Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to the United States for a series of meetings, including a long-awaited face-to-face with US President Joe Biden. He was met by anti-judicial overhaul protesters at every possible stop.
But are these protests the right move for Diaspora Jews? Do they actually serve their purpose or are they, as the prime minister himself insinuated, fodder for the BDS movement?
This week we bring you a second webinar with a panel of experts who discuss the role of global Jewry during this time of intense internal conflict in the Jewish state.
So this week, we ask former US ambassador David Friedman, Israel’s Special Envoy for Combatting Antisemitism Michal Cotler-Wunsh and leading Zionism expert Prof. Gil Troy, what matters now.
The following transcript has been very slightly edited.
Times of Israel: Welcome everyone to today’s Times of Israel webinar, “Diaspora Jews and Israel’s Judicial Overhaul: Differing Stances.” I am Times of Israel Deputy Editor Amanda Borchel-Dan here with former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism Michal Cotler-Wunsh and leading Zionism expert Professor Gil Troy.
We are here today to discuss the Diaspora’s role in the current judicial overhaul crisis and even whether it should really play one.
So let’s have some background. This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the United States, where he has been greeted by dozens of protesters at every single stop. It’s possible that even some of you joining us today participated in these demonstrations. And just now, Netanyahu met with US President Joe Biden, who on camera mentioned the need for checks and balances in Israel, perhaps also in light of lobbying from US Jewry. But this hour-long webinar is aimed at giving you, our readers, a real-time look at other perspectives driving the current judicial overhaul crisis, and our three panelists are experts in their fields and through their insights, we will gain the nuance that is often left out of the increasingly polarized conversations that we hear today.
So, ahead of today’s webinar, we received dozens of questions from you, from around the globe, and I’ve broken them up into several themes which will be addressed by our panel. But before we hear what they have to say about your concerns, let me introduce each one and ask each a first question.
So, first of all, we have former US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Let me wish you, first of all, a mazel tov on the premiere this week of your new film, “Route 60: The Biblical Highway.” I look forward to seeing that. David is a lawyer by training and he served as ambassador from May 15, 2017, until January 20, 2021, during which time the US officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. He also helped broker the Abraham Accords, which were assigned in September 2020 and hopefully will soon expand again.
So, David, I’d like to draw on your background in diplomacy and in government policymaking. I think it’s really safe to say that as an ambassador, you witnessed firsthand how the US government greatly influences Israeli governmental policy. So by extension, I wonder — asking you, both as a US Jew and as a diplomat — how should the Israeli government balance additional outside pressure from the global Jewish people when making domestic policy? Meaning, how do you think that the government should responsibly weigh the activism of Diaspora Jewry versus its coalition agreements and promises to its very electorate?
David Friedman: Well, it’s great to be with you, Amanda, and thank you for putting us together with our illustrious co-panelists. Look, there’s a famous saying in America that all politics is local, and it’s very true. And I think the best evidence of that is the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations. They scheduled him for tomorrow. He said: “No, I’m not going to speak Thursday afternoon when everybody in Israel is asleep. I’m going to speak Friday morning.” And that tells you who his audience is. He’s speaking at the United Nations, the largest collection of world representatives, but he wants to speak at a time when he can be live, primetime in the State of Israel. And that’s true of every politician that I’ve ever met and that I’ve ever worked with. Politics is local.
In a democracy, the first rule of thumb is, get elected. You get elected by appealing to your voters. And especially in a system as fragile as a parliamentary democracy, you can never lose the support of your voters. That’s the overriding dynamic about balancing other interests. I mean, the first thing you have to do is take care of what’s going on at home.
I think Israel is unique. There’s no other country that really spends any time at all thinking about a group of people who live outside of the country who are not citizens. Israel, because it’s the one and only Jewish state, because there is a large Jewish population in America, because of Israel’s extraordinary record of saving Jews who are at risk, does have a responsibility to the Diaspora, generally.
That doesn’t mean that they should care what they think, politically. It’s really a one-way street, I think, where Israel has to look out for the Diaspora. I’m not sure that people who live in the Diaspora who visit occasionally, who have strong views — I don’t know personally why the Prime Minister of Israel should care what they have to say.
I think the protesters in Israel — and again, this has nothing to do with the merits of the arguments — but I think the protesters in Israel are highly relevant, and I think they’ve been highly successful in making their point. The ones who are showing up at the United Nations today or in San Francisco or elsewhere that are protesting, I think it’s a vanity play. I think they’re making themselves happy or maybe getting some attention. I think their impact is essentially zero. And I don’t know why it should be anything other than zero.
Why should people who live in America have influence over Israeli policy? Alan Dershowitz wrote a very good piece yesterday in which he was very critical, I think appropriately so, of the protesters of Israel at the UN. I mean, of all the places to protest against Israel, you know the UN, which is such a hotbed of antisemitism. To give Israel’s enemies an argument that says: “Look, look, even the Jews in America don’t like Israel,” I thought was a huge miscalculation.
And so I think that where that changes is where it affects American governmental policy towards Israel. I don’t think these protesters have any effect at all. I would think, in contrast, somebody like Tom Friedman, who’s one guy, but who writes an article over and over again in The New York Times, beating the same issue which I disagree with completely, but he probably has [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken’s ear. He probably has [former president Barack] Obama’s ear. He’s the last of these guys, because [The Washington Post’s David] Ignatius, the other guy, has now insulted Biden, so he’s lost that influence. So, Tom Friedman could have influence because he can influence the president. I think these protesters, whoever they are, and they may be very fine people who mean well, but I think their influence is really negligible. I can’t think of any good reason why the Israeli government should care what they have to say on this particular issue.
