Analysis

Judicial overhaul can’t trump civil war, Jewish Agency and its US backers tell PM

Major US Jewish organizations warn of ‘serious polarization among Israel-loving Jews around the globe’ as Netanyahu government presses ahead with radical plans for judiciary

Canaan Lidor

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

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)

The heads of the Jewish Agency and a range of other major US Jewish organizations warned in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Yair Lapid on Wednesday that the deep division in Israel over the coalition’s judicial overhaul was also tearing apart world Jewry, urging for a compromise.

“We have been witnessing an increase in serious polarization among Israel-loving Jews around the globe,” read the letter, signed by Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government’s main arm for promoting immigration programs abroad and facilitating immigration to Israel, as well as Mark Wilf, chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, and chairs of the organization’s major partners: the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America, and Keren Hayesod.

But Wednesday’s letter stopped short of offering any judgment on the rapidly progressing plan by Netanyahu’s hardline coalition to dramatically revamp the judiciary and restrict the powers of the High Court of Justice, an overhaul decried by large sectors of Israeli society including economists, legal professionals, military reservists, entrepreneurs, financial professionals and many others. Lapid, as opposition leader, warned this month that the Netanyahu government’s “hasty and obscene gallop” toward the judicial shakeup may turn Israel “into another failed Middle Eastern dictatorship.”

Instead, the letter sends Netanyahu an implicit message that the Jewish Agency and its partners had not conveyed before to any Israeli prime minister: to reconsider.

The letter suggests that American Jewry was no longer interested in Netahyahu’s defenses of the overhaul, whose costs are described by the authors as too high even assuming that the overhaul is as justified as Netanyahu says it is.

The authors convey this message in a single line, which read: “Essential as the judicial reform may be, it cannot trump the risks of a, God forbid, brotherly war.”

They said reaching a compromise agreement on the matter was “truly Pikuach Nefesh, a life-saving matter.”

The letter follows an English-language defense of the overhaul that Netanyahu had offered during a state visit to Germany last week, where he vowed to continue transferring some of the judiciary’s powers to the legislative branch, arguing that this move restores a balance of power between the branches of government.

“We will do whatever we think is the right thing to achieve something that corrects the imbalance that exists today between the branches of government and yet, at the same time, could over time be accepted as the best solution for Israel in line with my principles of keeping Israel a liberal, balanced democracy,” Netanyahu said in Berlin.

The overhaul spearheaded by Netanyahu’s right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox coalition has prompted mass protests, refusals by some reserves soldiers to serve, divestment by local and foreign financial entities, and multiple violent clashes between protesters. In recent weeks, it has also divided conservatives, as leading figures from West Bank settlements and other institutions of the Israeli right have publicly asked to put the overhaul on hold to facilitate dialogue with its opponents.

In this context, it is noteworthy that Yaakov Hagoel, a prominent member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, also co-authored Wednesday’s letter.

The overhaul is also dividing Diaspora Jews, the authors of the letter warned.

“Too many among us are experiencing real concern as we view the tension coming from all sides,” they said, adding that it was “essential that all sides seek dialogue at all cost… to reach the broadest possible consensus.”

In this regard, the missive was comparable to previous statements by local and international Jewish groups at times of heightened tensions in Israeli society, including following the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the 2005 pullout from Gaza.

As concerns mount over the judicial overhaul, to date, none of the Jewish Agency’s backers have threatened to scale back funding. In 2020, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America contributed over $70 million to the Jewish Agency, accounting for 27% of its total budget and nearly 80% of its unrestricted revenues.

But the growing consternation with Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul is not likely to help the Jewish Agency fulfill its mission of bringing thousands of Jews and their relatives to Israel each year.

In an apparent attempt to address such concerns, Almog said hours after the letter’s publication that the protests have not affected aliyah, the Hebrew-language word for immigration to Israel.

“I want you to know that even in this period, when there are demonstrations, we’re seeing record numbers of olim [Jewish immigrants to Israel] throughout January and February. People want to come here! Zionism is getting stronger. Israel continues to be attractive,” said Almog Wednesday at the opening event of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s Diaspora Week at the Jerusalem Theater.

A spokesperson for Nefesh b’Nefesh, a spokesperson for Nefesh b’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency’s partner in facilitating Aliyah from North America, told The Times of Israel that the group is not seeing a decrease in aliyah nor in interest in immigration.

A festive and informal event featuring musical concerts by top artists for hundreds of Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish youth and young adults, the gala offered at least one image of unity: Almog, a former general widely seen as a centrist, chummily hugged Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, an avid supporter of the judicial overhaul, in what seemed like an offstage, spontaneous expression of joy and mutual appreciation.

Chikli did not immediately respond to a request by the Times of Israel for a reaction to the letter by the Jewish Agency and its partner groups.

In a separate letter Wednesday, the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis expressed their communities’ “deep concern and sadness as we witness the current sharp divisions in Israel and the subsequent threat this has on the unity of the Jewish People and the security of our one Jewish State.”

The two European groups said Wednesday was a “day of prayer and reflection, to pray for the peace in Jerusalem.”

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