Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara engaged in a heated exchange with Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs during the premier’s meeting with US Jewish community leaders earlier today in New York.
Jacobs tells The Times of Israel that during the Q&A portion of the meeting, he raised how rabbis at just about all Reform synagogues across the US gave sermons during the High Holidays in which they expressed how much they love Israel but also how distraught they are by their belief that its democratic pillars are under threat due to the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary.
“We feel very concerned about those who might become more vulnerable such as women, the LGBTQ community, non-Orthodox Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Jacobs says he told Netanyahu, explaining that those minorities are less safe when democracies are weakened.
Jacobs says he went on to hail Netanyahu’s effort to reach a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia but asked him if he could also comment on the internal Jewish divisions because “we’re coming apart at the seams.”
Netanyahu gave a lengthy response about what his government was trying to accomplish with the judicial overhaul, insisting that he was seeking as broad a consensus as possible for the revamp, even though he has the votes to pass them unilaterally.
Jacobs says he asked a follow-up question in which he recalled how Netanyahu has accused the anti-overhaul protest movement of being violent and aggressive “when the protests have been largely peaceful” and have featured speakers who speak about their love for Israel and their commitment to Israeli democracy.
The Reform leader asked Netanyahu whether he wanted to say something to those protesters ahead of Yom Kippur.
Upon hearing the question, Sara Netanyahu interjected and asked if she could ask Jacobs a question as well. The premier’s wife went on to speak emotionally about how she, her family and senior members of the government have been threatened with physical violence in recent months amid the judicial overhaul protests. Sara Netanyahu asked Jacobs whether he would condemn such actions.
“Absolutely,” Jacobs says he responded while clarifying that what Sara Netanyahu described has not been the dominant narrative that he’s heard and recalled how the prime minister accused the anti-overhaul protesters have aligning with Iran and the PLO against the government.
Jacobs clarifies that he was grateful to have been included in the meeting along with several other progressive Jewish community leaders and appreciated that Netanyahu opened the floor to Q&A and took the time to answer everyone’s questions.
Jacobs says that after he wished Netanyahu good health, the premier joked that he now has a pacemaker in addition to being a peacemaker, which garnered a few chuckles from the crowd.
In another tense portion of the meeting recalled by Jacobs, a prominent Jewish community leader in the room stood and told Netanyahu, that US Jews defend Israel every day but are having a harder time doing so as of late “when senior members of your government speak out in racist voices,” the individual said, asking Netanyahu why he has tolerated such rhetoric from his coalition partners.
Netanyahu responded that he cannot control everyone and that there are many other countries that have a bigger problem with this phenomenon, Jacobs recalls, admitting that the premier cut his answer short to get to as many questions as possible.
National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz tells The Times of Israel that she also appreciated being included in the hour-long conversation and that it was far more open than she expected.
However, she admitted to feeling a vast disconnect between the more theoretical conversation in the room about the judicial overhaul and the fears she is hearing from activists on the ground about the ramifications the reforms could have for women and other minorities.
“I’m very very afraid of the results of the overhaul and what it would mean for women and other marginalized groups,” she says.
Katz recalls how the pro-choice movement in the US was told not to worry about losing abortion access before Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer and says a similar dynamic seems to be taking place in Israel where anti-overhaul activists are told by the government that their rights are not at risk.
“We’re debating legal concepts, and those are important, but what matters to me is whether people will be okay,” Katz says.