TOI: Thank you so much for these thoughts, and we will return to some of them as the evening progresses.
So next we’ll hear from Michal Cotler-Wunsh. Michal was recently named Israel’s Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism. So mazal tov to you as well. Michal is also a lawyer by training and was a member of Israel’s 23rd Knesset as part of the Blue and White Alliance. She served as chair of the Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations and as an active member of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which is where much of this legislation has been born.
So, Michal is actually the bridge between our previous webinar on September 4, with three authors who are active in the anti-judicial overhaul protests in Jerusalem. Those were Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi and Daniel Gordis. Now, that webinar was based on an op-ed that they published in The Times of Israel.
After their first open letter op-ed in February, Michal published a rejoinder in which she explained why many in Israel do support the judicial overhaul, and that is in many ways, the basis for this webinar that we’re in right now.
So, Michal, could you start us off by delving into the need for renegotiation of checks and balances between Israel’s three branches that you witnessed yourself as a member of Knesset?
Michal Cotler-Wunsh: So, first of all, thank you. And thank you, everybody, for being here and for this really wonderful panel, and Shana Tova. And I say that because we’re also having this conversation in these incredible Days of Awe. So I think that the opportunity to reflect on the issues that we’re talking about — and they really are incredibly important, not only to the State of Israel, not only to the Jewish people — but I actually think we’re at an inflection point for democracy in general. I think that we’re talking at a really important junction in time. Just to follow up on the letter that I had written, or the additional letter that I had written, it was not to say “the” reform, it was to say that “a” reform is necessary, that a majority of Israelis agree.
And that would not have been true a few months ago. Definitely not a year ago, if you had asked the average Israeli on the street, first of all, many of them wouldn’t have known what we’re even talking about. What are the three branches of democracy? What are the checks and balances between them? Have they been breached? Has there been overreach? Is it important that in the natural tension between the three branches — always an inherent natural tension between the three branches of democracy — we create these checks and balances? And what that means for the state of Israel.
And so that rejoinder was actually a very clear statement on the important opportunity, almost historic, for the Israeli public to actually be having this conversation. And I would say, in some ways, a bit of a tragedy because here we are having this incredibly important conversation that needs to be had. And there are, I’d say, all kinds of, it’s not just voices, it’s actual mechanisms that stop the conversation from being able to advance to real policy, to real change. So, I will speak to a few things. The first and I mean, obviously the letter is out there, so I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in the letter.
But the first is actually the follow-up call of the additional webinar that you held that calls to take a stand. And I’m a big believer in taking a stand, actually. It’s a huge — including the role that I’ve just accepted — it’s a huge sense of responsibility that I do believe that we’re living in this historic time. But before you take a stand, when you say it’s time to take a stand, I do think that you have to pause for a moment and understand what you’re taking a stand on. How you want to take that stand, when is the moment to take that stand? Where are the places in which you want to take that stand? And most importantly, why you want to take that stand.
And if we go through those very simplistic questions, but really understanding through a little bit of what David mentioned and a little bit of what those two letters actually expose, the critical understanding of the very, very nuanced conversation that we need to be having, that actually has us at an intersection of multiple processes in the 75-year-young miracle that is the Jewish democracy founded according to the vision, mission, values as very clearly ascertained in the Declaration of Independence, meaning the nation-state of an indigenous people, returned after millennia of exile and persecution, committed to equality.
All of those conversations that come out of that mouthful, that sentence, the Declaration of Independence that’s been carried in the name of anti-reform demonstrations, that mouthful is what we have not yet had the discussion, the critical discussion, and I would say the critical discussion between half of us here, in that nation-state, and the other half in the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean, and I agree with David, that doesn’t mean that there is an implication for the current government or any government vis-à-vis what it is that global Jewry leans in on.
But it does mean that there is a critical conversation in this two-way bridge because the state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and indigenous people returned after millennia of exile, persecution, committed to equality. When all we talk about is that last, latter part of the declaration — what does committed to equality mean? — without the two additional components that set out what is the vision, mission, values of this country, then we have actually missed the opportunity to have a critical conversation between Israel and global Jewry.
And that’s maybe where I would maybe add to what David presented and would say, I don’t think that there is zero impact to the demonstrations we see in San Francisco or in the UN or in the streets of New York or anywhere else. I think that the impact actually adversely affects, if not drives a wedge between the critical connection of the Jewish people which returned to their ancestral homeland, which Israel is a manifestation of.
And actually, if I were to choose what concerns me more, it is not — although there are some former military generals and prime ministers that may be even hoping for or awaiting blood in the streets here in Israel — what concerns me much more, actually, is the deep wedge between Israel and global Jewry, that intersects with additional processes ongoing in other democracies, including in the United States, that actually challenge democracy. A very messy business, we know.
And in that sense, I think that if I said before the how, the where, the when and the what has been really challenged, and we would be remiss if we didn’t evaluate it according to what we’ve seen in the last couple of days with these demonstrations, including on the UN Wall where the “Butcher of Tehran” [Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi] took the floor, took the podium. And when Israel’s ambassador, the single ambassador of a democracy, stood up, because it was literally the day of the murder of an incredible young woman, Mahsa Amini, when he stood up and was escorted away by the UN security, the very same demonstrators outside of the UN actually voiced their complete renouncement of him as the representative of the State of Israel.
