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Israel’s rightward shift is straining its ties with U.S. Jews

An image of the U.S. flag is projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City in honor of President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Mahmoud Illean/The Associated Press)
Coalition includes ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties

U.S. Jewish leaders are sounding alarms about what they see as a threat to Israel’s democracy posed by its new government, fearing it will erode the independence of its judiciary and legal protections for minority groups.

While some Jewish leaders dismiss such fears are overblown, a solid majority of mainstream Jewish American groups are voicing unprecedented criticism of the Israeli government, raising fears about a growing rift between Israel and the predominately liberal American Jewish population. Some progressive voices have gone even further, saying Israel can never truly be a democracy as long as it rules over millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to vote.

The controversies come even amid a flare-up of deadly violence involving Israelis and Palestinians. On Wednesday, Israeli troops conducted a raid in the West Bank, triggering fighting that killed at least 11 Palestinians and wounded scores.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu took office as prime minister in December after the country’s fifth election in less than four years. His coalition allies include ultra-Orthodox parties and ultranationalist parties dominated by hardline West Bank settlers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, right, stand in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg, File)

Critics are alarmed about coalition members' wish list of expanded settlements, narrowing the eligibility for would-be immigrants claiming Jewish heritage, and restricting non-Orthodox access to a sacred site.

They see a planned judicial overhaul as threatening the checks and balances on Israel's government — echoing concerns voiced by tens of thousands of Israeli street protesters in recent weeks.

“Here we are, about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Jewish democratic state of Israel that we love,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a liberal denomination representing the largest U.S. Jewish religious population. Yet that anniversary is approaching amid fears for “the weakening of Israel’s democratic foundations,” Jacobs said.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in the U.S., said Netanyahu's government and its political opposition share responsibility for the tensions.

“Is the government’s initial proposal extreme and in need of correction? Probably," Hauer said. But he said there's room for compromise.

The Knesset, dominated by Netanyahu and his allies, voted this week for bills that would give the governing coalition control over judicial appointments — currently made by an independent committee that includes lawyers, politicians and judges — and curtail the Supreme Court’s ability to review the legality of major legislation. The Knesset also voted to empower lawmakers to overturn high court decisions by simple majorities.

The bills require additional votes before becoming law.

Representatives of the influential American Jewish Committee have urged Israeli government officials to consult with opposition leaders, judges and others, said Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer.

“If you’re going to fundamentally alter a system that’s been in place for a number of years and guarantees the independence of the judicial system … do it carefully, do it slowly," Isaacson said.

That said, “the sky is not falling,” Isaacson said, predicting Israel would retain a robust democracy.

Opponents say the proposals would push Israel toward a system like Hungary and Poland, where the executive wields control over all major levers of power. Under Israel’s system, the prime minister already controls the legislature through his majority coalition.

There could be widely acceptable changes to judicial selection, Jacobs said, but current proposals will “cause deep harm to the structure of the rule of law.”

Attempts by Israel’s figurehead president to broker a compromise — efforts supported by many U.S. Jewish organizations — have failed to make headway.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, near the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (Ohad Zwigenberg/The Associated Press)

A weakened court would particularly affect groups that have relied on judicial rulings for protections, including Palestinians, LGBTQ people and members of the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, whose ranks are small in Israel but comprise the majority of American Judaism.

The Jewish Federations of North America - which rarely comments on internal Israeli politics — opposed legislation that would give a simple Knesset majority power to override Supreme Court decisions. “The essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights,” it said.

Amichai Chikli, the diaspora affairs minister in Netanyahu’s government, pushed back against the criticism.

“To say that we are changing the fundamental basis of the Israeli regime from a democracy to tyranny or dictatorship, this is complete nonsense," he told The Associated Press.

Irving Lebovics, co-chair of Am Echad, supported changes in the judiciary, though he said specifics can be negotiated. Am Echad, a branch of Agudath Israel of America, communicates with the Israeli government on concerns of American Orthodox Jews, including haredi or strictly observant communities.

The Supreme Court, he said, has too much power in deciding both the law and its own membership, he maintained. “The Supreme Court opines on whatever they choose to opine about," he said.

Some cabinet members are also seeking to narrow eligibility under the Law of Return, which currently allows anyone with one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel.

There’s also talk of curbing the already limited space for egalitarian or mixed-gender prayer at Jerusalem’s Kotel, or Western Wall — the holiest place where Jews can pray, where most of the adjacent plaza is reserved for separate men’s and women’s sections as per Orthodox practice.

This has importance for visiting American Jews who want to pray at the wall in egalitarian worship.

Supporters of the progressive group Women of the Wall — who pray monthly in the women’s section while using practices and vestments reserved to men in Orthodox Judaism — fear it will face new curbs.

In a show of solidarity, Reform rabbis from the U.S. and other countries joined the Women of the Wall at their monthly gathering on Wednesday, parading with Torah scrolls.

Orthodox protesters, including teenagers, heckled and harassed the group.

“I am bound by my personal values and by my Jewish values to support not only the Women of the Wall but to stand here and proudly hold the Torah for all the women who are told they cannot worship freely and openly at the Kotel," said Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement in the U.S.

“Under the most oppressive government in Israel’s history, the rights and dignity of not only all Jewish women but of all inhabitants of Israel must be respected, supported, and protected,” she said.

Chikli told the AP that it’s unlikely that an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall would be expanded under the current government.

Jews in progressive circles say the major established organizations have failed to connect the debate over the legal overhaul with the fate of the Palestinians. They say that Israel cannot be a true democracy when its Palestinian citizens suffer from discrimination, and millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza don’t have the right to vote in Israeli elections.

“The movement against Mr. Netanyahu is not like the pro-democracy opposition movements in Turkey, India or Brazil,” commentator Peter Beinart wrote recently in The New York Times. “It’s a movement to preserve the political system that existed before Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition took power, which was not, for Palestinians, a genuine liberal democracy in the first place."

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York City, said it’s unacceptable to have Israeli government leaders claiming to act in the name of Judaism while voicing “unabashedly racist” statements about Palestinians and expanding settlements with no effort at a peace agreement.

“We can’t feel comfortable sitting in the light of sovereignty next to a community living in darkness and expect to have peace,” Buchdahl said in a recent sermon.

She still finds hope for Israel’s democracy — not in its current government but in grassroots action.

She recently visited the Middle East as an advisory board member of the Partnership for Peace Fund. The U.S. initiative supports programs that bring together Jews and Palestinians in such areas as medical training and addressing climate change’s impact on the Jordan River watershed.

“That’s what we need to be investing in," she said. "Working together in common cause.”