Naomi Kahn, director of the international division of Regavim, speaks at a March 2023 conference of The Hague Initiative for International Cooperation. Source: YouTube screenshot.
Naomi Kahn, director of the international division of Regavim, speaks at a March 2023 conference of The Hague Initiative for International Cooperation. Source: YouTube screenshot.
featureJewish Diaspora

Regavim’s point woman in the US says American Jewry has it all wrong

Naomi Kahn is pushing back on perceptions about the Israel land protection NGO: “We’re more necessary as a lobbying organization now than ever.”

Naomi Kahn’s job with American audiences got tougher, even when it seemed like it might be easier.

Kahn serves as the director of the international division of Regavim, an Israeli NGO dedicated to rooting out illegal Arab construction in Israeli-controlled territory.

The current Israeli government includes a number of former Regavim officials in influential roles. But that’s been a double-edged sword for her in the United States.

As Kahn met with donors and with members of the American Jewish establishment last month, two things came into focus.

First, some Regavim supporters now feel the organization is redundant with some of its biggest Israeli proponents now seated within the halls of power.

Regavim founder Bezalel Smotrich holds increasing sway over settlement policy from his perch as a minister within the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Regavim co-founder Yehuda Eliahu heads up the settlement administration within the Defense Ministry. Former Regavim operations director Yakhin Zik is the chief of staff to Negev and Galilee Development Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf. Meanwhile, former Regavim board member Sraya Demski is Smotrich’s chief of staff.

But, Kahn said, “we’re more necessary as a lobbying organization now than ever. We’re busier now than we’ve ever been.”

“Many of the things that we’ve been proposing are now on the government’s table,” she added. “Many of the things that we discussed in the last four rounds of elections were actually incorporated in the coalition agreement that formed this government.”

How theoretical constructs actually make it into legislation and how that policy gets implemented on the ground is very important, she said.

“If a government that has the complexion that this one does fails to achieve those things, the results will be much worse than if they had never been elected at all,” Kahn said. “You’ll end up with a situation where people will say that no matter what they vote for, they’re going to get the same results.”

The second thing that came into focus is that the U.S. Jewry hasn’t welcomed the current Israeli government with open arms.

Naomi Kahn
Naomi Kahn, director of the International Division of Regavim. Photo by Josh Hasten.

On a U.S. visit this year, only two well-known Jewish organizations confirmed meeting with Smotrich at the time. Only much later was it reported that Smotrich met with Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations CEO William Daroff and Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut.

Kahn told JNS that the plot can even get lost with mainstream, legacy organizations that have passionately Zionist reputations.

“It’s very hard to say what they’re getting right, because there isn’t much,” she said, speaking personally on this subject, and not for Regavim.

“It seems to me that the mainstream Jewish Zionist organizations and Jewish organizations in general are allowing very simply untruths and falsehoods—a rewriting of history—to take over the narrative about everything that has to do with Israel’s legal rights, certainly in terms of Judea and Samaria, but everywhere else, as well,” Kahn said.

“The American Jewish community should be speaking very, very clearly against the narrative of illegal occupation, rather than sitting timidly by and allowing this to become mainstream, accepted wisdom, because it simply is untrue,” she added. “That is a massive problem.”

Claiming that “Zionism seems to have lost its way,” Kahn is attempting to sell ideas and issues, based on factual analyses, that are important for the future of the State of Israel. “Everything that we do focuses on our most basic resource, and that is the land itself,” she told JNS.

Part of her mission is to inform American Zionists about Regavim and dispel what she calls misinformation about the issues on the Israeli government’s agenda, including those about which Regavim has actively pursued, analyzed and collected information for years, both in Judea and Samaria and in the Negev.

Naomi Kahn, international division director of Israeli NGO Regavim. Photo by Eliana Rudee.

“We want to help explain those things, and to counter a lot of the fake or hysterical news that is being pushed, particularly in American Jewish media, which is very unfortunate,” she said. 

‘Holes in Israel’s legal system’

She told JNS that American Jews are “quite shocked” by some of the evidence she presents, “such as environmental terrorism and massive environmental damage that’s happening in Israel.”

“So the Israel that some of the people who I speak to know and love and come and visit is really physically in danger because of these holes in Israel’s legal system that aren’t protecting the environment, some of the archaeological or historic sites that they love to go and visit,” she said.

That circles back to the proposed judicial reforms in Israel about which so many American Jewish organizations have expressed alarm.

Kahn cited a recent exchange on social media with a journalist and with a “head of an important Zionist, right-wing organization,” both of whom she declined to name.

In response to an item she posted about judicial reform, the journalist and organization leader responded that it was strange that Regavim should be involved in that topic, calling it “mission creep,” she said.

She told the two that Regavim’s work often brings it into confrontation with judicial bias at the Israeli Supreme Court.

The high court “has a completely different set of rules for court cases that were filed by Peace Now, Breaking the Silence and all of these leftist organizations funded by the New Israel Fund, as opposed to petitions for the exact same types of cases that were filed by right-wing organizations, mostly Regavim,” she told JNS.

She referred to Regavim’s documentation of objective parameters to prove bias, such as how long the state was given to respond to a petition and how often the high court ordered a temporary injunction or the chief justice empaneled a case.

“The bias was just so clear and so inescapable. We’re talking about dozens of percentage points that favored the left-wing in procedural matters, before the case even made it to adjudication,” Kahn said.

“There’s two completely different schedules of enforcement priorities for the Arab sector and the Jewish sector,” she said.” And it is clear to us that this is not mission creep.”

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