Lapid to US Jewish leaders: Don’t give up on Israel because of current government

Opposition chair’s comments during US trip mark rare example of him criticizing coalition while abroad; he also meets with Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Ritchie Torres

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Prime Minister Yair Lapid (C) meets with leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on September 21, 2022. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)
Illustrative: Then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid (C) meets with leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on September 21, 2022. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid urged American Jewish community leaders to maintain strong ties with Israel despite differences with the current hardline government, in his first trip to the US since losing power.

The message represented a seemingly rare example of the opposition leader criticizing a sitting government while abroad.

Lapid met Wednesday in New York with Democratic congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Ritchie Torres.

In a meeting Monday with Jewish community leaders hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America, Lapid urged participants “not to give up on the relationship with Israel just because of the current government,” according to his office.

Lapid told the community leaders that “while governments come and go, the State of Israel is here to stay, and the bond between Israel and the United States is more important and strategic than ever.”

The Jewish community leaders and Democratic lawmakers expressed their anxiety over “the consequences of the regime coup on Israel-US relations and the relationship with American Jewry,” Lapid said, referring to the judicial overhaul being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid (C) meets with leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on September 21, 2022. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Not all of US Jewish groups feel that way though. Am Echad, an advocacy group affiliated with the Orthodox Agudath Israel of America sent Lapid a letter on Tuesday that blasted him for criticizing the government while abroad.

Am Echad quoted Lapid as having told the Jewish community leaders that the Netanyahu government is “the most extremist in history … causing damage to security, economy, social cohesion, and relations with Diaspora Jewry.”

“Large swaths of the Israeli population support the government’s actions and view them as the fruition of election promises,” the group said, in apparent reference to the judicial shakeup. Polling on the matter has indicated otherwise, however.

“It is disingenuous of you to accuse the government of undermining Israeli democracy and calling on American Jews to get up in arms to protect Israel from its own leadership,” said Am Echad, which has expressed support for the push to curb the High Court of Justice’s power.

“While we can argue about the prudence and wisdom of the current government’s policies and performance, rhetoric characterizing the government as ‘extremist’ and ‘undemocratic’ jeopardizes the relationship between Israel and world Jews,” the Orthodox group added.

The Am Echad leaders wrote that “when such statements move into mainstream media, they delegitimize Israel itself, and by extension pose real danger to the safety of Diaspora communities.”

Lapid’s comments in the private meeting had not been reported in the media before the Am Echad letter was published.

Israelis who oppose the government’s planned judicial overhaul protest outside a Mimuna event attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau and his wife Sara, in Hadera on April 12, 2023. (Flash90)

“When you go back to Israel, we in the Diaspora will face the potential consequences of even more antisemitism, powered by your words,” the group charged.

Lapid’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday and JFNA was also not available to comment due to the Passover holiday.

Am Echad appeared to represent a minority opinion though, as leaders from the mainstream JFNA visited Israel last month to lobby against far-reaching plans to change the judicial system, taking particular issue with a proposal to let the Knesset override High Court rulings.

Netanyahu has since agreed to pause the effort to give a chance to negotiations with the opposition aimed at reaching a comprise.

“We know that the differences of opinion in Israel today are deep and challenging. We in the Jewish Federation system have expressed our opinions where we felt it necessary to do so, as have other organizations represented here this evening,” JFNA chair Julie Platt said after the Lapid meeting. “But above all, together with so many other organizations in this meeting, we have expressed our strongest possible encouragement that every party must do its utmost to seek and find compromise.”

US Rep. Jerrold Nadler (L) meets with opposition chair Yair Lapid on April 12, 2023. (Courtesy)

Lapid’a Congressional meetings were noticeably focused on the Democratic Party, amid concerns of growing alienation from Israel due to what is widely viewed as most right-wing government in the Jewish state’s history.

Nadler and Torres are both in the more pro-Israel wing of the party, though the former has been increasingly critical of the Netanyahu government and the proposed judicial changes in particular.

The meeting with Nadler “focused on strengthening the US-Israel relationship, which is based on shared democratic values, in light of the current political situation in Israel,” Lapid’s office said.

“I told him that the opposition in Israel is strong and will work to ensure that Israel remains a strong and vibrant democracy, despite the challenges we face,” Lapid said in a statement.

Nadler said afterward that the two of them “reiterated the importance of maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship and protecting the democratic values that must remain at the heart of that relationship” — an apparent reference to the overhaul, which critics claim threatens Israel’s democracy.

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