Israel is core to who I am as a Jew.
That was true for me in 1973, a 13-year-old boy living in Queens during the Yom Kippur War, watching Israel fight for its survival. I’ll never forget my father, then the president of our shul, making an emergency appeal, asking every member of the congregation to stand up and announce his or her pledge to UJA in support of Israel.
It became truer still after my wife and I spent a year living in Israel with our children in 2004-05, and found our lives forever intertwined with the land and people. Largely because of that year, two of our four children made aliyah and now live in Tel Aviv, one serving in the IDF. And please God, we’re expecting our first sabra grandchild in about a month.
Whatever the future may hold, I will support and forever defend the miracle that is the modern-day state of Israel.
Which is why, since the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in November — the most far-right in the nation's history — I’ve struggled with the appropriate approach to this new coalition. After all, this government was democratically elected, and elections have consequences. And while I’ve visited hundreds of times and have an apartment there, I do not live in Israel. Further, since the election, Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked, not unreasonably, that people focus on what the new government actually does and less on what senior ministers might say. Finally, many insiders advised that off-the-record conversations with senior government officials would be more productive than strident public pronouncements.
But for me, the calculus has now shifted. Like so many who cherish Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, I’m alarmed by the recent legislation introduced by Israel’s justice minister seeking to change both how Supreme Court justices in Israel are selected, as well as the fundamental ability of the judicial branch to review and, if appropriate, overturn Knesset legislation.
To be clear, judicial reform was a significant campaign issue for the current government coalition, and many Israelis voted for this government in the hope that judicial reform would finally be enacted in Israel. Indeed, many in Israel have long pressed for judicial reform, asserting that a highly activist Supreme Court unduly interfered for decades in the workings of Israel’s Knesset, inappropriately shifting the balance of power in Israel between the legislative/executive branches and the judicial branch.
All that said, the current proposed legislation raises dramatic concerns. It eviscerates the role of the judiciary by allowing Supreme Court decisions to be struck down by the barest majority of the Knesset — undermining the very foundations of Israel’s democracy and subjecting all minority groups to the tyranny of the majority.
One of the most eloquent objections to the very kind of legislation now being proposed was advanced by the prime minister himself, back in 2012. Prime Minister Netanyahu then said: "In places with no strong and independent court system, rights cannot be protected… In fact, the difference between countries in which rights are only on paper and those in which there are actual rights — that difference is a strong, independent court.”
The prime minister concluded: "Over the past few months alone, I have shelved every law that threatened to harm the independence of the system — from the attempt to hold hearings for judges in the Knesset, through limiting petitions to the court, to changing the composition of the committee for selecting judges. I will continue to operate this way."
I respectfully implore the prime minister to do now what he said he would do then.
Judicial reform can be achieved without threatening the fundamental democratic character of Israel. Professor Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a leading Israeli think tank long funded by UJA-Federation, recently laid out some options in an article in the Jerusalem Post, including providing the Knesset with override authority of Supreme Court decisions when a far more significant majority of Knesset agrees, or denying Knesset override authority if the invalidity of a law was decided by a significant court majority.
Many other legitimate alternatives exist, which should be discussed in good faith by the governing coalition and opposition parties in Israel.
Here in America, there’s an instinct among some in our community to turn their back on Israel in moments of serious disagreement. But cutting ties or support for Israel is precisely the wrong response. Just as we would not consider abandoning America if we strongly disagreed with the policies of a particular administration, we cannot walk away from Israel whose existence is essential to a secure and vibrant Jewish future. To the contrary, this is the moment to engage even more, using all the means at our disposal to help sustain a Jewish and democratic Israel.
UJA's office in Israel is currently convening, along with the Forum of Foundations, dozens of Israel’s most prominent philanthropies to think together about shared strategies for addressing the current moment. For example, at a meeting held last week, our Israel office brought together 45 representatives from a broad spectrum of philanthropies to discuss joint funding initiatives to counter the impact of potential new governmental policies and legislation. We’re also coordinating our response with many of Israel’s leading NGOs.
In many ways, these current efforts are an extension of the work we've been committed to for decades in Israel. In addition to our significant annual funding to help care for Israel's most vulnerable, we've long invested in programs and nonprofits that amplify diverse voices and work to build bridges of understanding, helping to create spaces for all the tribes of Israel — Secular, Haredi, Arab, LGBTQ+, Ethiopian, and more.
To find common ground.
God willing, I'll be visiting Israel soon to meet a new grandchild. And I hope one day to be able to tell that child how extraordinarily blessed she or he is to live in Israel — a welcoming homeland for the Jewish people, and a continuing beacon of democracy for all of its citizens and the world.