US Jewish leaders sound alarm on next government in meet with top Israeli diplomat

Executives from mainstream groups warn proposals by Netanyahu’s partners targeting LGBTQ people, women, non-Orthodox Jews will lead to Jewish-led protests outside Israeli embassy

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

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at a campaign event in the southern city of Sderot, October 26, 2022. (Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich at a campaign event in the southern city of Sderot, October 26, 2022. (Flash90)

Executives from mainstream American Jewish organizations warned a visiting senior Israeli diplomat during a meeting in Washington earlier this month that the policies being promoted by incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners risk seriously damaging the Jewish state’s ties with the Diaspora.

The December 7 meeting took place at the height of coalition negotiations Netanyahu had been holding with heads of the various Orthodox parties slated to join his government.

In the days prior, Netanyahu had agreed to hand far-right Noam party chair Avi Maoz a role in the next government with authority over the Education Ministry unit responsible for informal education at Israeli schools. The anti-LGBT party head subsequently declared that he would work to end female service in the IDF and the annual Jerusalem pride parade.

Negotiators from the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit and Noam factions, along with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, had also been demanding in their talks with Netanyahu at the time that Israel cease recognition of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, in addition to the scrapping of the so-called “grandchild clause” in Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent, provided they don’t practice another religion.

It was against that backdrop that the Foreign Ministry’s Diaspora bureau chief Shuli Davidovich held a meeting at the Israeli Embassy in Washington with about ten executives from mainstream Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, and the Naomi & Nehemiah Cohen Foundation.

Three participants spoke with The Times of Israel about the “intense” off-record meeting, which was first reported by the Axios news site.

“I think [the Israeli embassy] meant for it to be a ‘we’re here for you’ meeting, but those of us who were there were like, ‘Wait a minute, not everything is the same and not everything is normal.’ This is a big problem for Diaspora Jews, and this could be a big problem for you,” one of the Jewish executives said.

Participants raised their concern regarding proposals raised by Netanyahu’s coalition partners targeting LGBTQ individuals, gender equality, non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians, a second executive said, clarifying that this was not done in a malicious way and that the goal was only to “convey the concern we’re getting from our own communities.”

The executives who spoke with The Times of Israel said the Israeli diplomats in the room largely used the meeting to listen but appeared surprised by the degree of the warning, which “didn’t seem to be on their radar.”

“It was a mainstream group that they brought together, and I think that was why it was alarming to them,” one of the participants said.

The Jewish executive said that they recognize that defenders of the incoming government are encouraging a wait-and-see approach. “Still, the Israeli embassy needs to understand that if their goal is to have a deep connection between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel, [then] even just talk or speculation about taking away the rights of LGBTQ people or women or those who are Reform, etc., is already impacting the relationship people are having with the State of Israel.”

“And if it’s already impacting people now, imagine what it will be like if these things actually come to fruition,” one participant said, summarizing the message that was conveyed in the meeting.

MK Avi Maoz, left, and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a coalition deal on November 27, 2022. (Courtesy, Likud)

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz, who agreed to speak on the record about the meeting, echoed that sentiment. “For the last several years, people have been telling NCJW that we’re being alarmist for believing that Roe was going to be overturned,” she said, referring to the US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, which was overturned in June.

“But we weren’t being alarmist. We were taking seriously the threats that were being made to us in this country by politicians and judges. We’ve learned from this that when politicians, elected officials or any judges say they want to take away your rights, you have to believe them and act and organize accordingly,” Katz added.

One of the participants even warned the Israeli diplomats that they should expect protests outside the Israeli embassy if some of the policies being advocated by Netanyahu’s coalition members are put in place. “And not only American Jews who are like very left-wing. Mainstream American Jews will protest,” one of the executives warned. “I think that really caught them off-guard and there were head nods to that sentiment.”

The Foreign Ministry declined a request to comment on the private meeting.

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