While “dialogue” was a central theme of the “Israel at 75 General Assembly,” the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), held this week in Tel Aviv to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Israel’s birth, several of the key discussion topics appeared overwhelmingly one-sided.
This was especially evident when it came to the foremost political issue of the day—judicial reform—a topic that has consumed Israel’s political landscape for the past three months.
Federation told JNS that it strove to present “leaders from the opposition and coalition representing a diversity of views and opinions,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset member Simcha Rothman, a key architect of judicial reform.
That didn’t work out in reality. Netanyahu decided not to attend, and Rothman was drowned out as activists interrupted his talk.
JNS was unable to identify another individual on the four-day program who favors judicial reform or was associated with Israel’s political right.
While Federation generally avoids taking sides in Israel’s internal political debates, it has struggled to stay aloof over judicial reform. At the kickoff on Sunday night, JFNA chairwoman Julie Platt acknowledged anti-reform protesters. “We see you. We hear you. And we are inspired by your love for Israel,” she said.
Last month, 30 JFNA leaders made a lightning “24-hour fly-in” to Israel to express their concern judicial reform would cause harm that would “not be easily repaired.” In February, it opposed a judicial reform bill dealing with a Knesset override of the high court.
The General Assembly, or GA, featured only one session on the topic, with exclusively anti-reform panelists. Queried by JNS, JFNA president and CEO Eric Fingerhut explained that the panel—titled, “75 Years of Israeli Democracy: Understanding What’s Motivating the Largest Protest Movement in Israel’s History”—was about the protesters, not judicial reform.
“We didn’t intend to come here to debate judicial reform. That’s not the goal of this conference at all. But it’s impossible not to give our thousands of delegates who come here, who see the protests all around and who are interested, a chance to learn more about what those people are doing,” he said.
‘Help us, help us, they chanted’
Anti-reform protesters had made special efforts to woo GA participants, showing up at the airport as attendees arrived, visiting their hotels and on Sunday night handing out flowers at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Expo where the conference was held. Daylong protests took place subsequently, with air horns blaring in the background of conference sessions. Protesters hope to enlist American Jews in their fight against judicial reform. “Help us, help us,” they chanted.
In defending the decision to host a protesters-only panel, Fingerhut said that Rothman, who was part of a simultaneous session on a separate topic (the Law of Return) “will probably end up including some elements of the judicial reform issue.”
It was “quite weird,” Rothman told JNS, that the GA would hold an “event in one room about the protests against judicial reform, while they have one of the key architects of the judicial reform in another room speaking about another topic.”
Rothman, who did not seem overly concerned, noted that conference plans were set up long ago before judicial reform had become a hot topic. He also said judicial reform is not particularly relevant to American Jews, unlike the Law of Return. The latter codifies who in the Diaspora qualifies as a Jew and is entitled to Israeli citizenship.
He barely managed to speak about the Law of Return, much less judicial reform, it turned out. The anti-judicial reform group Achim L’Neshek (“Brothers in Arms”) interrupted Rothman continuously during his panel on Monday morning.
Foreseeable security problems at the panel remained unaddressed, as activists harassed Rothman while he was being interviewed by JNS even before the event. “The real motto of the left is ‘Thou shall not speak,’” Rothman told JNS, as protesters shouted over him.
The protests aren’t about judicial reform, an effort to rein in a court system that both sides of the political aisle agree has accrued power beyond its purview, according to Rothman. He recommended an April 19 Tablet Magazine article by Liel Leibovitz, who reported that the current upheaval is a clash between “two Israels”—one seeking a state of Jews, “a normal state,” “a state like any other,” and a second Israel, which wants a Jewish state, one inspired by Jews’ particular religion and culture.
Composed of Mizrahi Jews and a growing Orthodox population, the second Israel focuses on “family, tradition and nation,” wrote Leibovitz, who claims that two-thirds of Israelis want the second Israel, but that the one-third can’t “be expected to bow down.”
“For many people, the protests combine everything into one issue, that the government wants to take away the courts, the Law of Return, Reform Judaism and turn Israel into a theocracy of Orthodox Jews,” said Rothman. “That’s the mindset.”
Rothman’s assessment appeared borne out by comments made by the three panelists at the protest session: IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Asaf Agmon; Yiftach Golov, a leader of Achim L’Neshek; and Ronit Harpaz, CEO of a high-tech health company.
“Our goal in this panel is to make you understand that we are not fighting for judicial reform … nor even for our democracy. We are fighting to preserve our core values,” said Agmon.
Golov agreed. “We are now at the frontlines battling to defend pluralism, to defend equality, to defend justice, to defend democracy, to defend our beloved country from tyranny,” he said. “We are fighting for all Jewish people here and around the world for whom a democratic Jewish homeland is dear to their heart.”
Harpaz argued more narrowly about economic risks but still spoke in fateful terms. “Three months ago, we woke up to learn that everything that we’ve built and fought for is in danger,” she said. “The judicial coup in question has not been fully implemented. But the fact that it’s on the table is enough to demolish our Startup Nation.”
‘Two sides to the debate’
Fingerhut, who moderated the panel, stressed that there were two sides to the debate. “We should not judge others until we have walked in their shoes,” he said, quoting Pirkei Avot, (“Ethics of the Fathers”).
“Are you able to put yourself on the other side for a moment and understand what their motivations are? What their concerns are?” he asked the panelists. “This social divide feels scary to us as Americans who love Israel.”
The panelists denied there was another side, insisting that Israelis spoke as one voice against reform. “All the talk that our country is divided is fake,” said Agmon. “We have a political system that is divided, but we the people, we are very united.”
The panelists urged Diaspora Jewry to join their struggle. Asked by JNS what specifically they wanted American Jews to do, Agmon said: “First of all, I want you to be involved.”
“I would like you to understand that this crisis is not about Israel itself,” he added. “It’s about Israel as the state of the Jewish nation.”
With panelists seeking to enlist American Jews as activists for their cause, JNS asked the moderator if hearing from both sides would have better helped the audience make informed decisions. Fingerhut responded to JNS that while the panel represented only one side, it was just a start in Federation’s education efforts.
A lack of representing the full spectrum of views also surfaced at another panel at the General Assembly.
At the end of a session on religion and state—in which panelists called for the two to be separated and at least one argued that Israel’s chief rabbinate should be abolished—an audience member, Moshe Heller, posed a question.
Heller, who said he belongs to the Orthodox Union, noted that there are many advocates for religion and state, though none were represented on the panel.
“With all due respect to you and your experience, you’re not advocating for the people who have different views,” he said. “The question is: Can we have a future discussing this issue, and making progress on this issue when we’re not engaging a significant portion of the population?”