I think we would be remiss if we did not understand that when what we know of as the demonization, delegitimization and double standard towards the State of Israel to which David referred to, as well when those gravest enemies of the State of Israel, that seek its demise, that threaten to annihilate it. In a week after Abu Mazen gives one of the most antisemitic speeches — not just because of the Holocaust denial, not even the low-hanging fruit, the fruit that’s on the ground already — but actually the complete elimination and cancellation of any Jewish connection to the State of Israel, to the Middle East, when that comes hand-in-hand with a UNESCO decision to declare, Jericho, a Palestinian heritage site and so on and so on.
When there is an actual intersection of the same posters being held up by Israel’s gravest enemies and those demonstrating against the Prime Minister of the State of Israel speaking within the UN at a historic inflection point, including, we mentioned, Saudi Arabia, including the threat of Iran, whose representative spoke at the UN. We would be remiss if we did not evaluate the call to action, to stand, or to take a stand.
And finally, I’ll end with these words, with the “why.” And here, I have to refer to the late [UK Chief] Rabbi [Jonathan] Sacks to understand the “why.” And the “why” is as follows, and I’m quoting the late Rabbi Sacks: “Each of us carries with us the hopes of a hundred generations, of our ancestors and the destiny of generations not yet born. We are responsible to the Jewish past, for the Jewish future, and much depends on how we carry that responsibility. We must constantly ask: ‘How will what I, or we, do affect the quality of Jewish life for our children? How can I help to write future generations into the book of Jewish life?’”
And as we meet in these ten Days of Awe, we would be remiss if we do not, for a moment, at least reflect on the “why” before we launch into the, how to take a stand and where to take a stand and when to take a stand, that are to me, the secondary questions in what we have to remind ourselves, and that is that we are talking at this incredible moment of gratitude, after millennia, that we prayed for the return to Zion, at the 75-year-old inflection point of the challenges — and there are many — and opportunities of this incredible miracle that is the state of Israel. So I’ll end here and we’ll, of course, continue later. Thanks, Amanda.
TOI: Michal, thank you so much for that. And you’ve really perfectly set up Gil’s section as well. So, finally, let me introduce Gil Troy, a professor and American presidential historian and Zionist activist. He is the author of “The Zionist Ideas” and nine books on American history. Gil is also the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” which is the first publication of the Library of the Jewish People.
So Gil, you have spent so much of your career promoting Zionism, obviously, and couldn’t one argue, hey, there is no more Zionistic act for a Diaspora Jew than becoming the guardian, or an activist, to prop up the Jewish state’s democracy. Couldn’t one say that?
Gil Troy: In many ways, yes. You know, Theodor Herzl said we are a people, one people. And when we’re one people, I think there is a lot of mutual concern.
So, Mr. Ambassador, I am a little concerned with a model of a one-way street. I think it has to be a two-way street. But I think a two-way street also has traffic signals and speed limits and what was that word you used that people don’t use so well, Amanda? Nuance! I think we bring some nuance into the conversation.
Let me start with two fundamental principles. One, I’m a Zionist. I’m not a police officer. It’s not for me to police the Diaspora. As a Zionist, I can’t sit and give my brothers and sisters who live in the United States of America, England or Australia permission to do this or do that. I can raise questions, I can debate. But I think there’s a lot of people begging them to do things and sort of saying, oh, I’m giving you a green light, others putting up a red light. And I’m just uncomfortable with the tone of that conversation.
Secondly, as an oleh, an Israeli by choice, I’m uncomfortable turning to Mama Bear or Papa Bear in the United States or elsewhere and saying: “Save us!” I think the issues that we’re fighting about, and arguing about and dreaming about right now, in Jerusalem and throughout the country are very, very important and I want us as Israelis to work them out. Now, having said that, I’m thrilled to have help. And I think that, for example, if you talk about judicial reform, I think Americans and American Jews instinctively understand separation of powers. They instinctively understand what it is to grow up in a system where we’re playing rock, paper, scissors, match and we have different parts of the government checking one another.
I think we also understand, because we have governors and mayors and city councilors and so many levels of government in the United States of America — and Israel is much more centralized — the importance of distribution of power. So that’s one example where American lawyers, American thinkers, Zionists who care, can give their thoughtful opinions and kind of say, hey, wait a minute. There is a need to have some judicial reform, but not so far, not so fast. And by the way, most of my friends on the left now acknowledge the need for some judicial reform and most of my friends on the right say, not so far, not so fast.
On the other hand, I completely agree that to have this kind of aggressive demonizing of our prime minister and of our government and of Israel, when Prime Minister Netanyahu is representing all of us, whether we voted for him or not, in the UN, at San Francisco, is very, very disturbing. I was horrified when [MK] Simcha Rothman and his wife on a Friday night are walking out of a hotel and walking out of one hotel and going to another hotel and they’re harassed on the street by Israelis, Israelis who are choosing to live there, which is their prerogative. But I’m also imagining, what does it take on a Friday night for somebody to leave his or her own family to yell and scream with a megaphone at a shomer shabbat couple walking on the streets? And I say this as someone who literally criticized Simcha Rothman this morning for not really understanding that democracy is a balanced, delicate dance with different checks and balances. And it’s not just: “Ah, I won, I can run the table like I’m at Las Vegas the next couple years until I lose the next election.”
So, in short, as a Zionist, I actually do want people to care. I also think we have to call out the Israeli government, which is very quick to call on Diaspora Jews: “Help us, lobby for us, give us money! Ah, but no, I don’t want to hear any of your thoughtful feedback when it comes to this existential question we’re having about how we should organize our country.”
The late, great novelist A. B. Yehoshua, very much a man to the left, said that Israel is indeed the country, a state for all its citizens, but Israel is also a Jewish state. And if you don’t understand that as a Jewish state, it is a treasure, it is a shared possession of the entire Jewish people. I can like you, I can have lunch with you, I can call you a fellow Israeli, but you’re not a Zionist. And so Zionism indeed involves people and engages people and challenges people to care about this amazing project, this amazing adventure that Michal was talking about.
