The Next Two Weeks – America and Israel

I haven’t been writing much in this blog in recent weeks for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve been working on a writing project of my own, and second, and perhaps more relevant to readers of this blog, the news of the world – specifically in the United States vis a vis all things Trump and in Israel vis a vis all things this most extreme Israeli coalition government in the 75-year history of the Jewish state, is exhausting. Add to the troubles in America and Israel, the criminal war waged by Russia against Ukraine that has cost the lives of thousands is disheartening. Is it any wonder that so many of us are weary?

As I listen to podcasts and read the news, talk by zoom and skype with Israeli friends, I honestly can’t keep up with what’s happening every day in Israel with the radical revolution currently underway against Israel’s democratic system of government. The only light that has begun to peak through the clouds was posted on Haaretz last night. In a report three, and possibly four members of Netanyahu’s Likud party are calling for a freeze of all legislation being rammed through the Knesset. The fly on the camel’s back that hopefully is bringing it to its knees seems to be the reaction of Israel’s air force reservists who say they will not report for duty in an undemocratic government of Israel. Add to that the fact that the Israeli shekel has lost much of its value, international companies decided that investment in an un-democratic Israel is unwise, that for the past three months massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Israeli protestors across political and religious lines have taken to the streets, and that the international Jewish community including leaders who never criticized Israeli government actions before are doing so now, and what we’re witnessing is evidence of the tearing of the fabric of what has kept the Jewish people together around Israel for the past 75 years.

There are many conclusions we might draw about what is happening in Israel; extremists from the nationalist ultra-religious segments of society are pushing their uncompromising agenda to transform Israel’s judicial system and create, in essence, a one party government and are annexing de facto on the way to de jure the West Bank into Israel, and Bibi is letting them because they hold the sword of Damocles over his head. If he denies any of them what they want, he risks losing his ruling coalition and either the government falls, he tries to create a new ruling coalition, or new elections are called. With new elections, Bibi could well lose the leadership of his party and the government, and the court cases against him could cost him his freedom. It seems as though Bibi is willing to sacrifice Israel’s democracy for his personal ends.

Which leads us to Trump. The slow pace of the judicial system in bringing indictments against him in Florida, Georgia, New York, and in the DOJ has allowed this despicable human being and twice impeached ex-president to pollute the media to an extent I haven’t seen in my lifetime. Trump’s attack on anyone involved in his prosecution as “animals” supported by George Soros, is on its face blatant racism and antisemitism. It’s no longer dog-whistles. It’s a fog-horn of hate. Watching him speak on his “Trust Social” is to watch an infuriated, deeply disturbed and terrified man who has taken the Roy Cohn rule-book to the extremes – deny – deflect – distract – divide – never back down – never apologize – never admit wrong – attack – self-justify – humiliate one’s enemies – stoke racism, antisemitism and hate – do whatever is necessary; common decency be damned; the rule of law be damned; the truth be damned; America’s democratic traditions be damned. The fact that few, if any Republicans are standing up to this anti-American and traitorous ex-President is a source of shame the likes of which America has never seen before in our 236 year history since the adoption of the US Constitution.

It’s all so exhausting. Are you feeling it as I am? Are you seeking comfort away from the news and tumult? What are you doing to distract yourself from the toxin in America and Israel?

It’s difficult to turn away not only because what we’re watching is so unprecedented in both countries, but because so much is at stake. That said, each of us, I would hope, has some means of finding relief from it all – exercise, sleep, healthy eating, being with our spouses, life-partners, friends, seeing children and grandchildren, reading fine literature, doing art, writing, etc. etc. etc.

I’m trying all these strategies, and they help me, to an extent, maintain perspective. That said, the next two weeks in Israel before Pesach will be determinative, and hopefully, indictments based on solid evidence will be brought against the former American President. We can only hope that in both countries, our leaders will step away from the brink, do what’s right for the common good, and allow both great nations to begin to heal from the distortions and aberrations.

Shavua tov!

“A last, desperate, long-shot plea: Prime Minister Netanyahu, stop this madness” – By David Horovitz, op-ed Times of Israel

Introductory Note: This op-ed written by one of Israel’s leading journalists expresses the sense of urgency and anxiety that a wide majority of Israelis and American Jews feel about the radical legislation being rushed through the Knesset by Israel’s extremist ruling coalition that would negate the Israeli High Court of its ability to act as a legitimate check against a combined executive and legislative branch in the Knesset and would open the way further to annexation of the West Bank. See my posting from a week ago by Dr. Debra Shushan, the Vice President for Policy of J Street, who analyzes why current Israeli government policy in the West Bank is actual “annexation.”

Here is David Horowitz’s op-ed from this past week.

 Posted March 15, 2023

Your coalition will fracture if you abandon your judicial revolution? Wonderful. Tune out the extremists, assert your Zionism, and reverse the staggering damage you’re inflicting

Dear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this is a plea — a last, long-shot, desperate appeal to your patriotism, to your Zionism, to your concern for your place in history, to your conscience: Stop this madness.

We are now two weeks away from the deadline your government has set itself for the enactment of revolutionary legislation that you put in motion, that you appointed a justice minister and a committee chair to advance, that you built a coalition to vote into law and that you defend almost daily and absurdly as strengthening our democracy — legislation that will, in fact, shatter Israel’s foundational principles, proudly asserted in the Declaration of Independence, as a tolerant Jewish and democratic state committed to equality and personal freedoms.

If you don’t heed President Isaac Herzog’s call to scrap a package of laws that neuters the High Court, the only body capable of defending all and any basic rights from being trampled by your duly elected coalition, we will mark this year’s Passover festival of freedom as a nation with its fundamental freedoms no longer protected from the tyranny of your majority.

There is no acceptable explanation for the path you have chosen to follow since you were elected last November, your betrayal of your promise “to be a prime minister for everyone – for those who voted for me, and for those who did not vote for me.”

You know that this country cannot be sustained if it is not democratic. Some of its best brains will not stay here. The economy will tank. Many taxpayers will not tolerate an increasingly discriminatory burden in which, among other things, they are subsidizing a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox sector that, under your coalition agreements, will be exempted by law from performing military or national service and educated in large part without the core skills to contribute to the workforce, its young males financially incentivized to study Torah full-time.

And perhaps most alarming, you know many citizens will not send their children to serve in the army of an Israel that is not a Jewish democratic state.

The combination of the judicial revolution and the policies that are unfolding and will unfold once the court has been marginalized — the plans for legalized discrimination, for annexation of West Bank territory and widespread settlement expansion, for the assault on non-Orthodox Judaism, et al– are destroying your own stated prime ministerial goals. Ties with the United States, crucial if Israel is to face down the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, are fraying. The Jews of the Diaspora, whom you desire to represent and who want to look to Israel as a source of pride, as a potential home and in some cases an essential refuge, are in ferment — over the threat to democracy, the threat to change the Law of Return, the threat to religious pluralism. Investment in the tech-driven economy you helped nurture and know Israel must sustain is at risk, as overseas confidence in Israel’s rule of law and stability ebbs. Your own oft-declared plans to widen the circle of regional peace, notably to include Saudi Arabia, are evaporating as the Palestinian conflict escalates, and existing partnerships are eroding. President Biden won’t so much as invite you to visit; nor, either, will the leaders of the United Arab Emirates.

Some say you’ve unleashed this revolution to evade your trial. That makes no sense. You could drag it on for years or subvert it with less drastic legislative initiatives.

Others posit that you are intimidated by the extremists — those you have empowered politically, and the toxic commentators on TV, radio and social media, including some very close to home.

