‘First step to destroying democracy’: Diaspora groups alarmed as overhaul law passes

Major community organizations in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere express their concern following the vote on the reasonableness law

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, Ted Deutch, left, interviews Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on June 11, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Courtesy of AJC)
The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, Ted Deutch, left, interviews Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on June 11, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Courtesy of AJC)

Major Jewish organizations and community leaders abroad reacted with alarm to the passage Monday of a law that bars the judiciary from evaluating the reasonableness of government and ministerial decisions and policies, legislation that is a major element of the judicial overhaul led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) expressed “profound disappointment” over the vote, which it said was “pushed through unilaterally by the governing coalition.”

The opposition boycotted the vote in protest of the bill’s advancement despite calls for additional negotiations on it. All of the coalition’s 64 lawmakers voted in favor of the law.

“Of particular concern to AJC, the continued effort to press forward on judicial reform rather than seeking compromise has sown discord within the Israeli Defense Forces at a time of elevated threats to the Jewish homeland and has strained the vital relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry,” a spokesperson for AJC, one of the world’s most influential Jewish advocacy groups with dozens of offices worldwide, wrote in a statement.

Seven leaders of the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partner organizations published a letter after the vote, addressed jointly to Netanyahu and to Opposition Leader Yair Lapid. They expressed “concern” about the “great polarization and discord in Israeli society.” They implored the two politicians to “find the broadest common denominator” and moderate “the discourse and the verbal radicalization.”

The undersigned included Mark Wilf, Chair of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors; Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog; Yaakov Hagoel, chair of the World Zionist Organization; Julie Platt and Eric Fingerhut, chair and president, respectively, of the Jewish Federations of North America; and Steven Lowy and Sam Grundwerg, chair of the World Board of Trustees and world chair of Keren Hayesod, respectively.

Julie and Marc Platt listen at a session of General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on April 24, 2023. (Courtesy of JFNA)

The Reform Movement in a statement called the vote’s passing a “sad day for Israel’s democracy,” adding the law “will reduce the checks and balances placed on the government.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a constituent organization, signed the statement along with five other leaders of Reform Judaism in North America.

Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a major umbrella group representing American Jews, wrote on Twitter that her constituents support the overhaul’s opponents. “More than ever, the Israelis fighting for democracy need to know that American Jews are with them. We are,” she tweeted. “This is our fight too — and the vast majority of us believe in a Jewish, democratic Israel that lives up to its founding values of equality, freedom and justice.”

Critics of the law have warned it would dismantle an important safeguard against abuse of power by the executive branch. Its supporters say the reasonableness test is subjective and enables unelected judges to overrule elected officials on matters of policy, and that there are other judicial tests to review politicians’ decisions.

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton A. Klein, undated. (Joseph Savetsky/courtesy of ZOA)

Morton Klein, an overhaul supporter and president of the Zionist Organization of America — a prominent, right-leaning group — retweeted another user’s observation that “any future Knesset can reverse” the law, which is “much more democratic than putting unlimited veto powers in the hands of unelected judges guided not by law or constitution, but only by their personal sense of right and wrong.”

CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, which comprise the largest Jewish community in Europe, has maintained its public silence on the subject of the overhaul, which has many supporters in that heavily conservative community, but also many detractors.

Bruno Benjamin, right, meets Frederic Potier, a former coordinator of the French government’s efforts to fight antisemitism and racism, in Paris, France, on November 15, 2017. (Courtesy of Bruno Benjamin)

Bruno Benjamin, the president of the CRIF chapter of Marseille, expressed confidence in Israeli society’s resilience despite the tensions around the overhaul and Monday’s law passage. After the vote, he tweeted a video showing supporters and opponents of the overhaul giving each other high-fives as they passed one another Sunday afternoon on an escalator in Jerusalem’s train station en route to political rallies reflecting their respective positions. “Look at their interaction. Israel is a cohesive society because the unity of the nation always trumps narrower interests,” Benjamin wrote.

In the United Kingdom, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, two major umbrella groups representing British Jews, wrote in a joint statement that they are “deeply disappointed that, at this stage, the efforts have failed” to find a compromise in the fight over the overhaul in Israel.

“Now that the first law has passed, we plead with Israeli leaders to return urgently to dialogue and to prevent the deepening of a constitutional crisis which will do tremendous damage to the very fabric of Israeli society, its regional security and global status,” the two British Jewish groups wrote.

In the Netherlands, the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, a major Jewish community organization, on Twitter wrote that the law’s passing is “causing much concern in Israel,” adding: “CIDI is also worried about the future. We hope the peace is maintained that wisdom and dialog return.”

Ronny Naftaniel, a former director of CIDI and an ex-chair of the Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands, called the legislation “the first step toward destroying democracy” in Israel, adding that he found this “sad.”

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