Protesters hound gov't lawmakers nationwide, and on a plane

Main donor stops funding Kohelet think tank behind overhaul, calls to heal rifts

Breaking from divisive institute, US billionaire Arthur Dantchik urges Israeli unity: ‘When a society becomes dangerously fragmented, people must come together to preserve democracy’

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

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

A key American donor to the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank that has spearheaded much of the effort behind the coalition’s judicial overhaul, announced Friday he had stopped funding the institute, citing the current rifts in Israeli society.

Arthur Dantchik, whose fortune is estimated at $7.5 billion and is considered the main financial supporter of the group, confirmed the move in a statement to the Calcalist news site.

“Throughout my life, I have supported a diverse array of organizations that promote individual liberties and economic freedoms for all people. Nevertheless, when a society becomes dangerously fragmented, people must come together to preserve democracy. I stopped donating to think tanks in Israel, including the Kohelet Policy Forum. I believe what is most critical at this time is for Israel to focus on healing and national unity,” he said.

Kohelet said in a statement that it receives funds from a range of donors but would not comment on the specific matter.

Dantchik has funded an ideologically diverse range of institutions over the years, including The Shalom Hartman Institute, a think tank that promotes religious pluralism and civil debate on Israel within the Jewish community in Israel and North America.

The announcement comes over a week after the coalition passed a law stripping judges of the ability to use a so-called reasonableness test to review government decisions and appointments. The law was the first part of the government’s divisive legislative package to overhaul the judiciary.

Arthur Dantchik (Courtesy

Cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs said Wednesday that the coalition plans to pass legislation aimed at bringing judicial appointments under near-absolute government control in the fall parliamentary session — arguably the most far-reaching element of the planned legislative package — and then will shelve the remainder of its radical and divisive judicial overhaul package.

Kohelet researchers played key roles in developing many of the new government’s policies regarding the judiciary. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has cited Aviad Bakshi, the head of the institution’s legal department, as one of the scholars he consulted while drawing up the far-reaching proposals.

Several individuals associated with Kohelet have expressed opposition to the overhaul in its current form.

Dr. Aviad Bakshi, head of the Kohelet Policy Forum’s legal department, speaks during a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, July 4, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Michael Sarel, head of the Kohelet Economic Forum, penned an opinion critical of the legislation earlier in March, writing: “If the reform paves the way for severe damage to liberal democracy, there will also be severe damage to the economy in the medium term.”

In June, alumni of the Tikvah Fund, a conservative US Jewish organization, urged the group to cut support to the Kohelet Policy Forum due to the overhaul.

Meanwhile, protests against the overhaul continued Friday, as demonstrators hounded coalition lawmakers at various locations.

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman could not even escape the reach of anti-overhaul activists when over the Atlantic, where a passenger on her flight from New York back to Israel stuck posters near her plane seat reading “Support for the rule of law” and “When women support women, amazing things happen.”

The woman was asked by El Al airline staff to remove the posters, and it is unclear if Silman saw them, the Ynet news site reported.

The posters appeared to be a response to the minister’s announcement Tuesday that two nature reserves near Jerusalem will remain open outside of the usual operating hours this month for visitors who wish to bathe in natural springs without members of the opposite gender or sex.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which operates under the ministry and runs the parks in question, said it would not comply with the plan until it is approved by Justice Ministry officials.

The plan, and the complications around it, touch both on resource-sharing by religious and secular Jews, and on the compliance of bureaucrats and jurists with the policies of elected officials — two of the most controversial issues dividing Israelis with regard to the overhaul.

Back in Israel, protesters on Friday rallied outside the Tishbi winery near the coastal town of Zichron Yaakov where Defense Minister Yoav Gallant dines weekly, reciting a chant accusing him of being a puppet.

Gallant tried to mediate a compromise between the coalition and opposition over the “reasonableness” law, but it was passed without any eleventh-hour softening. The minister voted for the bill despite repeatedly warning of potential harm to national security, as thousands of military reservists pledged to not report for their volunteer duties if the law was passed.

Demonstrators also chanted outside the house of Economy Minister Nir Barkat in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit HaKerem, rallied outside a café in Rishon Lezion frequented by Likud MK David Bitan, and gathered outside the home of Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the overhaul, in the Jewish settlement of Pnei Kedem.

Protest organizers also planned rallies outside the ruling Likud party headquarters at 4:30 p.m., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea at 5 p.m., and President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Tel Aviv at 5:30 p.m.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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