AUSTIN, Texas — If the new hardline government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marches ahead with its efforts to chip away at Israel’s democracy, it will risk losing the support of the American-Jewish community and possibly the backing of other democracies, warned Abe Foxman, the long-time former leader of the Anti-Defamation League.
If even half of all coalition agreements between Netanyahu’s Likud party and its far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners are fulfilled, “it will undermine this support because America and Israel have interests, but these interests are cemented by values and by the fact that we say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” Foxman said on Friday, speaking to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of a 3,000-person conference organized by the Israeli American Council (IAC). “Well, how long will we be able to say Israel is the only democracy?”
In addition to citing the contentious plans by the Netanyahu government to overhaul the judiciary and strictly limit the High Court’s powers, Foxman questioned how long Israel could be considered a democracy “if you’re going to change the law [to] no bans on racist members, if you have a minister of communications going to do away with the public broadcaster, if you have a minister of culture and sports who’s going to punish people who criticize Israel in movies and films.”
“Here’s a guy who says he wants to ban gay parades,” Foxman told The Times of Israel, referencing deputy minister and MK Avi Maoz, head of Noam, a faction that openly espouses homophobic views and wants to see women out of the military.
Israel is a top destination for LGBTQ tourism, Foxman went on. “It’s a calling card” for Israel. But “then you have another minister who says ‘I’m proud to be a fascist and homophobe,'” a nod to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, of Religious Zionism, who in 2015 made headlines for saying he was a “proud homophobe.” Smotrich was heard in a recording aired on Monday expressing confidence he could take active measures against the LGBTQ community without suffering any repercussions from his political base because his voters “don’t give a damn” about “the gays.”
“What kind of democracy is that?” asked Foxman, speaking to ToI at the eighth annual summit of the IAC, an advocacy organization founded in 2007 with national programs across the US for some 130,000 Israeli-Americans. Its stated mission is to “ensure a strong Jewish and Israeli identity for the next generations.”
Don’t tamper with who I am as a Jew
The three-day summit kicked off Thursday night in Austin, Texas and included a main interview with Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, who told the audience that the new Israeli government was “listening” to the concerns of Diaspora Jews on issues such as the coalition partners’ demands to abolish the so-called grandchild clause in the Law of Return, which would stiffen the conditions to automatically qualify for citizenship.
But Chikli did not rule out changing the Law of Return, noting that Israel also “had an election, the result was crystal clear. We were very honest with our agenda, and it is our responsibility to form this agenda,” he said.
The grandchild clause allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate freely to Israel so long as they do not practice another religion, and the proposed changes have worried Diaspora Jewish leaders.
Many immigrants to Israel, particularly but not only from the former Soviet Union, obtain citizenship under this aspect of the Law of Return.
Foxman said he heard Chikli speak on Thursday, and “if that’s the new Israeli government, then oy vavoy [Hebrew for ‘oy vey’]!”
“He said, ‘we’re listening’ and… basically, ‘we’re going to do it’ but ‘in our time; we’re not rushing, we’re listening, but we’re going to do it,'” said Foxman.
“To the extent that Israel tampers with its democracy, it will tamper with [American-Jewish] support,” he told ToI. “I’ve always said, Israel will never lose the American-Jewish community on issues of security and defense. Because at the end of the day, [even] if I disagree, this is existential. Iran and security and borders is an existential decision for Israel’s life and death. So I may disagree, [others] may disagree, but we’ll never walk away from Israel.”
“But when you begin to tamper with who I am as a Jew, what my right under Zionism is to return, you are dealing with my existential ‘being a Jew,'” he cautioned.
Israel can make its decisions on existential threats, but “if you’re going to decide who I am and what I am and what part of the Jewish people I am, you’re gonna lose me, right with my grandchildren,” Foxman said, adding, however, that he was still optimistic this issue would not be pushed.
‘If you don’t value us as Jews, why should we stand up?’
“I want you to know if you continue in this direction, you’re gonna lose us, we love you and we cherish you, but you’re gonna lose us,” he said. “If you don’t value us as Jews, why should we stand up?” he asked, directing the question at the prime minister.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners have also demanded limitations on the influence of non-Orthodox Jewish streams and an end to official state recognition of conversions performed outside the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, fueling the uneasy tensions with Conservative and Reform Jewish communities, to which a majority of American Jews belong and whose members widely hold progressive values.
Last month, executives from mainstream American Jewish organizations expressed their alarm over the new government and the hardline policies being promoted by coalition members.
Foxman was one of dozens of speakers at the IAC summit, where thousands gathered under the theme “Israel, Together” for a lively, busy event that “brings together thousands of Israeli-Americans, American Jews and Israelis of all ages,” according to organizers.
The confab combined musical and artistic performances, a multi-story exhibition hall, and panels, discussions, and interviews with government, business, and tech leaders in Israel and the US.
Adam Neumann, the Israeli-born co-founder of WeWork, made a special appearance on the opening night Thursday, conversing at times in easy Hebrew and Israeli mannerisms with interviewer Danny Cushmaro of Israel’s Channel 12 news.
“You can take the Israeli out of Israel, but you can take the Israel out of the Israeli,” quipped Neumann, who in August raised about $350 million from Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) for Flow, a not-yet-launched, vague-on-details real estate startup in New York. The new venture comes some three years after WeWork’s dramatic tailspin in the fall of 2019.
Dozens of Israeli tech entrepreneurs were also in attendance to sit on various business-related panels, and to participate in the first “Israeli Innovation Playground” to help Israeli startups and companies build ties in US markets.
Among the exhibition booths were those of El Al, Magen David Adom, Tzofim (Israeli Scouts), and various other programs and organizations working in Israel and the US. For a taste of Israel, Landwer Cafe set up a coffee-and-pastry operation.
