Major Diaspora philanthropists warn judicial overhaul threatens Israeli democracy

15 leading donors and charities, including Birthright’s Charles Bronfman, say they are ‘deeply concerned’ by government’s plans, urge dialogue

Charles Bronfman speaking at a Taglit-Birthright event. (Courtesy)
Charles Bronfman speaking at a Taglit-Birthright event. (Courtesy)

JTA — They have donated untold millions to develop Israel and defend it from its detractors. Now, a group of major philanthropists in North America have come together to warn that Israeli democracy is in jeopardy as the new government pushes forward with its contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Fifteen major donors and charitable foundations, including Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman, released an open letter Sunday urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider his government’s plans and enter into a dialogue on the proposed judicial reforms as recommended last week by President Isaac Herzog.

Netanyahu’s coalition has moved forward with the legislation in the face of mass protests that have brought tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets. The proposed overhaul has also drawn criticism from legal scholars, public intellectuals and foreign leaders, including from the US.

“Because of our love for Israel, we are deeply troubled by this attempt to curtail the independence of the judiciary, one of the key features that makes Israel one of the most vibrant democracies in the world,” the donors’ letter said.

In addition to Bronfman, the signatories include Adam Bronfman, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Lester Crown, Jeffrey Solomon, Marcia Riklis, Daniel Lubetzky, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Leichtag Foundation, Georgette Bennett, the Joyce & Irving Goldman Family Foundation, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, Dana Raucher, and Jeremy and Anne Pava — the founders of Micah Philanthropies. (Raucher sits on the board of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent organization.)

The letter argues that Israel’s political system lacks many of the checks and balances that exist in other countries, such as a bicameral parliament, making the Supreme Court’s independence an essential component of Israeli democracy. But the letter also says that some reforms to the court are needed.

“The only counterweight to the legislative and the executive is an independent judiciary, which — while imperfect and in need of improvement — plays a critical role in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all Israelis and ensuring that the laws of the country are applied fairly and justly,” the letter said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“While we appreciate that judicial reform was a campaign issue and that many Israelis voted for the governing coalition hoping for changes to the country’s judiciary, we strongly believe that democracy demands discourse,” the letter said. “Swift legislation without adequate dialogue can undermine the checks and balances that are at the core of Israel’s democracy, threatening critical relationships both within Israel (among Jews and between Jews and Arabs) and between Israel and the Diaspora.”

When the right-religious coalition came to power in December, many Jewish philanthropists and communal leaders expressed concern over Israel’s future privately. But as time has gone on, tensions between the new government and Israel’s backers in the Diaspora have increased.

A leaked policy memo from the party of far-right deputy minister Avi Maoz, for example, portrayed many American Jewish donors to Israeli civil society as a nefarious force bent on imposing pluralistic values on schoolchildren.

And while speaking at gatherings hosted by American Jewish organizations, Netanyahu and his Diaspora affairs minister, Amichai Chikli, have swatted away criticisms of the government’s decisions.

The donor’s letter is the latest in a mounting pile of open pleas from groups who say the proposed reforms threaten Israel’s future. Also over the weekend, new letters were distributed by the Conservative/Masorti movement of Judaism, 200 US Jewish scientists and Arab Israeli leaders.

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