And so I want us indeed to go back to that word that you brought in, nuance. I want us to feel strongly, I want us to read all over the Jewish world about these very complicated issues. But when it comes to offering criticism, I want us to do it thoughtfully. I don’t want all this doom and gloom because it doesn’t help anybody. I’m tired of people shouting on the streets of Tel Aviv that this is a dictatorship when they’re actually proving that it’s a democracy because they’re shouting on the streets freely. And I think to then go to America and try to export that kind of hysteria and say: “Hey, wait a minute, we need more of that, we need a lot less of that.”
And let me add one more dilemma. I see friends of mine coming here and going to the protests, and I’m torn. On the one hand, I’m going to be controversial, it feels a little bit like protest tourism. It does indeed feel like a different form of what the ambassador is talking about, or virtue-signaling. Look, you know: “I’m putting an X on this. Look, I did this.” On the other hand, my friend and teacher, Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute, points out that when his Reform and Conservative rabbis this year came to learn with him, as they do every year, and they went to the protests, they came back feeling more engaged with Israel than they had in many, many years. They also, frankly, and let’s put this on the table, felt less orphaned by this government because they’ve heard so many of the voices in this government that are constantly demonizing them. And by finding fellow Israelis who had a different approach, who were thrilled to embrace them, they actually came back from their Israel experience with more of what I would call a Zionist feeling.
And so I end on this complicated note because it’s a complicated time, but the most important thing, as someone who spent most of my life living in the United States of America, as a proud American Jewish Zionist, I would just say — think. Think indeed what the ambassador raised about. Where is my protest going to be effective? Think, as both Michal and the ambassador mentioned, that we’re really in a situation where we’re swimming in a poison sea, and any criticism we give, especially there, especially at the UN, is going to be hijacked. And think about this amazing project called Israel, Zionism, the Jewish People and how you can help it.
TOI: Thanks so much for that, Gil.
Friedman: Can I jump in?
TOI: Not only can you jump in, the next question is for you. So go ahead.
Friedman: And then just before you ask the question, because I just want to clarify a point, I was speaking maybe a little bit in shorthand. So I mentioned that I thought there was a one-way street between Israel and the Diaspora. Let me just add a little bit to that so people understand.
I believe that Israel will survive without the Diaspora, without the Diaspora Jewish community. I think that would be tragic if we lost the Diaspora Jewish community. But Israel does not depend on the Diaspora Jewish community. Maybe it once did, maybe it did in the 1960s or 70s. It doesn’t anymore.
The Diaspora Jewish community, I believe, will not exist without Israel. And I think that’s why Israel’s responsibility is to help maintain the Diaspora. I think with all gratitude for the extraordinary philanthropy and support of Diaspora Jews, and of diaspora Christians as well, the numbers don’t lie. I mean, every single year, we get these numbers right before Rosh Hashanah. Every single year, the Jewish population goes up in Israel and it goes down everywhere else. In America, which is the second-largest Jewish community — the Jewish community in the United States has been stagnant for about 50 years, where Israel has gone from 600,000 Jews in 1948 to over 7 million today.
So the trends are the trends, they’re not going to change. The Jewish people will, God willing, perpetually have a home in Israel. This will be the home of the Jewish people. There will be Jews in the Diaspora, but they will become increasingly and increasingly less significant. And it is Israel’s responsibility to make sure that the Diaspora Jews are able to live in peace and ultimately have a place of refuge if needed. So that was my one-way street. I’m not discouraging Diaspora Jews from being Zionist or being involved in Israel, but the trends, the numbers are the numbers.
TOI: Okay, so the question is, which Israel and how strong will it be? So, as noted by several of our readers, they wonder about Israel’s status and reputation, out in the wider world today during this crisis. And while Bibi and Biden did meet today, it wasn’t at the White House, for example.
So a reader writes, “We’re hearing about normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but how can Israel still be an actor on the international stage when the Netanyahu government can’t keep the country together?”
So, as somebody who played such a key role in the Abraham Accords, David, could you share your insight into how this moment may affect Israel’s ability to bring together traditionally opposing forces?
Friedman: Well, how together are we in America? We’re a mess in America. We’re as divided a country as we’ve ever been. It’s true in Europe as well. It’s true all over the world. I mean, the world is becoming much more stratified and divided. And Israel, look at the divisions that Israel has had since its formation: You have religious and secular. You have Ashkenazim, Sephardim, you’ve got a huge Russian immigration that happened in the 1990s. You have Jews and Arabs. I mean, you have Haredim.
In a little tiny country, you have more diversity than any other place in the world. It’s a miracle that Israel exists at all and that it’s able to have a functioning country at all. And look, you know, I get it. People don’t like the results of the last election. They’re totally entitled to their view. And I understand those views.
Let’s not kid ourselves that judicial reform is about judicial reform. I mean, judicial reform is the triggering event that has brought to the surface all of the unresolved conflicts for the past 75 years. And they’re not insignificant. And I think what Michal suggested, and I’m sure what Gil would say as well, there does need to be a more sober, national conversation about the soul of Israel.
Look, my personal view is that the Jewish people exist today in contrast to all the other ancient nations that no longer exist because we’re the people of the book. I mean, the Bible matters. I think the Bible matters. I think that the Bible sells 2,400 copies every hour, and that it’s that book that has sustained us. Whether you view the book as the inspired word of God, or you view the book as our sort of national history, however you view it, that, to me, is an important guidepost. There are a lot of people that disagree.
