ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Jewish Agency chief urges US Jewry to speak out on proposed judicial overhaul

‘This is the time to strengthen your involvement, to make your voice heard,’ Doron Almog tells visiting American Jewish leaders, calls plans to limit Law of Return ‘unacceptable’

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

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. (Amit Elkayam/Conference of Presidents)
Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. (Amit Elkayam/Conference of Presidents)

Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog called on American Jewish leaders to “make your voice heard” in the ongoing, rancorous debate over the government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

Speaking on Thursday to the visiting Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Almog said he supported President Isaac Herzog’s compromise for judicial reform and called for more civil discourse on the issue.

“We need to make sure that the public discourse, heated as it may be, will remain within the boundaries of democratic debate and will not spill over into hatred of our brethren,” he said.

The government’s proposed judicial overhaul as it currently stands would radically alter Israel’s system of checks and balances, giving the ruling coalition absolute control over the selection of judges and allowing it to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a 61-seat majority.

Opponents of this overhaul warn that it would severely weaken Israeli democracy and diminish minority rights, while its supporters view it as a necessary corrective for what they see as an overly activist court.

Each week, tens of thousands of Israelis have turned out to protest in major cities on Saturday nights and to demonstrate outside the Knesset on Mondays.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, near the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Almog refrained from weighing in on his position about the overhaul, parts of which have already passed initial readings in the Knesset, but told the visiting American Jewish leaders not to lose hope and disengage from Israel but instead to speak out and get more involved.

“In the face of the severe political disagreements in Israel, there are voices within Jews overseas who say now is the time to disconnect from Zionist activities and from Israel. I wish to tell them the exact opposite is true,” Almog said.

“This is the time to strengthen your involvement, to make your voice heard, and support the State of Israel – each organization among the audience that shares its views, but also in the unity that is above the disagreements, in which our strength lies,” he said.

In his speech, Almog also expressed his grave concern about the government’s plans to alter the Law of Return, specifically to its so-called “grandchild clause,” which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent.

“Abolition of the Law of Return’s grandchild clause is unacceptable for us, out of genuine concern that it will create a rift among the Jewish people – both in Israel and among world Jewry,” Almog said. “It stigmatizes sectors of the Israeli population who contribute to the state and are an integral part of it. This change would also detach millions of Jews around the world from Israel.”

Ukrainian immigrants to Israel who fled fighting in Ukraine arrive on a rescue flight at Ben Gurion Airport, on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Though the process to alter the Law of Return has stalled and even some of its supporters now say that the grandchild clause will likely not be nixed entirely, the issue remains of significant concern to Almog and the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body tasked with encouraging and facilitating immigration to Israel, or aliyah.

“The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. It is the home of every Jew from all denominations and circles. We will promote an open and inclusive dialogue regarding the sensitive matters, for our brothers and sisters who live in Israel by virtue of the Law of Return, as we have a moral obligation to them.”

Almog’s call for the American Jewish leaders to make their voices heard came as a growing number of them already have been doing so.

On Tuesday, the Jewish Federations of North America penned an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid, calling for them to reach a compromise on judicial reform and express alarm at the proposed override clause.

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