I hear that some people who know you well think you have convinced yourself that you are truly King Bibi, a great, historic national figure, wiser and more capable than all.

If so, your rule is manifestly far from absolute — your hands are not, as you promised in post-election US interviews, “on the wheel.”

You had no political alternative to the coalition of right, Jewish supremacist far-right, and non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox allies that you assembled. But neither did they.

And yet you chose to make Bezalel Smotrich the second most powerful figure in your government, emboldened from his joint Finance Ministry and Defense Ministry perch to call two weeks ago for the State of Israel to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara after two Israeli brothers were killed there in a terror attack. You knew the dangers posed by Smotrich’s theocratic agenda, his intolerant views on Arabs, his hostility to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, and more. And predictably, all it took were some brief, considered remarks — three days after the terror attack, and subsequently walked back — to cause inestimable damage to fragile relationships in the region, to ties with Diaspora Jewry, to our standing with the US and other international allies, to Israel’s own sense of self, and, devastatingly, to the unity and cohesion of our people’s army.

By destroying the independence, credibility and capability of our own High Court to investigate alleged crimes by the IDF, your judicial overhaul already threatens to remove our soldiers’ vital protection from international prosecution. When a dominant minister in your government then publicly urges the state to wipe out an entire town, inevitably pilots who routinely risk their lives in the defense of this country are nauseated at the prospect of receiving such an instruction, understandably gather to remind the air force chief that they will not carry out patently illegal orders, and start to worry deeply about their roles in the military arm of such a government. As you heard the chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, publicly state last week: The army’s very capacity to function “depends on the preservation of the IDF as the people’s army in a democratic Jewish state.”

And so I plead with you, prime minister, stop with the disingenuous nonsense about strengthening democracy, stop denigrating opposition leaders and protesters as anarchists and worse, stop the incitement against those who express their mounting, heartfelt concerns for the country they love — the reservists, and the economists, and the jurists, and the academics, and, yes, the media. Tune out the extremists. Heed the voices of those you’ve hitherto trusted — your own bank chiefs and legal advisers present and past; your own appointees at the helm of our security services; international judicial experts and Zionists of the caliber of Irwin Cotler and Alan Dershowitz; Miriam Adelson, for goodness’ sake.

Stop this madness.

Don’t merely halt the current legislative onslaught. Heed the president and abandon it. And announce the initiation of a deadline-free consultative process for judicial reform. Hell, go for broke: Work for a constitution, with the Declaration of Independence as at least a partial blueprint.

Yes, your coalition will fracture. Speed the day.

Who knows? Benny Gantz and enough others might ride to your rescue. Or not.

But you’ll begin to reverse the staggering damage you’ve inflicted on Israel in the few short weeks of your appalling coalition, 50 (!) of whose ministers and lawmakers on Tuesday demanded that the defense minister release from administrative detention two settler extremists held for their suspected roles in the Huwara vigilante rampage.

You’ll have started to pull us back from the abyss, to safeguard this Israel that simply must continue to fulfill its core purpose as the Jews’ national homeland, as a democratic beacon fully capable of defending itself, and that can only do so in something close to internal harmony.

And we Israelites will still be a free people this Passover.”

Bezalel Smotrich’s West Bank Takeover Is What Annexation Looks Like

Introductory Note: Dr. Debra Sushan is J Street’s Director of Policy. This piece is a persuasive look at what the current government of Israel is allowing to happen in the West Bank, annexation. While the Knesset gallops to radically take from the Department of Justice and the High Court the powers necessary for a democratic system of government to operate, in which the justice system acts as a check-and-balance against potential human rights abuses of minority groups by any ruling government coalition, the lack of democracy that has always characterized the military administration in the occupied territories is now spilling over into Israel itself. The half-million demonstrators that took to the streets in dozens of cities and towns this past Saturday night (and growing every week) recognize that Israel’s democracy now hangs in the balance and are demanding that the governing coalition slow down and meet to discuss reasonable judicial reform and, perhaps even, the writing of a constitution for the state (Israel is dependent on a system of quasi-constitutional laws called “Basic Laws”).

Surveys show that the government’s plans are favored by a minority of Israeli citizens, even a minority of those who voted for parties in the ruling coalition. Protest is being voiced by almost all elements of international Jewry. The value of the shekel has dropped. Reservists in Israel are threatening not to respond to a call to serve if these laws pass as presented and Israel’s democracy is diminished.

President Isaac Herzog may be the only leader in Israel who can persuade members of the Likud faction of the government to demand that PM Netanyahu put the brakes on a government that is ram-rodding legislation through the Knesset to change the way the Israeli government operates.

By Dr. Debra Shushan – March 13, 2023

“Less than a week before the interview in which Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich stated that Israel should “wipe out” the West Bank town of Huwara, which had been ransacked by a pogrom perpetrated by hundreds of Israeli settlers, Smotrich had released a different video on Facebook. In it, Smotrich beamed as he hailed an agreement with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that will make him, for all intents and purposes, the first civilian governor of the occupied West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blessed the deal, and the three men celebrated with an exuberant three-way handshake.

The ramifications of this administrative maneuver are profound. While de facto annexation has been creeping for decades, the Netanyahu government’s transfer of responsibility for managing most aspects of civilian life in the occupied West Bank to an Israeli politician is a leap to extending Israeli sovereignty, de jure, into the West Bank.

Simply put: Smotrich’s West Bank takeover is tantamount to annexation.

Since Israel conquered the West Bank and additional territories during the 1967 war, the General in charge of Israel’s Central Command served as the governing authority of the West Bank. This is consistent with international law governing belligerent occupation, according to which occupied territory must be administered by the occupying army. In managing the occupied territory, the military commander is permitted under international law to consider only two things: security requirements and the needs of the local population (in this case, Palestinians). In 1983, Israel’s High Court ruled that the military commander was prohibited from considering Israel’s own national, economic, or social interests in administering the territory.

The extent of Smotrich’s massive new powers is not fully public, since the annex that details them (“Appendix B” to the Smotrich-Gallant agreement) has not been released. Here’s what we know from the agreement itself. As indicated in the agreement and enabled by Knesset’s passage in December of an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law on the Government, Smotrich will have authority over virtually all aspects of civilian life in Israeli-controlled areas of the West Bank. He will exercise this in his capacity as an additional minister in the Department of Defense, via oversight of the Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). In addition, a new Settlement Administration will be established under his authority. Among its functions will be leading and implementing “equal citizenship” reform – which will speed the process through which Israeli laws are “pipelined” to apply to Israeli settlers, while military law continues to apply to their Palestinian neighbors. This reform will also streamline the provision of government ministries’ provision of services to settlers. The Settlement Administration is also charged with “regularizing” illegal settlement outposts.

Reports specify additional broad powers allocated to Smotrich. These include: authority over the planning and construction bureaucracy that authorizes construction for settlements; land purchases, surveys, and registration of land as state land in Area C; declaration and development of nature reserves (which are often used as tools to expropriate Palestinian land); and enforcement against unauthorized construction in Area C, which will likely “lead to a situation in which illegal [Israeli] settlement outposts are not removed as they have been in the past, but illegal Palestinian construction is swiftly demolished.”

Defense Minister Gallant will retain overriding security control over the West Bank, though civilian matters (which can directly impact the security situation) are almost entirely under Smotrich’s authority. One exception to the latter is that Central Command of the IDF will have the authority to initiate enforcement against illegal settler structures when “required for security reasons”), but only after notifying Smotrich. Aside from that, the Smotrich-Gallant agreement contains clauses designed to make it appear that Smotrich will remain subordinate to the Minister of Defense, but in reality Gallant will only be able to overrule him in extreme cases.