We should have that conversation. We should talk about it. I believe that the overwhelming majority of Israelis, because they’ve all been fed through the crucible of the IDF, and they’ve all learned to live with each other and to love each other, I believe there is a core level of national unity in Israel that doesn’t even exist in the United States. And there is every reason to be optimistic that these issues will get resolved.
But we have to let Israel resolve these issues for themselves. We can’t put our finger on the scale. I think it’s a huge mistake. I think they have enough problems right now internally, that well-meaning people outside who care about Israel, just encourage the Israelis to get together and talk and resolve these issues, because at the end of the day, we can’t solve this problem for Israel.
I know we think in America we can solve every problem. We can’t. This has to be resolved internally. And the most important thing to people who look at Israel and say, what’s become of this country that we love? What’s happened to it? Well, first, number one, look in the mirror, because we have the same problems in America. But second, understand the internal challenges that exist within this country. And what’s made it worse in the last five to 10 years, a lot of people became very rich, and a lot of people didn’t come along for the rides. That’s another point of divide between the haves and the have-nots. Just like in America, the disparity of wealth is enormous now, in Israel, it was never like that. And Israel didn’t start off with capitalism.
So you have all these currents that have to get reconciled and resolved, but it’s among people who ultimately understand. They’re all Jewish. They’re in the only Jewish state. They want their nation to survive and flourish. Their ultimate goals are okay, you see all these things where these people who are protesting vehemently on the right, vehemently on the left, and they catch up with each other at a train station and they hug each other, okay?
That’s different about Israel from any other place in the world. And we should have confidence that Israel will resolve its problems. Given the runway and the space to do so, and just stop this mindless criticism, because at the end of the day, it’s never about democracy.
I mean yes, to go from an overpowering Supreme Court to a Supreme Court that has no power at all. Mistake. Okay? I think it’s a mistake. Even though I’m a judicial conservative, it’s a mistake. Okay. This was not handled well. The politics of this were all off. I learned a little bit about politics over four years. The messaging was all off. It was botched. Got to go back to the drawing board, do it again.
But ultimately, as Michal said, there needs to be some changes, and people need to buy into it in good faith, out of the political arena. And I believe Israel will come to a resolution. And while this is all happening, you want to be as helpful as possible. Give Israel the space to resolve its issues.
TOI: Okay, I just want to follow up on my question for you, however, which was about how Israel is being viewed on the international stage, and especially since we’re in such a very tough neighborhood. Do you feel that the Abraham Accords, for example, can be broadened while Israel is perhaps being seen as internally weak?
Friedman: I think the weakness is a problem. But look, you have to understand who is Israel normalizing with? This is the Middle East, right? This is not an area which places great value on democracy. I mean, Israel’s internal problems are really not of concern to its partners in the Middle East. That’s not the issue.
Israel is a valuable partner because it’s strong. It’s strong economically, it’s strong technologically and it’s strong militarily. And it’s those values and it’s those accomplishments that make Israel an attractive partner around the world. Let’s not kid ourselves. Every nation is acting in its own interests.
I lived through the Abraham Accords negotiations. I can assure you that nobody was talking about Israel’s social justice or internal governance. They’re talking about, is Israel a strong partner, given the challenges we face in the Middle East? The answer to that is yes. And I believe that answer will be yes for the foreseeable future.
TOI: Okay. Thanks so much. Gil, I would like to turn back to you for this next question, and it’s for you to put on your presidential hat, as it were. So many, if not most, Israelis agree that there should be some kind of reform, as we’ve talked about, each of us. And in a very long question, a reader from the US makes the comparison between today’s conflicting judicial messaging — is a Basic Law a constitution? Can the court hear it and decide upon it? — with the ratification of the US Constitution?
So part of his question is this. He writes: “Why not reach a compromise to this problem by calling the equivalent of a Constitutional Convention in which legal scholars of all backgrounds convene and generate a ‘mini-constitution’ that would be, at the very least, able to generate a process for legislation through a judicial review process in keeping with Jewish law and tradition?”
And before you answer this reader, I also wonder, additionally, was the US Constitutional Convention really such a utopian, angst-free endeavor as it sounds like he wishes this would be?
Troy: So we’ll start with that last, you know, we call the US Constitutional Convention a bundle of compromises. But you only have to go to a bundle of compromises when you’ve had a whole heck of a lot of fighting. And we know I mean, those of us who survived elementary school in the United States of America, know that there were fights between the big states and the small states, and there were fights, obviously, between the free states and the slave states. And there was the Three-Fifths Compromise, which from one perspective, looks absolutely horrific, reducing human beings to three-fifths of a person, but on the other hand, was actually a quite clever way out of a pickle because they didn’t know how to work together.
And so we can learn two things from the American constitutional experience. One is indeed there were very, very difficult gaps ideologically, sociologically, economically between different forces, and they overcame them. And that ability is what democracy is all about. That ability is indeed, and I very much appreciate what was just said, about the soul of the country — 94% of Israeli Jews ate apples and honey just this last week. It’s not only the growth of the Jewish community in Israel, the growth of the Jewish population but there are so many things in common.
We emphasize the differences because that’s what makes headlines, but we miss the song of the street. We miss the degree to which everybody’s saying “shana tova” and “g’mar chatima tova” and putting on too many pounds, and then trying to run off during them off during the week, and that whole cycle is really very powerful. So there’s a cultural covenant we have in Israel that unites us.
So, would I love to see some kind of constitutional convention? Yes. Is there now, actually, as a result of this botched job and this insanity the last couple of months, all of a sudden an awareness that maybe we do need to start thinking more critically? Absolutely. My friend and colleague, Yedidia Stern of the JPPI, The Jewish People Policy Institute is pushing for a thin constitution. But he says “razeh ve’shriri” — meaning thin and muscular. That, let’s focus on what we can agree on.