The IAC also hosted a Shabbat dinner for guests on Friday, closed roundtable events, and a singles nights for donor club members aged 21 and over. Consular services to Israeli citizens were offered at the event.
The summit was wrapping up Saturday night with a performance by Israeli pop star Noa Kirel.
Antisemitism in the US
Foxman was one of three panelists on the “Antisemitism in America: Defending the US Vital Bond with Israel” discussion Friday morning, where the former ADL chief said that while the challenge of fighting antisemitism was different in the age of social media, the “disease” was the same.
“Antisemitism is a virus without an antidote or vaccine and we have to develop strategies to contain it,” he said.
The US has not been immune to antisemitism, but it was different than in other countries, Foxman told the summit, until a gunman shot dead eleven Jewish worshipers and injured seven others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018.
It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history and signaled a “major change” for American Jews, he said: “Jews can now be killed in America for being Jews.”
Smartphones have also contributed to the surge in antisemitism, Foxman said, lamenting social media as “a superhighway of antisemitic [content] posted anonymously without challenge.”
“It used to be unacceptable to be an antisemite, but taboos have been broken” in recent years, with talk that disparages women, immigrants, and LGBTQ members, he told the audience from the panel stage. “Now all this speech is ok and that has empowered antisemites.”
Foxman pointed to a recent ADL poll that showed the number of Americans who believe antisemitic stereotypes has doubled since 2019 to the highest level in decades and that almost 40% of respondents believed Jews were more loyal to Israel than the United States.
“This is very serious,” he warned. The ADL has called the findings “stunning and sobering.”
Fellow panelist David Brog, CEO of the Maccabee Task Force, a program that fights antisemitism on university campuses, said there was an ongoing delegitimization campaign against Israel supported by the “woke left” and that a lot of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism was prominent in progressive circles.
Foxman, however, urged panelists and audience members who asked him tense questions not to “exaggerate” the problem of antisemitism. “‘Is it like the 1930s in Germany? The trains are coming’ — let’s be more careful,” he offered, noting that historically, Democrats and Republicans have found ways to work together to support American Jews and Israel.
“Wokism hasn’t taken over the US. It’s an issue, but what forces have brought about real change? The Left!” he said to faint applause.
American Jews and American-Israeli Jews
Also while speaking on the panel, Foxman chided the IAC and the Israeli-American communities it represents for “writing off the [American] Jewish community,” and not working more closely with American-Jewish institutions for common goals like fighting antisemitism, supporting Israel, and bringing American and Israeli-American Jews together.
Israel has two allies, said Foxman: America, and American Jews. “But you’ve written off the American Jewish community… which has stood up, fought, advocated” and has marked achievements against antisemitism, he told the audience.
“Join them, you can make a difference. It is a different world where young people care less or don’t know as much. We need to come together, not exaggerate [threats],” he urged.
After the panel, Foxman told The Times of Israel he believes the IAC was needlessly positioning itself as a pro-Israel lobby and could have more impact in joint work with the American-Jewish community.
“They’re setting themselves up as an independent unit in America to fight for Israel and that’s a mistake. They don’t need to compete with AIPAC, they are ignoring [Jewish] federations, they’re ignoring JCCs, they believe that they by themselves can become a force to change America on behalf of Israel and the answer is they can’t.”
“They can’t because when it comes to Israel, if 40% of Americans believe that American Jews are more loyal to the United States, [even more so] former Israelis, so they are not the messengers, they are not,” he told ToI.
Israeli immigrants to the US become more right-wing in their politics and come to support conservative politicians and movements, “but it’s not so simple,” Foxman went on.
Former US president Donald Trump “in their eyes is probably the most pro-Israel president — ok, maybe — but Trump also talks about loyalty and he accused the Jews of not being loyal to Israel because they don’t vote Republicans. That’s antisemitism!” he said.
Trump has made several remarks to that effect during his presidency and following his 2020 loss. Most recently, in October, the former president lambasted American Jews, a majority of whom vote Democrat, telling them to “get their act together” and accusing them of not being appreciative enough of his support for Israel, while claiming he was so popular among Israelis that he could “easily” be elected prime minister.
Israel was one of the few countries worldwide where Trump was popular as president and his administration implemented policies that were cheered in Israel. These included the 2017 decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and recognize the city as Israel’s capital, the 2019 recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and the Trump administration’s brokerage of the 2020 Abraham Accords which normalized Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.
Foxman said he believes Israeli-Americans should “join the American Jewish community and strengthen it, and from my perspective, they can take it over.”
“We’re all American Jews — I come from Poland, they come from Israel,” he said.
There is so much more work to be done, Foxman noted, including building closer ties with Hispanic-American communities, sending Israeli-American kids on Birthright, and working together to strengthen joint community.
“There’s no need for another lobby; the solution is to be integrated and to fill in on what is not being done.” American Jews “love Israel” as much as Israelis and Israeli-Americans do, he argued.
(ToI reached out to an IAC spokesperson for comment on the organization’s advocacy efforts but did not receive a response.)
Netanyahu may wake up one day and say ‘it’s not worth it. I can’t afford to lose my legacy, to lose the support of world Jewry, to lose the support of democracies’
As for Israel’s direction, Foxman told ToI he was “an optimist” who believes Netanyahu may “wake up one day and say ‘it’s not worth it. I can’t afford to lose my legacy, to lose the support of world Jewry, to lose the support of democracies.'”
“Democratic countries who say Israel is a democracy are going to come and say ‘Hello?’ And we’re seeing it, we’re already seeing it,” he concluded. “I hope [Netanyahu] will wake up and turn around.”
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