As the Israeli Law Professors’ Forum for Democracy determined in a recent position paper, the transfer of the responsibility for managing the the civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank to Bezalel Smotrich in his capacity as an additional minister in the Ministry of Defense explicitly subordinates management of the territory to Israel’s own national considerations apart from security requirements. The authors note that this is “in complete contradiction to international law,” particularly the Hague Conventions of 1907, which Israel recognizes as applicable to the West Bank – and on which it relies as it exercises authority there. In the words of prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, “Transferring powers to Israeli civilian hands is an act of de jure annexation because it entails removing power from the occupying military and placing it directly in the hands of the government – this is an expression of sovereignty.” Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies agrees that this development indicates there “is no longer a slow process of annexation, but rather, accelerated annexation.” Further, Israel’s Military Advocate General warned Netanyahu that transferring authority to Smotrich could be viewed by the International Court of Justice and other international bodies as annexation.

The transfer of primary civil authority over the occupied West Bank to Smotrich is a clear indication of annexation, but it is not the only one. Others include the first guiding principle of the new government, which stipulates Jewish supremacy on both sides of the Green Line distinguishing Israel from the occupied West Bank. It states, “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” The government’s steps to advance thousands of new settlement housing units, “legalize” wildcat outposts, and connect other still-illegal outposts to state-provided infrastructure put this guiding principle into effect.

Nonetheless, there are those who insist that it is wrong to speak of annexation given that “the Government of Israel is not currently considering any proposals to annex territory. In fact,” a right-leaning organization told lawmakers, “any contemplation of annexation [by Israel] was suspended when the UAE entered the Abraham Accords.”

Recent work by Israeli professors Tamar Megiddo, Ronit Levine-Schnur, and Yael Berda indicates how problematic such claims are. They note that because annexation is an “international crime” that “gives rise to international responsibility,” countries will “rarely volunteer to trigger the consequences of being classified as aggressors” by declaring annexation. Megiddo, Levine-Schnur, and Berda offer criteria for determining when annexation is taking place, and conclude that the transfer of West Bank authority to Smotrich and other measures “qualify as de jure annexation.” In their words, the Netanyahu government’s deferral of a formal declaration of annexation “is a simple attempt at gaslighting.”

The consequences of annexation are likely to prove dire for the human rights of Palestinians in the West Bank, and also for Israel’s democracy. The plans that Bezalel Smotrich, a self-proclaimed “fascist homophobe,” has long advocated call for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, “erasing the paradigm of the Palestinian state from public consciousness,” direct imposition of Israeli law in the West Bank, boosting Israeli settlement activity, and paying West Bank Palestinians to emigrate abroad.

As Justice Minister Yariv Levin – Smotrich’s partner in Knesset’s Land of Israel Caucus – noted nearly a decade ago, judicial overhaul is a prerequisite for their annexationist designs, as it would become “much easier for us to take tangible steps on the ground that strengthen the process of advancing sovereignty.” More recently, National Missions Minister Orit Strock of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party pointed to Israel’s Supreme Court as an “obstacle” to “legalizing” settlement outposts, and noted, “so long as we do not get it back down to its natural size, we will not be able to get anything done.”

How will the Biden administration respond? US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides stated in November that the US “will fight” any West Bank annexation efforts by Israel. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf reportedly told Israeli officials two weeks before the Smotrich-Gallant agreement was concluded that the Administration would strongly oppose any transfer of authority over the West Bank to Bezalel Smotrich – and would regard it as a step toward annexation.

With the far-right Netanyahu government attempting to eliminate the possibility of a two-state solution – tramping Israeli democracy, Palestinian human rights, and international law in the process – US national interests and credibility are on the line. It’s time for the Biden administration to act accordingly.”

Good News This Purim

Note #1: Purim is a holiday where we read a story rife with evil plots and bad actors, and are asked to turn it into a time of raucous celebration and frivolity. This kind of festivity and silliness in the face of real suffering is both a mitzvah and a challenge. We at J Street present the following satire-filled “Purim Torah” with acknowledgment of the tragedies of our time, and the hope that bringing some levity will help us face the challenges before us. 

Note #2: J Street published my piece for Purim this year with the following disclaimer (obviously also written in the spirit of Purim – none of what Emily Kaiman or I wrote is true).

WE DID IT! I know it seemed very dicey these past months with the threats of judicial reforms, and settlement expansions but we cannot be more excited at the miraculous turn of events. The vision for peace and equality, with two secure states side-by-side, is finally in sight with all the major progress of this past week!

I am writing what may be one of my last emails to you all. As you can see from our Two-Way Street Purim article below, J Street has been so successful in our mission to advocate for policies that are pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-democracy that in just a few short months there may be no need for our movement at all.

Please enjoy this Purim Torah, from one of our very own Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet Chairs, Rabbi John Rosove. Wishing you a Purim filled with fun, laughter, levity (and a bit of satire).

Purim Sameach,

Emily Kaiman
J Street Deputy Director of Jewish Communal Engagement

Good News This Purim

Rabbi John L. Rosove

Happy Purim! A holiday of fun, humor, and satire. We hope you enjoy this piece from Rabbi John Rosove and have a wonderful and joyous holiday.

You won’t believe this!

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ministers Smotrich and Ben Gvir have just held a press conference announcing full equality for the Palestinian people, including recognition of their right to self-determination in a sovereign state alongside Israel. They have formally invited Palestinian leadership to negotiate a peace treaty that settles all issues between Israelis and the Palestinians.

In the meantime, the government announced support for rulings by the International Court of Justice; they will join the International Criminal Court, and will reverse economic incentives in a bid to reduce the population of Israelis living on occupied lands. This final agreement will be signed next week at a celebration and ice cream social with Ben and Jerry’s.

More good news!

The leaders of the Haredi parties decided after a long series of pilpulistic debates to support the Egalitarian Southern Kotel Agreement for Women of the Wall, and egalitarian prayer, as worked out by former Sochnut Executive Natan Sharansky at the request of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2016. Moving forward, the ultra-Orthodox Administrator of the Wall and all the Haredi political parties have committed to not interfere with Women of the Wall Monthly Worship services at the women’s side of the main Kotel plaza. Additionally, they will not disrupt egalitarian minyanim from the liberal streams of Judaism at the soon-to-be-built and expanded Southern Kotel Plaza beneath Robinson’s Arch.

They agreed further that the Orthodox parties will share 50% of the funds they receive annually for their yeshivot and synagogues with the liberal religious Israeli streams, that they will include secular education in their yeshivot and enter into the Israeli workforce. Like all Israelis, they will now have the option between serving in the IDF or volunteering with humanitarian organizations.

They have said that the end to the militancy against non-ultra-Orthodox Jews will heal rifts in families and communities, better represent the Jewish values of respect and diversity, and deliver more freedom and support to women and LGBT+ individuals from all backgrounds. They will signal in a press conference after Purim their willingness to join together hand-in-hand with the leadership of the liberal religious movements to create a shared agenda that serves the best interests of the people and State of Israel.

And this!

The Iranian government and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have agreed to stop calling Israel “The Little Satan.” Iran’s leadership intends to send all weapons-grade nuclear material to trusted world powers, commits to ending its nuclear weapons program permanently, installing 24/7 monitoring equipment in facilities, and allowing IAEA inspections at all sites with short notice (that’s not actually much of a joke, it was all in Obama’s 2015 nuclear agreement!). Iran also agreed to cease sending military arms to Hezbollah and Hamas and work together with all nations in the Middle East in the establishment of regional peace agreements.

