Tikvah Fund alumni urge group to cut support for think tank behind judicial overhaul

In letter, 25 academics ask conservative non-profit to cut ties with Kohelet Policy Forum, saying the organization seeks to ‘subvert Israeli democracy’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Israelis opposed to the governmnet's judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund's offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israelis opposed to the governmnet's judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund's offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Over two dozen alumni of the Tikvah Fund, a conservative US Jewish organization, have urged the group to cut support to the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli think tank that is a key player in conservative Israeli politics and the government’s judicial overhaul.

The alumni sent a letter to the Tikvah Fund’s board of trustees last month.

“Kohelet seeks to subvert the basic checks and balances and legal guarantees that safeguard Israeli democracy,” the petitioners said.

The letter said Kohelet advocates policies that threaten the basic rights of minorities, women and LTBTQ individuals. It also said the forum harms the disabled by opposing tax benefits for the blind, and parents by advocating against supervision of safety standards in cribs.

“The forum operates towards numerous goals inimical to the Tikvah Fund’s mission of Jewish flourishing,” the letter said. “Rather than being a conservative or traditionalist body, it promotes a revolutionary agenda, undermining the time-honored democratic institutions and principles of Israel and its Declaration of Independence, as well as the moral imperatives of the Jewish tradition.”

“The accumulative effect of the radical changes that the forum promotes will in all likelihood, also endanger our ability to work freely and productively as academics, in or with Israel. Such an agenda is very far from what we believed the Tikvah Fund to be when we joined its programs,” it said.

Twenty-five former Tikvah Fund fellows and scholars signed onto the statement, including faculty from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and several ivy league US universities. The academics asked to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliatory litigation from Kohelet.

The Tikvah Fund, a New York-based nonprofit, did not reply to the letter. It also did not respond to a request for comment.

“We assumed that they have some interest in knowing what the alumni think of the organization that the fund has chosen to support,” one petitioner said. “The total lack of response of the fund, even to the extent of acknowledging receipt of the petition, seems to indicate otherwise.”

The petitioner said Tikvah Fund used to support high-quality academic programs in major US universities, but shifted focus over the last decade with its support for Kohelet. Academics who had previously participated as fellows were now associated with “an organization that is operating to transform Israeli society in a way that, in their view (that is widely shared in academia), will preclude academic freedom, and viable scientific and cultural life,” the alumnus said.

Israelis opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul protest outside the Tikvah Fund’s offices in New York City, March 8, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Kohelet has been deeply involved in the government’s push to diminish the judiciary, as well as providing legal backing for other contentious legislation in recent years, including 2018’s nation-state law and former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s declaration that West Bank settlements were “not inconsistent with international law” in 2019.

Kohelet drafts legislation for lawmakers, provides legal justification for policies, and works to foster a conservative network spanning Israel and the US, among other activities.

The Tikvah Fund has longstanding ties to Kohelet.

The chairman of Kohelet, Moshe Koppel, is on Tikvah’s board of directors. (Koppel has written about the legislation on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.) Other staff members have also moved between the two organizations.

Tikvah is also linked to MK Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and a key figure in the coalition’s push to speed the judicial legislation through the Knesset despite widespread opprobrium over the move. Tikvah counts Rothman as an alumnus in its impact report and has hosted him on its podcast and at other events. Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli of Likud is another alumnus of Tikvah.

MK Simcha Rothman chairs a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee the Knesset, May 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli protesters in New York have targeted the Tikvah Fund, including by holding a rally outside the organization’s offices. The demonstrators charge the Tikvah Fund with supporting the overhaul legislation, which will have a dramatic impact on Israeli society if it passes in its current form, although the organization’s US leadership does not live in the country, pay taxes there or raise their families in Israel.

Rothman and other coalition lawmakers are in New York this week for the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade.

Protesters have hounded Rothman and Economy Minister Nir Barkat of Likud since they arrived in the area, including with a protest outside a New Jersey synagogue where Rothman was speaking on Thursday.

The Israeli-led protest group has announced a series of demonstrations at appearances by the lawmakers throughout the week.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character and leaving the rights of minorities unprotected. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an overly intrusive court system.

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