And there’s a fascinating document, a speech of David Ben-Gurion from the 1950s in which he — because the Declaration of Independence, which everybody’s quoting, says we should have a constitution, in fact, it commits to a constitution — and he said: “Whoa! Do you want a bunch of Jews, when we’re absorbing so many immigrants and going from 600,000 to 1.2 million in a year and a half, when we’re fighting off six Arab armies, when we don’t even have money to pay for anything? Do you want us also getting together and yelling and screaming about our constitution? No way.” And so that issue has been kicked down the football field again and again and again historically to this point, where indeed it’s not about judicial reform, but the judicial reform has become the symbol of so many frustrations.
So on the one hand, could I create a scenario where a constitutional convention would let us breathe and see some of the things that we have in common? Absolutely. But are there also fears that opening up that can of worms at this point in time would raise all kinds of very difficult questions? How do we work in Haredim? Let’s not forget that we’re 20% Israeli Arabs, who are our brothers and sisters, and we saw during the coronavirus, that 23% of Israeli doctors are Arabs and 43% of pharmacists are Arab, and they’re also part of this prestige, part of this tapestry. So there are indeed many complicated questions.
I do want to circle back, though, to this whole question of the Abraham Accords, because there was indeed, and I read in The Times of Israel, a petition of 75 leading American Jews, rabbis and thinkers and organization leaders to the President of the United States on the eve of his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, saying: “Whoa. Slow down on the Saudi Arabian normalization thing because don’t forget the Palestinians. Don’t throw the Palestinians under the bus.”
Now, as someone who also wants us, as Israelis, to solve the Palestinian issue, and as someone who has kids who have served and are serving, and as someone who is mourned with victims of terror, I think the Palestinian issue is an important one and a very, very complicated one. But what I learned from the Abraham Accords is not “Peace Now,” but “Peace More.” The more peace we have, the more we limit the number of conflicts, the more we add Saudi Arabia, to the UAE, to Egypt, to Jordan, to the list of countries that not only deal with us, but have peace treaties with us, the better off we are and the closer we are to even a peace with the Palestinians.
And so for American Jewish leaders, or any Jewish leaders, especially from afar, I’m sorry to add that phrase, but especially from afar, to sit there and lobby their president to slow things down on what could be a game changer is, to me, as self-defeating as Israelis from within saying, oh, well, we hate Netanyahu so much that we hate the possibility of a Saudi Arabian deal. We’d rather give up on the Saudi Arabian deal because it might boost Bibi Netanyahu. It means that they hate him more than they love peace. And these kinds of self-defeating, self-destructive moves are things that are toxic — in Israel and in the Diaspora, and as has been said, throughout the world these days.
TOI: Okay, thank you for that. And I’m going to turn to Michal now and touch upon some of the themes that you just raised, because I think for many people, they are really torn, really emotionally torn, and it’s not trying to create some kind of toxic environment through their activism.
So, Michal, this is for you, kind of in your new role as well. There are many who write about how torn they are about expressing an opinion or their duty to make that opinion known. Should they express their opinion? Do they have to express an opinion? And then, adding into that mix is the fear that any criticism of Israel abroad could inflame BDS activism and antisemitism.
So one reader from England writes: “My daughter thinks that, not living in Israel, no children in the IDF, et cetera, I have no right to make my feelings known on Israeli matters like the overhaul. Further, she thinks that protests in the UK give ammunition to Israel’s enemies. But I think it’s my duty as a Jew who loves and supports Israel to have my say, even in the UK, with the hope of influencing matters.”
So we’ve touched on this already, but Michal, let’s talk about this one more time. What should, could, this person do?
Cotler-Wunsh: So I want to actually just backtrack a little bit and say a few things as we sort of head into that question, or the response to that question. And I want to say the following. I want to say that I think in many ways as Jews into this 75-year sort of exercise in sovereignty, which is new for us, we haven’t had it in thousands of years. The idea of sovereignty, and I said before, with half of us here and half of us in the rest of the world, is something we have to talk about. So that’s, I guess, a preface to the question you just asked me — what is the role? There is a role. What is that role and how do I manifest that role? And so on. And there is an important voice and for sure to lean in.
But I do want to backtrack a little bit and say the following. I think that in many ways we too are guilty of the lack of differentiation between criticism — legitimate in any democracy, in every democracy, and we see it everywhere we are, and the imperfect democracies from Canada to the United States to all over Europe — we see the imperfection of democracy, and the criticism of democracy is not only necessary, it actually encourages growth and change and shifting and so on.
And I would actually then add to that, there is a huge difference between that criticism and delegitimization. And when we cross over into delegitimization — delegitimization, by the way, of an individual and democratically-elected individual, a sitting prime minister delegitimization and certainly delegitimization of a country.
So if I apply the same rules, the same mechanisms that I use when I identify and address the demonization, the delegitimization and the double standards towards the State of Israel in the international arena, that, among other things, has co-opted and weaponized international law and its institutions and human rights and has taken away or taken words or imposed social constructs that may have been utilized to create words for atrocities that we cannot imagine. Unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, for example, crimes against humanity, for example, genocide. And when we impose, we take those words and we impose them on a completely irrelevant set of facts, let’s say what is happening in Israel. When we take apartheid as an awful abuse, a manifestation of systemic racism in South Africa, and we take what has turned Israel into a pariah state, an apartheid state. And we utilize, we being perhaps former heads of Mossad, perhaps former generals in the IDF, we use that same terminology. What we do is we actually echo the very same tools that have served not only in the demonization, delegitimization and double standards against the state of Israel in this existential war, for its very right to exist, so simultaneous to the war that we are familiar with. And the series of wars ‘48 and ‘56 and ‘67 and ‘73 and ‘82 and so on and so on, alongside those, there has been a consistent war for public opinion.