The Supreme Leader has decreed an end to all restrictions on women and the persecution of minority religious and ethnic groups. The Iranian leadership intends to invite Israelis to enter into cultural exchanges with the Iranian people.


Hamas has announced that it will formally recognize the State of Israel, end the use of terror tactics and enter into peace negotiations for the benefit of all Israelis and Gaza residents. It will turn over all hidden missiles to the US and EU and demolish its tunnel system under the supervision of international observers.

In addition!

Hearing all these plans, the Arab League signaled its readiness to establish a regional peace agreement with Israel including economic, cultural, educational, and political exchanges. It announced the intention of all the nations of the Middle East to move rapidly to institute democratic forms of government.

In the United States:

The Republican Party turned its back on all election deniers and agreed to defeat in the next election all those extremist election deniers who remain in federal, state, and local government from ever running for political office again. These leaders have joined with the Congressional Democrats in overturning Citizens United, setting term limits on Supreme Court Justices, and increasing the size of the Supreme Court. In an unexpected turn of events, they have also come to an agreement to codify Roe v Wade, pass compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform and criminal justice reform, eliminate fossil fuels in industry and automobiles by 2035, pass an anti-Gerrymandering law and institute reasonable electoral reform. This session of Congress closed with a bipartisan vote to accept the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into statehood by 2024.

Imshallah uv’ezrat Hashem — Happy Purim!

“American Jews: Lobby the Biden Administration to Act against Israel’s Obscene Government” – Rabbi Eric Yoffie

Introductory notes: The vicious Jewish pogrom against the Arab village of Hawara following the murder of two Israel brothers by Palestinian terrorists has to break the heart of any decent human being, most especially Jews who have been raised with the value that we are rachmanim b’nai rachmanim – compassionate children of compassionate parents.

Sadly and shockingly, too many of our people have ceased to be compassionate. They include some of the leadership of the current Israeli government and some of the commanders of the IDF in the West Bank, and the extremist and violent Israeli settlers who perpetrated this shameful action resulting in the torching of 200 Arab homes, the murder an Palestinian Arab and the injury of dozens of Palestinians as retribution for the deaths of the two Israeli brothers near the Arab village of Hawara this week.

What makes matters even worse is that IDF soldiers stood around all night long and allowed the rampage, that can only be called a “Jewish pogrom,” to continue throughout the night. At the time of this writing (Friday, March 3) not one Jew has been arrested for this despicable crime and no one is yet sitting in an Israeli jail. Why not? What is going on?

As disturbing as this pogrom is, and as much of a stain on Israeli honor that it has caused, it should not come as a surprise, though it is certainly shocking. For years – nay, decades – Palestinians living under occupation have been characterized as terrorist “others,” dehumanized by the Israeli military administration that rules over the West Bank, and whose human rights have been violated.

I am well aware of the complexity of the occupation, of the many reasons for the failure of numerous peace efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a two-state solution, of Palestinian leadership’s culpability and refusal to compromise with Israeli negotiators especially concerning their so-called right of return to their former homes and property rather than to a Palestinian state in part of Israel-Palestine, as well as in recent years, especially under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu of his failure to negotiate in good faith with Palestinian leadership for a resolution to the conflict. No one has a good answer to what can reasonably and realistically be done. If they did, it would have been done already. I understand the problems and obstacles.

What I do know is this, as a lover of the State of Israel and its people, as a progressive Zionist who cares deeply about the sustainability and well-being of the democratic and liberal nation-state of the entirety of the Jewish people (yes, it’s necessary to say this given the narrow-minded extremist current government of Israel), that the current situation is unsustainable.

My friend, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former President of the Reform movement’s synagogue organization, the Union for Reform Judaism in North America representing 2 million North American Jews, and a life-long Zionist and keen observer of all things Israel, has written an important op-ed that appeared in Haaretz yesterday that is must-reading for every American Jew and Jewish organizational leader, rabbi, cantor, teacher, member of Congress, and the Biden Administration.

Please pass this blog along to your friends and especially to the leadership of your synagogue and American Jewish organizations.

What is especially necessary now (as Rabbi Yoffie advocates with eloquence and sadness at the current state of affairs) is for the American liberal Jewish community not to give up on Israel, but rather to enter the conversation and exert as much pressure on the Biden administration and the Congress to take action to prevent this extremist Israeli government from irrevocably damaging Israeli democracy and the good name of the Jewish people.

Here is Rabbi Yoffie’s column:

I have never once lobbied against an Israeli government. But Netanyahu’s judicial coup, his offensive against democracy, must be stopped. That means U.S. Jews must do the unthinkable, and urge a strong American hand with Israel.

It is time for a new set of rules. The United States government needs to pressure the Israeli government to halt its overhaul of the judiciary and its retroactive authorization of illegal outposts in the West Bank. And mainstream American Jewish organizations need to encourage U.S. President Joe Biden to act before it is too late.

If the judicial “reforms” promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become law Israel could be a very different country within a matter of months. Israelis could wake up one day in a state that is no longer democratic, no longer willing to guarantee fundamental liberties and minority rights, no longer secure economically or militarily, no longer welcoming to Jews of the world and no longer supported by substantial segments of the American public.

Israel is facing an existential crisis of its own making, as serious as any threat posed by terrorists within or enemies on its borders. And the attempted judicial coup is especially serious, rooted as it is in zealotry and intolerance and debasing as it does the whole process of democratic governance.

We should not assume that what Netanyahu is doing has broad support from the Israeli public. Fewer than half the electorate voted last November for the parties in the coalition. And recent polls indicate that while most Israelis back judicial reform of some kind, about 65 percent oppose the particular package that the government is pushing.

And then there are the demonstrations, an inspiring and heroic example of the strength of Israel’s civil society. A mass movement has come into being, drawing young and old, secular and religious, left and right, into the streets. Never before in Israel’s history has the civilian sector participated in such large numbers, week after week, in a movement of protest. If an American demonstration drew the same crowd size relative to its population, it would be equivalent to about 4 million American protestors.

So how, then, has Netanyahu come so close to achieving his judicial “revolution?” The answer is that the prime minister, hoping to escape the legal charges against him, has permitted an unhinged minority to take over a democratic government and use its power to push through a radical constitutional change.

If this seems incredible, in some ways it is. The political world’s small Religious Zionist and Haredi fringe has insinuated itself into the Israeli mainstream, with the backing of a prime minister who is a criminal defendant. And now that it controls the Israeli government, it has declared its intention to put an end to freedom and democracy as these values are generally understood. In all likelihood, Bibi is indulging in the fantasy that he is controlling the fanatics in his coalition. In actuality, it is the other way around.

This is why the judicial coup must be stopped. And if it can be halted in no other way, then American Jews must not hesitate to call upon their government to pressure Israel. This means asking the Biden administration to intervene, and reaching out to pro-Israel members of Congress, particularly in the Democratic Party, as well.

Pressure could be applied in a variety of ways, some of which were presented in a courageous column by Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. One is to pause discussions on Israel’s entry into the visa waver program until Israeli policies change. Another is to announce that Netanyahu will not be invited to the White House until meaningful progress is made on the differences between the two countries. A third is to indicate that, if authorizing illegal outposts continues, America would be willing to present its own resolution to the UN Security Council on the subject, going beyond the statement expressing it issued last week expressing its concern.

Will it work? It is a long shot, to be sure. But it is not impossible. As noted, Netanyahu’s popular support for his reforms is weak, and if forced to choose between Bibi’s judicial coup and undiminished American backing for Israel, the great majority of Israelis, including his own voters, will choose the latter.

