No applause from MK Simcha Rothman, key architect of scheme

VP stresses importance of independent judiciary at Israeli embassy independence bash

In 14-minute speech that largely heaped praise on Jewish state, Kamala Harris makes not-so-subtle allusion to Biden administration’s opposition to judicial revamp

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

US Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an event hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Washington marking Israel's 75th year of independence on June 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Facebook)
US Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an event hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Washington marking Israel's 75th year of independence on June 6, 2023. (Screen capture/Facebook)

US Vice President Kamala Harris stressed the importance of an independent judiciary during a speech on Tuesday at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Jewish state’s independence hosted by the Israeli embassy in Washington.

The not-so-subtle allusion to the Biden administration’s opposition to the efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to radically curb the power of the High Court of Justice was included in a 14-minute speech that was largely effusive in its praise of the Jewish state.

“Under President Joe Biden and our administration, America will continue to stand for the values that have been the bedrock of the US-Israel relationship, which include continuing to strengthen our democracies, which… are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances — and I’ll add an independent judiciary,” Harris said to applause from many of the 2,000 people listening in the auditorium of the National Building Museum, including Shirin Herzog, the wife of Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, who was seated onstage behind the vice president.

There was no applause however from far-right Religious Zionism lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial revamp, who has been in the US for the past several days and was invited to the event.

In his own speech before Harris’s, Ambassador Herzog briefly referenced the controversy surrounding the judicial overhaul and conveyed optimism as to Israel’s democratic character.

“Israel is an imperfect democracy, and we like you have our own set of internal challenges. As a young nation only 75 years old, we are still grappling with important questions relating to our democratic system. But let me assure you, I am confident that Israel will remain a vibrant democracy,” he said to applause.

The Biden administration has largely eased up on its criticism of the judicial overhaul since Netanyahu agreed to temporarily pause the effort in late March in order to engage in compromise negotiations with the opposition. The talks, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, are aimed at securing a consensus for a more moderate version than the initial proposals unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in January, which set off mass protests and fierce public backlash.

In April, Levin conceded that a key component of the original overhaul legislation would’ve endangered Israel’s democracy, but that he has since agreed to soften the proposal following the uproar.

With a compromise still not apparently within reach, the Biden administration has held off on extending an invitation for Netanyahu to visit the White House.

President Herzog may well beat Netanyahu to the US. He sent a video message to attendees Tuesday during which he said was looking forward to traveling “in the near future” to the US where he’d be giving an address to a joint session of Congress and visit “my good friends at the White House.”

In her Tuesday speech, Harris focused largely on congratulating Israel on its 75th birthday while touting the Biden administration’s record of support of Israel and the Jewish community.

She began with a shoutout to her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president and was onstage with Harris Tuesday evening. She noted that his partnership led to the first mezuzah on the front door of the Vice President’s Residence, the first Hanukkah menorah lighting at the residence and the first Passover Seder at the residence.

Harris recalled — as she often does in front of Jewish crowds — how as a young girl she helped raise money for the Jewish National Fund to plant trees in Israel.

She touted the nearly $4 billion in annual security aid that the US provides Israel as well as the administration’s efforts to expand Jerusalem’s ties with its Arab neighbors.

“As we do that, the Biden-Harris administration will continue to work toward a world where Israelis and Palestinians can live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy. And we believe that the best way to achieve this goal is through two states,” she said to applause, which might not have been received had the line been used at another event hosted by the Israeli government.

Celebration of Israel's 75th Anniversary in Washington, DC

Celebration of Israel's 75th Anniversary in Washington, DC

Posted by Israel in the USA on Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Harris also highlighted the recently released White House strategy to combat antisemitism.

“When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out, because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism, and that’s unacceptable,” the vice president said, quoting the document to thunderous applause.

She concluded by citing a line from the Talmud, saying she discussed it at the recent Passover Seder she hosted at her residence. “It is not your duty to finish the work. But neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

“While Israel and the United States have achieved so much together, there is still so much more work to do. Previous generations willed the dream of Israel into reality and established enduring bonds between our nations and our people. And now, for our generation, we have the baton in the long relay race of history, and it is then up to us to strengthen these bonds even further,” Harris said.

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