A war for public opinion, which we can maybe find a few markers of — the 1975 “Zionism is Racism” UN resolution, Soviet propaganda that came through as a resolution which is alive and well in 2023 on American campuses. The 2001 Durban Conference Against Racism an antisemitic hate fest, which launched Israel apartheid weeks on every single campus across North America for 22 years. And the understanding that when we speak and utilize or apply social constructs that may or may not be relevant to the story, let’s say, of the United States, even the understanding of race and racism in North America, and apply that social construct to a completely different set of facts — that is not our story.
When I speak to students and I say to them I am a member of a prototypical indigenous people, how do I know? Because of what David said, that reads the same book, the Bible, for thousands of years in the same language, Hebrew, for thousands of years, about the same place that I am living in, Israel for thousands of years. That’s what indigeneity means when we take the term indigeneity — and it’s an international law concept — and we strip Jews of the right to claim indigeneity, and we put them or we impose the social construct of victim or victimizer. And that would make us Jews, white victimizers who received as part of white colonialism, post-Holocaust, this gift, because six million of our people were murdered. And if you ask Abu Mazen, we had something to do with that so that we would receive this gift. Or the 850,000 Jews from Arab lands and Iran who were cleansed from the Middle East and ended up in Israel. Not because, as Abu Mazen said, Ben Gurion had a deal in order to bring them here, because we needed a population.
If we don’t flip the paradigm at 75 and understand that the State of Israel does not exist because the Holocaust occurred, it’s exactly the opposite. And I quote my father, Prof. Irwin Cotler: “The Holocaust could not have occurred had the state of Israel existed.” And that is something that as a people, and I connect to what David said before, that we have to understand.
But I would add to that that it is our very unity that understands that Zionism, when Gil says I am a Zionist or I say I am a Zionist, that’s integral to the identity of that indigeneity. Of Jews for millennia who prayed for the return to Zion whether they were in Ethiopia, in Syria, in Iraq or in Paris. And the fact that we are here now and at this very moment, an intersection, a junction in time we fail to recognize the importance of this conversation whether we’re in England, in Canada or in Israel but to have that nuanced conversation that Gil was talking about to understand that this is not about judicial reform.
And I can go into as a lawyer who had clerked at the Supreme Court, at the time of the court-declared constitutional revolution. What I just said is overreach. A court has no business declaring constitutional revolution. That’s up to the legislator, isn’t it? If we really take seriously, checks and balances, and I agree with Gil again, more seasoned democracies have a lot to offer in terms of the understanding of the checks and balances between the three branches critical to democracy. And by the way, in this conversation, I’ve heard over and over again without being corrected, too many people say: “Well, Israel doesn’t really have three branches of government, it only has two. The executive is really the legislative, and the judicial. So the judicial has to supervise the executive.”
Well, I have a news flash: democracy has three branches! And the legislative has a critical role. And here I will speak as a former legislator, not only to propose legislation and to be involved in the Knesset, in the Law and Constitution Committee, about the constitutional makeup of this 75-year-old miracle and how we launch it. And where we take the Basic Laws that have been sort of developing as a piecemeal constitution but also critically as supervisor of the executive branch. If we forget that piece. And that’s what the committees of Knesset are mandated to do, to supervise the Executive branch. There is not a democracy with two branches. We cannot accept that this democracy has two branches. And the weakening of the Knesset, the weakening of Israel’s parliament is something that actually worries me gravely. It’s something that I think that if you are going to lean in and have an opinion on this, you have to know and understand how we’ve reached there and what we should do about it. And how is it that this fierce leader of the opposition for 29 years, Menachem Begin, continued to sit in those committees and create shadow governments and so on and so on. And the understanding that opposition, just as much as coalition, and opposition leaders just as much as coalition leaders, have critical responsibility at understanding that in our parliamentary system, who we enable to construct a coalition with, actually defines.
Are we going to empower the extremities by not agreeing to sit with a legally elected leader of a democratically chosen party? By not the leader himself? More than 30 mandates in five elections in a row. So basically saying: “Your vote does not count and we will not sit in a coalition with you.” And how have we arrived at a more extreme version of government? By the way, the previous one and this one, as a result of this process and the last few months are not in a vacuum.
I would look at the last several years together, including the demonstrations, including the messaging, and I go back to the demonization, the delegitimization and the double standard. Those are never legitimate, not from the outside in and not from the inside out. There is a difference between criticism that says I am here remembering the “why,” beginning with gratitude to be here today so that we can fix, so that we can repair, not so that we can destroy, and remembering that after that gratitude, the differentiation between criticism and sounding that criticism is nothing like delegitimization which says you have no right to exist.
And that’s where it intersects with the most challenging messages that the state of Israel faces in that existential war, that war for public opinion, which has turned it into a pariah state, which has turned those that support it, whether they’re Jews or not, they’re self-defined as Zionists or deemed to be Zionists, if they’re identifiable or not identifiable as Jews, if they’re wearing a kippah or not. On campuses, online, on the streets. That is the morphing of that antisemitism that is actually a subsidiary, I would say, of what we’ve seen happening and where those messages echo one another.