It is also clearly an American interest for Israel both to reach a broad consensus on judicial reform and to avoid a new wave of annexations in the territories. Failure on the judicial front could result in political chaos or collapse in Israel. Failure to stop annexation will lead to instability in the region, weaken the Abraham Accords, distance the Saudis from Israel and America, and make it that much more difficult to restore security ties between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Americans will not, of course, in any way excuse increased terrorist murders of Israelis in the territories, as just happened in Hawara; but neither will they accept Israeli settlers rampaging through Palestinian villages, burning homes and killing innocents in retaliation. More Palestinian terror and marauding Israeli vigilantes are yet additional reasons why the Americans might agree to enter the picture.

All of these factors add to the urgency of the moment. Surely, avoiding another Intifada and promoting calm are as vital to Israel as they are to the United States, and undermining Israeli democracy hurts rather than helps Israel’s struggle against terror.

But bizarrely, Netanyahu, desperate and deranged by his legal troubles, is less likely to see this than is Biden. What is needed, then, is a strong American hand with Israel, taking, at the very least, some or all of the steps noted above.

Still, Biden has other things on his mind, and may be reluctant. And for the United States to take such action would be a dramatic departure from its usual way of doing business with Israel.

It is also true that American Jewish groups will be resistant to push him. Lobbying the American government against an Israeli government — even when the American one is pro-Israel and the Israeli one is anti-democratic — is rightly problematic for American Jews. In my half-century of Zionist activism, I have never once lobbied against an Israeli government in Washington. Interventions of this sort, once begun, can set a dangerous precedent with uncertain outcomes.

Nonetheless now is the time when those risks must be taken.

Statements alone, as we have seen, have had virtually no impact. American officials and Jewish organizations have spoken out emphatically and repeatedly on the planned judicial measures, but Israel’s government affirms that the overhaul will be passed without delay.

U.S. statements on illegal outposts, joined by some Jewish groups, have not prevented Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich from receiving sweeping powers to expand settlements throughout the territories. It is time for action.

The Biden administration is as friendly to Israel as any of its predecessors. It has frequently said that America has a commitment to Israel, and that commitment must remain as fixed and permanent as the sky. It has also said that American obligations to Israel rest not on the shifting sands of geopolitical strategy, but on the hard rock of moral obligation.

To whom, then, should American Jews turn? To an American administration committed to the Jewish state and democratic values, or to an Israeli government, democratically elected but now leading an obscene offensive against judicial review, human rights, democracy and freedom?

Israel’s democracy has always been imperfect, of course, but it was once a beacon in a world darkened by tyranny nonetheless.

But now, for the first time in Israel’s history, its government is leading its citizens methodically toward the abyss. It has bestowed authority on the Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs, barbarians who pander to the basest instincts of Israeli society.

It has disillusioned Israel’s own citizens, and given Israel haters everywhere cause to rejoice. And it has left American Jewry and Jews of the world alienated and confused.

This, then, is a critical moment in the history of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. History will judge us all. What did we do when the Jewish supremacists attempted to destroy the Jewish state from within?

Were we willing to permit the undoing of democracy to which the Jewish people and the Zionist movement were always committed? Were we prepared to bow the knee to Kahanism, which distorts Zionism and mocks the ideals of Judaism? Were we ready to give in to the race-baiters and provocateurs who sit in Israel’s cabinet and exploit ethnic hatred for their own purposes?

Millions of Israelis say they refuse, reminding us daily that Israel was created to achieve democracy and freedom in Zion reborn. And perhaps the heroic protestors and the determined opposition, with their mighty passion for democracy, will win their battle.

But if they do not, American Jews must not be bullied out of their beliefs. They must not give up on Israel as home and a gate to holiness to Jews everywhere. They must not permit a distorted view of Judaism, advocated by the radical forces of the far-right, to become an instrument of repression in the hands of Israel’s leaders.

If the sole way to accomplish this is to turn to the American government for support and intervention, then so be it.

If this is the only option, we must call autocracy by name and preserve the democratic destiny of Zionism.”

Congressman Adam Schiff for the United States Senate from California

I can think of no one more deserving of election to the Senate seat held by the giant, Dianne Feinstein, than Congressman Adam Schiff. Though Schiff’s competition are excellent congressional representatives, Adam’s twenty-two years in the House, his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, his shepherding as Manager of the first Impeachment trial of the ex-President Donald Trump, and being a part of the January 6 House Investigation Committee puts him in a category of leadership that few can claim.

Speaking personally, I have known Adam Schiff for many years as my synagogue’s congressional representative and as a friend. When I retired from my position in 2019 after 30+ years as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, Adam came to the celebration and stayed for the entire evening. He was introduced twice, once by the Master of Ceremonies, Marty Kaplan, and the second time by me after he spoke and presented me a citation from Congress. On each occasion, he received a sustained standing ovation from the nearly 500 people in the hall at the Skirball Cultural Center. My friend, Andy Hill, told me after the event that there are now two defining moments in Temple Israel of Hollywood’s almost 75-year history – the first was Dr. Martin Luther King’s appearance and sermon in February 1965 in our Sanctuary, and the second was Congressman Adam Schiff’s appearance at this Gala Celebration. Andy is right.

At the time Adam joined us, in April 2019, the first Impeachment Trial was not yet concluded. Adam would later, in February, 2020, speak before the Senate after the work of the Impeachment committee had finished about the conduct and corruption of the President of the United States vis a vis the then young relatively unknown Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump had already put Adam in the cross-hairs of the MAGA crazies calling him all kinds of stupid names, but Adam did the work of Congress as he was elected to do and as he was charged to do by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when chosen as the Impeachment Manager. Adam’s courage, diligence, clarity of purpose, intelligence, expertise in Constitutional law, eloquence, and service as a 20+ year veteran representative of his Burbank-Los Angeles district are second to none in the House of Representatives.

Who can ever forget Adam’s closing speech before the Senate in the first Impeachment Trial when he said:

“We must say enough — enough! He has betrayed our national security, and he will do so again…He has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. What’s right matters even less, and decency matters not at all…You are decent. He is not who you are.”

“Can we be confident that he will not continue to try to cheat in [this] very election? Can we be confident that Americans and not foreign powers will get to decide, and that the president will shun any further foreign interference in our Democratic affairs? The short, plain, sad, incontestable answer is no, you can’t. You can’t trust this president to do the right thing. Not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change and you know it….What are the odds if left in office that he will continue trying to cheat? I will tell you: 100 percent. A man without character or ethical compass will never find his way.”

(I offer the link below to Adam’s complete closing statement as House Manager, which is worth listening to again)

As a liberal Democrat, Adam’s positions on all the issues that the Democratic Party and the vast majority of the American Jewish community supports (70% at least), his advocacy for the security of the State of Israel, the two-state solution, and democracy in Israel-Palestine and the United States, his support of the Ukrainians against a brutal and heartless Russian regime led by the war criminal Vladimir Putin, and for decency generally commends his aspirations to be our next California Senator.

The campaign is still young with lots of time before the 2024 election. But, I am happy to go on record now endorsing Adam Schiff despite the high quality of his two primary opponents. It is a shame that three outstanding congressional representatives will all give up their House seats in pursuit of the Senate seat being vacated by Senator Feinstein. That said – we have an opportunity to elect not only a great Congressional Representative to the Senate in Adam, but a great American and a great Jewish leader. As I said at the Gala honoring my service, Adam makes me proud to be an American and proud to be a Jew.

