvah Fund has longstanding ties to Kohelet, and has made hefty donations to the Israeli think tank.

The chairman of Kohelet, Moshe Koppel, is on Tikvah’s board of directors and received an annual salary of $15,000 from Tikvah as of 2019, the last year for which tax filings are available. (Koppel has written about the legislation on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.) Other staff members have also moved between the two organizations.

On Thursday, protesters in Israel barricaded the door of Kohelet’s main offices in Jerusalem as part of a protest against the overhaul.

Tikvah is also linked to MK Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and a key figure in the coalition’s push to speed the judicial legislation through the Knesset despite widespread opprobrium over the move. Tikvah counts Rothman as an alumnus in its impact report and has hosted him on its podcast and at other events. Likud MK Amichai Chikli is another alumnus of Tikvah.

Rothman has appointed former Kohelet researcher Shimon Nataf as his legal adviser.

MK Simcha Rothman, Head of the Constitution Committee, at a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

The Tikvah Fund also founded the Israel Law and Liberty Forum, a legal group focused on “judicial restraint” and other issues. The organization is modeled on the Federalist Society, a conservative US group that has been hugely influential in domestic politics. The forum has hosted Rothman for legal discussions and other appearances, including at a Tikvah leadership conference.

Tikvah’s chairman, Elliott Abrams, described the reaction to the new government as “hysterical” panic in a column last month.

Tikvah also publishes the Jewish magazine Mosaic, which has hosted Rothman for talks about the judicial overhaul and runs an online academy and educational programs for youth and college students. It reported over $113 million in assets in 2019.

Members of the group met with Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, in January. Orban has spoken in favor of making Hungary an “illiberal democracy” and has a strong relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Philadelphia-based fundraising arm for Kohelet, the American Friends of the Kohelet Policy Forum, wired the organization $6.3 million in 2019, according to US tax filings. The Friends group claimed in its 2019 filing that Kohelet was non-partisan, a necessary requisite to protect its tax-exempt status in the US.

The entrance to the offices of the Kohelet Forum, the conservative think tank deeply involved in the judicial overhaul, was blockaded by protesters, March 9, 2023. (Flash90)

A Haaretz report in 2021 indicated Kohelet’s main funders are the US billionaires Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the director of T’ruah, a prominent US progressive Jewish group, has called for the press and public to pay closer attention to right-wing groups that support conservative policies in Israel, singling out Kohelet and several other organizations.

“American Jews are actually putting money on the ground to change Israeli policy and have been doing it for years,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel ahead of a protest of mainly American Jews at the Israeli consulate last month.

“A lot of times there’s a lot of attention when groups speak out from the left against Israeli policy, but there needs to be more attentive to the ways in which American Jewish and Christian money is driving Israel further and further to the right,” she said.

Israelis protest against the government’s controversial judicial reform bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an activist court.

The government’s legislative plans have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials.

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.

Some leaders of Kohelet have even come out against parts of the plan.

Koppel said late last month that legislation enabling the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings with a bare majority, a central plank of the promised sweeping reforms, was a “stupid idea.” He said he was working to formulate a compromise version of the legislation.

Michael Sarel, head of the Kohelet Economic Forum, cautioned Wednesday that the current proposal could cause severe damage to the economy. He also warned that the proposals as currently being advanced give unlimited power to the government, with the potential for dangerous abuse.

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