US Jewish federations delegation lobbies in Israel against judiciary overhaul

Jewish leaders focus on proposal to allow Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions, seek to explain how government effort is impacting Israel’s ties with Diaspora

A delegation from the Jewish Federations of North America meets with President Isaac Herzog at his official Jerusalem residence on March, 15, 2023. (Courtesy)
A delegation from the Jewish Federations of North America meets with President Isaac Herzog at his official Jerusalem residence on March, 15, 2023. (Courtesy)

A delegation of US Jewish federation leaders is lobbying in Israel against the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary, a rare step that underscores the degree to which the proposed changes have rattled the US Jewish establishment.

The delegation came to Israel for 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday, and includes representatives of more than 30 US Jewish communities. The delegation met with some of the overhaul’s architects, including Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman and Kohelet Policy Forum founder Moshe Koppel, along with President Isaac Herzog, opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Unity head Benny Gantz.

The delegation’s main focus was on a proposal that would allow a simple majority of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to override Supreme Court rulings.

A statement from the Jewish Federations of North America, which is organizing the trip, singled out “the threats this proposal could have on Israel’s checks and balances and in safeguarding minority rights.” The delegation, the statement said, “also voiced concerns over the implications that this reform may have on government support for Israel in North America.”

Israel’s Supreme Court has acted as a bulwark safeguarding the rights of vulnerable populations — including women, LGBTQ Israelis and Arab Israelis. The proposal to sap the courts of much of their power and independence has drawn sharp criticism from a range of establishment American Jewish organizations and public figures with reputations as defenders of Israel, as well as Democrats in the United States, including President Joe Biden. Protests against the proposed changes have, for months, brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets across Israel.

Defenders of the proposed changes say the courts have been afforded the unwarranted power to overturn laws passed by the Knesset, and that the reform will allow the country’s government to better reflect the will of Israel’s right-wing majority.

Mounted police are deployed as Israelis block a highway to protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The trip is notable because the federation system — whose local branches aim to act as representatives of their local Jewish communities — has historically avoided criticism of Israeli government actions. Last month, the federations’ umbrella organization took the extraordinary step of writing to Israeli political leaders to oppose the overhaul legislation and to urge compromise.

A federation official speaking on background said one concern is that the organized Jewish community in the United States is at the forefront of defending rights for LGBTQ people, ethnic and religious minorities and women. Critics say the proposed reforms threaten to erode those rights in Israel.

The delegation comprised representatives from the federations’ national leadership as well as from large and small communities. Metropolitan areas and states that were represented include New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Colorado, Cleveland, San Francisco, Rochester, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Hartford, Nashville, Madison and Minneapolis.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington CEO Gil Preuss told The Times of Israel that the delegation was focused on explaining “the impact that the proposed reforms are having on the engagement of global Jewry, particularly American Jewry.”

“We were hoping that by convening a meeting with a variety of people expressing both our commitment to Israel, but also strongly our desire for the parties to come together and figure out a resolution that can help bring Israelis back together,” Preuss said.

He noted that the crisis surrounding the judicial overhaul has led to an acceleration of a trend in which American Jews expect their support for Israel to include a right to speak out regarding its policies.

“For a long time, the statement was that American Jews should not use their voice, especially publicly, in talking about internal Israeli issues. That idea, in many ways, is now gone,” Preuss said, noting that even leading Israeli figures are calling on American Jewry to speak out on the planned judicial overhaul.

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