When it was reported that before Adam formally announced running for the Senate, he visited with Senator Feinstein and she told him that he should go forward and run, I thought to myself – there goes the mensch that I know.

I hope you will support his candidacy for the Senate. If elected, Adam will bring dignity, intelligence, focus, and menschlechkite to the work of that august body.

Adam Schiff’s closing statement in the First Impeachment Trial is here –

I love this – and I hope you will too!

Leonard Cohen said as he passed his 70th birthday that he was not yet in “old age.” He was in the “foothills of old age.” I like that especially now that I’m 73+ and still climbing that low-grade foothill with the old-age-mountain still off in the distance.

My friend, Marty Kaplan, sent this YouTube video (below) to a group of us that was made for young writers in Hollywood featuring older writers and actors talking, with palpable up-beat joy, about remaining creative and productive. It’s relevant to us all. It’s 3 minutes.

The message is a good counterpoint to all the disturbing news coming out of Ukraine and Russia, Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Ohio, the southern border, the harsh weather almost everywhere, and in the Republican-controlled Congress.

A year ago, I saved from the site “Changing it up” this piece addressing the benefits of optimism:

“The benefits of optimism — and staying positive — are countless and include lower stress levels, improved coping skills, higher energy levels, increased resilience, increased creativity, improved well-being, reduced pain, decreased depression, reduced risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, increased health span and better quality of life to name a few.”

-Changing it Up – January 26, 2022


#RethinkAging with Hollywood, Health & Society

Let’s tell the stories of older people’s lives with the depth and complexity they deserve. Hollywood, Health & Society invites you to #RethinkAging with Norman Lear, Marla Gibbs, George Takei, Mimi Kennedy, George Wallace, and The SCAN Foundation.

“American Jews Cannot Stay ‘Neutral’ in the Face of Israel’s Catastrophe”

Note: I am hearing the following sentiments by increasing numbers of Israeli leaders who believe that this current Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not only the most extremist nationalist and ultra-Orthodox right-wing government in the 75-year history of the State of Israel but is an existential threat to Israeli democracy itself. Yesterday, Rabbi Gilad Kariv (MK Labor Party and the former head of the Israeli Reform and Progressive Movement), in a conference call of international leadership of the Reform movement, called on the liberal American Jewish community in particular (given that we are the most important Diaspora community in the world) to stand publicly with the Israeli opposition by contacting the Biden Administration, our Congressional Representatives, Israeli Consuls General across the United States, and our Israeli friends to express our friendship and solidarity with Israeli opposition per what the two writers of the following op-ed in the Haaretz daily newspaper yesterday wrote.

A disclaimer – I am a national co-chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street (a pro-Israel, pro-peace, and pro-democracy American political organization based in Washington, D.C.) comprised of more than 1030 rabbis and cantors across America’s liberal streams. Etzion and Shek (note their bios at the conclusion) confirm the important place in American politics that J Street has assumed (as opposed to AIPAC). I am posting this op-ed in its entirety not only for the authors’ articulate expression of Israeli outrage at the anti-democratic agenda of this Israeli government, but because Haaretz is a subscription newspaper and the article is likely unavailable to many of you. As I have written before, it is worth it if you are a keen watcher of all things Israeli to subscribe to Haaretz, the equivalent of Israel’s New York Times.

Here is the op-ed:

“To call for American-Jewish ‘unity’ – either in favor of the anti-democratic coup or by adopting ‘neutrality’ – is to betray America’s and Israel’s core values

Op-ed by Eran Etzion and Daniel Shek – Haaretz – February 23, 2023

“Israel is undergoing a rapid, aggressive attempt at regime change. A seemingly legitimate, elected coalition is determined to use its slim, almost accidental majority to reframe Israel’s democratic foundations into an illiberal and hollowed-out state.

If Netanyahu’s co-conspirators achieve their goal, what was for 75 years the only Jewish and democratic state in history will no longer be democratic. Will it still be Jewish? That depends on your definition of Judaism, but for a majority of Israeli Jews, this is not an academic debate. Rather, it is an existential battle for their homeland’s soul, and for their children and grandchildren’s very possibility of a future life as proud and free Israelis, “to be a free nation in our land,” as the national anthem goes.

This is not your run-of-the-mill expression of “Israel’s vibrant democracy” or “lively debate,” as supporters of the coup d’état – and unfortunately some middle-of-the-road, well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve voices – are trying to argue. (See this misguided recent piece) This is a transformative point in the history of the Israeli nation and the Jewish people. At this moment, our entire nation-state is on the verge of a homemade catastrophe.

What is the role of Israel’s greatest ally in such a defining moment? And what position should America’s crucially important Jewish community, which is liberal to its core, take?

In recent years, the political spheres in both the United States and Israel deteriorated into chaos. A large chunk of the citizenry fell prey to nationalist, populist, and sometimes racist and conspiratorial narratives, propagated by toxic leaders and fueled by irresponsible social media moguls and cynical media figures.

In both countries, any talk of “unity” is detached from political and constitutional realities. There is no “united” America, there is no “united” Israel and there is no “united” American Jewish community. One needs to shut one’s eyes firmly, cover one’s ears hermetically and seal one’s nose completely in order to maintain the stale position of “let there only be one American Jewish voice on Israel.”

The argument that American Jews should represent a united front on Israel went bankrupt decades ago, when AIPAC refused to support the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s historic peace initiative, which was backed by the majority of the Israeli people. It was once again proven to be counter-productive when AIPAC supported Netanyahu’s destructive crusade against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. These are core national security issues for all Israelis, but they were still played out within the bounds of democracy. Nowadays, the rules have been thrown out the window by a coalition of convicted felons, anti-democratic conspirators, religious fundamentalists and messianic zealots.

To call for American-Jewish “unity” – either in favor of the anti-democratic coup or by adopting “neutrality” – is to betray America’s and Israel’s core values. With AIPAC having veered rightward, both in American and Israeli terms, the liberal pro-Israel group J Street has not only earned its role as representative of the center and center-left of American Jewry, it now has to struggle alongside its Israeli liberal and progressive counterparts against the attack on the democratic foundations of the Jewish state.

Well over 100,000 people have taken to the streets in recent weeks for regular protests against the government’s so-called “judicial reform” and other parts of the right-wing agenda. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut has warned that “if the people who made up this plan have their way, Israel’s 75th year will be remembered as the year in which its democracy suffered a fatal blow.” From economists and tech companies to jurists and security leaders, so many corners of our society are more alarmed than ever before – and we are mobilizing.

These Israelis understand exactly what is at stake for our country – and we are saying so loudly and clearly. Now, we need our true friends in the United States and around the world to join us – exactly as J Street has.

This is the moment for the U.S. government, American Jews and all pro-Israel Americans – for all who have deep concerns about our government’s policies and Israel’s future as a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people – to speak out.

The far-right government falsely tells Israelis that its anti-democratic agenda will not harm Israel’s relationship with the United States, or its standing with the rest of the world. Even as it works to fundamentally transform Israel’s democratic character and its policies toward non-Orthodox Jews, LGBTQ people and Israeli Arabs, the government wants the U.S. government and Israel’s supporters in the American Jewish community to pretend that everything is business as usual, so that all those in the opposition will be left isolated and ignored.

Meanwhile, the right is happy to rely on its own vocal supporters and funders in the United States to help advance a shared illiberal agenda. When Republican billionaires anonymously give millions to the think tank that helped draft the government’s “judicial reform,” they are not told, as J Street is, to “stay out of Israel’s internal affairs.”