I would say that the alarm bells should be ringing very, very loudly for the person who asked that question in the UK or in Canada or in the United States or in Israel itself. If we are echoing the same messages as the gravest enemies of the state of Israel seeking its destruction, we have to be looking in the mirror and wondering what it is that differentiates criticism from those three Ds that Natan Sharansky coined: the demonization, the delegitimization and the double standard. Whether it’s an entire country or the representative of that country that serves all of us.
TOI: Thank you for that, Michal. David, one last question for you, and then I’ll have one last question for Gil as well. You are not currently the ambassador, but had this happened on your watch, what would you advise the American President to do at this point in terms of Israel’s judicial overhaul?
Friedman: I would have told him to take a step backwards, not to put his finger on the scale, to understand that the judicial reform proposals and the backlash against them reflect some more fundamental disputes, internal disputes within the country. I would hope he could understand that Israel’s come a very long way in a very short period of time, that when they declared their independence, they didn’t have the luxury of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, of sitting around and kind of coming up with a constitutional architecture, notwithstanding how hard it was to do it then. And that these are growing pains of a small country that’s never known a day of peace in its life, continues to be at war, state of war with Syria and Lebanon, even to this day, people don’t realize it.
These are growing pains of a very vibrant democracy that need to work their way out. There’s a lot of demographic issues. There’s a lot of religious issues. We never had a Jewish state before. No one really understood fully what it means to be a Jewish state. People have very different views about what it means to be a Jewish state. And those things all have to get cycled through a multi-year discussion with lots of turbulence along the way. But the plane will land. The plane will go through the turbulence, and it will land safely.
Unless somehow, we in America, which is Israel’s most important ally, the only ally that Israel can’t live without, the cornerstone of Israel’s entire foreign policy architecture. If we start getting involved and start taking sides on a purely internal issue, we’re going to make it much worse. I’d like to think if I were still the ambassador, that view would prevail. Pretty sure it would have prevailed during the four years that I was in office.
TOI: Thank you for that. And Gil, as promised, we’ll end with actually a reader’s question, which is: “Prof. Troy, as a historian capturing Theodor Herzl, I’m curious what his vision was of a new government and whether or not his perspective is helpful at this juncture.”
Troy: I’m well aware of the fact, as a historian, that people love to pick and choose. When the Vietnam War was more popular and John F. Kennedy had been freshly assassinated, everybody said: “Oh, Kennedy would have stayed in Vietnam.” And then as the Vietnam War became less popular, this unfortunately dead president started souring on the Vietnam War. So I’m a little hesitant to say what Theodor Herzl would have said about this particular government or that particular government.
But I would say this. I think that when you go back and read Theodor Herzl, you see that he gets to these fundamentals that we’re talking about. He gets to the miracle that we’re living. He gets to the power of peoplehood that we have, and indeed, the challenge and the exciting opportunity of creating a Jewish democratic state. Never before, indeed, has there been a democratic state that was Jewish. And never before has there been, with all the different polities we’ve had and all the different regimes we’ve had, a Jewish state that was democratic. And that dance is one that we’re constantly balancing. So I would say that there’s a lot to learn from Theodor Herzl about ideas. There’s a lot to learn from Theodor Herzl about perspective. But I wouldn’t use Theodore Herzl, nor would I use God himself for commenting on policy matters.
I would like to add two other things to close. One is that I’d like to reframe the previous reader’s question. I don’t think we should be debating: “Do I have the right to?” I don’t think that’s helpful language. I think we should be asking: “What is the right thing to do? What is the right way to help? What is the right contribution I can make?” That’s number one.
Number two is my New Year’s wish for all of us is that we don’t just hear the extremists on both sides. One of the things I keep trying to do in my columns is talk about the “silenced majority.” Richard Nixon talked about the silent majority, but there is a silenced majority in Israel. 70% of Israelis want some kind of compromise. 70% of Israelis support our extraordinary president, who’s one of the few people in the polity who speaks with respect for both sides. And I think maybe even more than 70% of Israelis, and Diaspora Jews, want people on one extreme or the other to occasionally call out their allies.
When the prime minister speaks disrespectfully, or a Knesset member speaks disrespectfully, or a coalition member speaks disrespectfully from the right, I need voices from the right to shut them down. And yes, there I do need some policing. And when people from the left call Israel an apartheid state or call Israel a dictatorship, I need people from the left to say: “Whoa, slow down.”
We have our angers, we have our issues. and so my hope is a little more nuance, indeed, as you’re calling, a little more self-criticism, a little more humility, and a lot more love and a lot more of an emphasis on indeed what all three of us are emphasizing the amazing miracle that we’re living, the amazing opportunities we have. And that’s exactly what Theodor Herzl’s message would have been. Because Theodor Herzl dealt with all kinds of crazies. And I have a long list of frustrations he had about Jewish leaders, which sound exactly like our frustrations about our Jewish leadership today.
But at the end of the day, in the 11 years that he was active as a Zionist — it was only 11 years, and he died tragically at the age of 44 — he kept on saying two things. One, the power of peoplehood and the importance of peoplehood. And the more he got involved, and the more he became religiously interested and the more spiritual he became, and the more people-oriented he became, he said more light came to his life. And that’s my wish for all of us, that we find more light into our lives.
TOI: Amen and shana tova, of course. So thank you, all three of you, for joining me today, Michal, David and Gil. And readers, The Times of Israel will continue to cover all aspects of this judicial overhaul dispute, bringing more nuance into the conversation, and including in upcoming TOI Community online events, as well as episodes of our weekly What Matters Now podcast, which has in-depth conversations with pro- and anti-overhaul personalities.
So if you enjoyed this webinar, please recommend to your friends, family, acquaintances, even enemies, that they get a recording which will be available on demand. So, until next time, I say to all of us, shalom.
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