Apparently it is only concerned liberal democrats – in fact, the large majority of the American Jewish community – who are attacked and chastised for taking a strong interest in Israel’s future. This will not stand.

J Street ensures that U.S. elected officials receive a nuanced and honest picture of Israel’s reality from its security establishment, opposition leaders and civil society – not just from the government and its cheerleaders. They make clear that while we Israelis need American help to defend ourselves against rockets, terror attacks and other security threats, we also need help to end the cycle of endless conflict, and to achieve peace. They make clear that now, more than ever, we need help to preserve and defend our democracy.

President Joe Biden has already signaled his concerns regarding the future of Israel’s democracy and its “shared values” with the United States. American Jews who hold these values dear, and who value the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, must stand up and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with us at this critical juncture. The stakes could not be higher. Join our fight for democracy, for freedom, for the Israel our forefathers and foremothers fought so hard to create, the true Israel of the Declaration of Independence. You have a place in this battle as well.”

Eran Etzion is the former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.

Ambassador Daniel Shek served as Israel’s ambassador to France and spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

ACTION MEMO: Israeli Annexation & Anti-Democracy Moves

Introductory notes: In a J Street Leadership call last week, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was blunt – American Jews must speak out against the policies of the anti-democratic government of Israel. Echoing his call, J Street’s Israel Executive Director, a former Israeli Consul General to New England, and an aid to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Nadav Tamir, said: “Only America can save Israel from its own government.”

In all my years as a liberal Zionist activist I have never heard Israelis speak so candidly and with such worry about their own government’s direction and the future of Israeli democracy as I have heard in recent weeks since this most extreme right-wing-ultra-Orthodox-nationalist government in the history of the State of Israel assumed power.

Israelis have taken to the streets in huge numbers to protest this government’s threatened actions. On Monday, as the Knesset was meeting to pass (in the first round in committee) a radical re-visioning of Israel’s judicial system, estimates of between 80,000 and 300,000 Israelis came to Jerusalem by car, train, and bus from Haifa, Tel Aviv, and everywhere else (many taking their children with them and out of school for the day) because of the shock that the Knesset’s Constitution and Law Committee and Justice Department are having on the country as a whole. Polls indicate that a clear majority of Israelis oppose this legislation that would place all power in the hands of the ruling coalition government and, therefore, in the hands of the Prime Minister without any check or balance from the government’s judicial branch.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has asked the Netanyahu government to pause its legislation and come together with the opposition, leading jurists, and academics to reach a reasonable compromise in which some legitimate reform can be instituted that would gain widespread approval from the Israeli public. The two leading figures in the government, however, Justice Minister Yariv Levin (from the Likud Party) and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman (from the extreme nationalist Religious Zionist Party) are doggedly pushing these so-called “reforms” (but really a radical restructuring of Israel’s judiciary system) forward and refuse to compromise. Yair Lapid, the former Prime Minister and opposition leader, said he was willing to meet immediately according to the terms of President Herzog’s invitation and 5-point plan, but only if the reforms are put on pause.

Israel is in crisis, and adding these domestic issues to what the government is doing in the West Bank – preparing the ground in Area C to be annexed de facto against international law – Israel needs the United States and American Jewry to at once continue our support of the Jewish state and its security but also demand that this government cease its radical policies. What Israel does affects us here, our pride in being Jews, our security against antisemitism, and our future as integrated American-Jewish citizens. Polls suggest that young American Jews, in particular, are turning away from Israel in increasingly large numbers. (If you have not read Tom Friedman’s opinion piece that I posted yesterday, I urge you to do so now.)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Israel’s daily newspaper Ha’aretz (Israel’s newspaper of record much like the NYT in America) on Monday harshly condemned the Israeli security cabinet’s steps to legalize nine West Bank outposts, construct thousands of new settlement housing units, and connect outposts to water and electricity – all despite previous explicit opposition from the Biden administration.

In the last several weeks, at least two letters signed by hundreds of American Jewish leaders were sent to the leadership of Israel and the United States urging the Israeli government to step back from the brink. We are making our views known, but in the end, the decisions of the Israeli government are in the hands of the Knesset and Israelis – and Israelis by a clear majority are opposed to what this government is doing.

What follows is a J STREET ACTION MEMO for the Biden Administration and United States Congress concerning West Bank policies and the increasing violence between Jewish settlers, the Israeli West Bank military administration and Palestinians living under occupation as well as the above mentioned judicial “reforms.” It was written by Dylan Williams, J Street’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Strategy, and Dr. Debra Shushan, J Street’s Director of Policy, yesterday (February 13, 2023):

“Amid an escalation in deadly violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — including recent terror attacks that killed Israeli civilians, including two young children, as well as Israeli raids against militants that killed Palestinian civilians — Israel’s new ultra-right-wing government decided this week to move forward with a series of provocative and consequential steps toward West Bank annexation and removal of judicial restraints on its executive power.

The government decided to take the following major steps toward annexation, which intentionally preempt prospects for a peaceful two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by converting significant West Bank land into territory functionally attached to Israel, while further shrinking and isolating the small pockets of disjointed land left for Palestinians living under military occupation:

● “Regularizing” or “legalizing” nine outposts in the occupied West Bank that are illegal under both Israeli and international law, turning them into new, authorized settlements;

● Connecting dozens of other still-illegal outposts to Israeli state-provided infrastructure like water and electricity; and

● Convening the planning and zoning committees of Israel’s Civil Administration in the occupied West Bank to approve the planning and building of thousands of new housing units in existing settlements — possibly the largest ever single approval of such units.

The government also moved to neutralize the judiciary and eliminate checks on its power by advancing through Knesset two bills that are integral parts of the Netanyahu government’s plan to subvert Israel’s judicial system, serving Netanyahu’s personal interest in evading conviction on corruption charges and his government’s goal of removing the Supreme Court as an obstacle to the radical reforms contained in its coalition agreements, including those regarding annexation:

● Moving a bill to functionally terminate the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review on foundational issues by preventing the Court from considering the validity of Israel’s Basic Laws – which stipulate civil rights and the powers and functions of Israel’s governing bodies, in the absence of a formal Constitution – or amendments to them; and

● Advancing a second bill that would allow the governing coalition to pack the judiciary with judges of its own choosing, in contrast to the current system which requires judges and politicians to achieve a consensus upon the appointments of new judges to Israel’s Supreme Court and all other civil courts. According to the proposed law, five of nine members of the selection committee would be members of the coalition government, and a bare majority of five votes would be required to appoint judges.

Taking Action: Recommendations for the Biden Administration and Congress

The Biden Administration has reportedly been weighing in privately against such moves with top Israeli officials for several weeks. In response to the Israeli government’s decision to move forward with the West Bank steps this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was “deeply troubled” and “strongly oppose[s] such unilateral measures, which exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.”

Just days before, President Biden himself cautioned against the moves to undermine Israel’s judiciary with a measured 46-word warning that: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

The magnitude of the Israeli government’s provocative moves toward annexation and against the democratic rule of law at this volatile moment merit an urgent and more forceful US government response. At a minimum, the Biden administration and US lawmakers should take the following steps:

● Publicly and consistently make clear that there is a distinction in international law and US policy between the State of Israel and the territory it controls in the West Bank, and that the United States does not regard West Bank settlements as consistent with international law or as part of Israel;

● Reinforce US and international differentiation between Israel and the West Bank through steps like restoring the longstanding bipartisan customs guidance on accurate labeling of West Bank goods;

● Indicate that use of US-origin military equipment or aid in connection with acts toward annexation like evictions, demolitions, forced relocations and the construction of civilian infrastructure designed to benefit settlers could trigger investigations into whether such use constituted a violation of existing US arms export control or aid law;

● Make clear to Israeli officials that the United States will not block accurate, appropriate criticism of acts toward annexation like evictions, demolitions and forced relocations in international fora, including in the United Nations Security Council;

● State that the shared values upon which a strong, crucial US-Israel relationship rests are premised upon democratic systems underpinned by an independent judiciary that acts as a check upon executive power and protects civil liberties — and that an erosion in Israeli democracy would negatively impact the bilateral relationship; and

● Remind Israeli officials that compromising judicial independence can impact the decisions of international bodies like the International Criminal Court as to the adequacy of domestic remedies, making review of Israeli actions by such bodies more likely.”

“In 46 Words, Biden Sends a Clear Message to Israel” – Thomas Friedman Opinion, NYT – February 12, 2023

I woke up on Saturday morning, read the news from Israel that at least 50,000 Israelis had just demonstrated once more against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its independence and put it instead under Netanyahu’s thumb — at a time when Netanyahu himself is facing corruption charges — and I asked myself a simple question: “What does President Biden think of this?”

Biden is as pro-Israel in his gut as any president I have ever covered. He has also had a long and mutually respectful relationship with Netanyahu. So I can tell you that whatever Biden has to say about Israel comes from a place of real concern. It’s a concern that the radical transformation of Israel’s judicial system that Netanyahu’s ultranationalist, ultrareligious coalition is trying to slam through the Knesset could seriously damage Israel’s democracy and therefore its close ties to America and democracies everywhere.

Here is the statement that Biden sent me on Saturday afternoon when I asked for comment: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

This is the first time I can recall a U.S. president has ever weighed in on an internal Israeli debate about the very character of the country’s democracy. And although it’s only 46 words, Biden’s statement comes at a crucial time in this wrenching Israeli internal discussion and could well energize and expand the already significant opposition to what Netanyahu’s opponents are calling a legal coup that would move Israel into the camp of countries that have been drifting away from democracy, like Turkey, Hungary and Poland.

Here’s why Biden’s 46 words are so important: First, it puts him squarely behind the compromise approach called for by President Isaac Herzog of Israel — and behind keeping Israel’s widely respected judiciary independent. Although Israel’s presidency is largely a symbolic job, the office carries moral weight. Herzog is a good man who has been trying to head off what he fears could be the most serious civil strife ever within Israeli society if such a big change in the judicial system, inspired in part by a far-right Israeli think tank, is rammed through.

Herzog has pleaded with Netanyahu and his coalition to step back and organize some kind of bipartisan, national dialogue that can patiently study what kind of judicial changes might be healthy for Israel but do it with legal experts, in a nonpartisan fashion and in a way that preserves the integrity of the judicial system that has existed since Israel’s founding.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu rebuffed the Israeli president, which prompted Herzog to declare on Jan. 24 about the so-called judicial reform: “The democratic foundations of Israel, including the justice system, and human rights and freedoms, are sacred, and we must protect them and the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public.” He added, “The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency.”

With Biden’s 46 words, Netanyahu now finds himself in a situation where, if he just keeps plowing ahead, he won’t just be snubbing the Israeli president; he will be snubbing the American president as well. That’s no small deal. I also suspect that Biden taking a stand on this issue in this measured but unmistakable fashion will encourage other Western democratic leaders, business leaders and U.S. senators and representatives to do so, too, which will also energize the opposition.

The second reason Biden’s words matter is their timing — it could not be more important. As The Times of Israel reported Saturday, the first reading for some of the most controversial aspects of Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul “is set for Monday; a bill must pass three readings to become law, and the coalition has indicated it seeks to blitz the legislation through the Knesset by April.”

Those leading the opposition have called for a nationwide workers’ strike on Monday and a mass rally outside the Knesset to coincide with the first rounds of voting on the legislation. You can bet more than a few Israeli protesters will be quoting Biden’s words as they take to the streets.

Third, Biden has put himself and America squarely on the side of the Israeli majority opposing Netanyahu’s just shoving his “reform” through — in what increasingly looks like a judicial putsch.

A poll published Friday “indicated that over 60 percent of the public wants the government to halt or delay its legislative efforts to dramatically weaken the High Court of Justice and secure political control over judicial appointments,” The Times of Israel reported.

It also puts America squarely behind Netanyahu’s own attorney general from his last time in office, Avichai Mandelblit — the man who indicted Netanyahu in 2020 on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust and who has denounced Netanyahu’s judicial changes as just a disguised effort to quash his own trial and avoid jail.

Speaking to the Israeli TV program “Uvda,” Mandelblit said Netanyahu’s sweeping proposed changes to the judiciary are “not a reform” but rather “regime change.”

Because Israel does not have a constitution and the executive branch always controls the Knesset, Mandelblit explained, the only separation of powers — the only check on the executive branch — is the independent Israeli judiciary and Supreme Court. And what Netanyahu is proposing is that a bare majority of the Knesset — 61 out of 120 seats — become empowered to override any Supreme Court decision. With the narrowest of majorities, the government could put through any laws it likes.

Netanyahu’s plan also would give the government control over the selection of judges, which has long been in the hands of an independent selection panel, and it would also remove the independent legal advisers — the internal legal watchdogs — in each ministry. Currently, they are appointed by the Civil Service Commission and can be removed only by the attorney general. Netanyahu wants them instead appointed by and loyal to each minister.

Put it all together, and you would have a government that won by 30,000 votes out of 4.7 million having total control over the Supreme Court, judicial selection and each ministry’s legal advisers.

“I can’t be silent,” Mandelblit concluded. “If there is no independent judiciary, it’s over. It’s a different system of government.” The ruler “will decide,” he added. “He’ll have prosecutors of his own, legal counsels of his own, judges of his own. And if these people have personal loyalty to him, there is no supremacy of the law. This is a sinkhole. We’ll all be swallowed up by this.”

Finally, what Biden has done will add credibility to America’s voice in support of democracy globally. It says that America speaks up not just when China crushes democracy in Hong Kong. We speak up when we see democracy threatened anywhere. America has often taken issue with Israeli human rights abuses in its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. But no American president in my memory had ever spoken out against proposed changes in the democratic character of the Israeli state — because, up until a few weeks ago, none ever had to.

If Biden’s message is not clear to the Netanyahu coalition, let me try to put it as simply as I can: America has supported Israel militarily and diplomatically and with billions of dollars in aid since its foundation, but not because it shares our interests. It does not always. Israel has stayed neutral between Ukraine and Russia, it is indifferent to human rights abuses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Israeli businesses sometimes sell defense technologies to China that are very worrying to the Pentagon. We have given Israel so much support since its founding because we believe Israel shares our values.

And even when Israel behaves in ways in the West Bank or Gaza that are not consistent with our values, Israelis often fall back on them anyway. They tell us: “Hey, cut us some, slack. We live in a constant, violent struggle with the Palestinians. We live in a crazy neighborhood. And yet we’ve still managed to maintain judicial oversight of our armed forces, robust democratic institutions, as well as an independent judiciary and a free press.”

That argument is seriously threatened by what Netanyahu is pushing. And without it, what’s left? Shared interests won’t be enough, because they come and go.

That’s why Biden’s 46 words are so crucial. With those 46 words, Biden is telling Israel our relationship has never truly rested on shared interests. It’s always been built up from our shared values. That is why it has endured so long — even when we disagree on interests. With his simple statement, Biden is signaling that whatever Israel does, it must not fundamentally depart from those shared values. Otherwise, we are in a totally new world.