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Likud MK Amichai Chikli, now minister of Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Likud MK Amichai Chikli, now minister of Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
featureU.S.-Israel Relations

‘They’re recruiting Diaspora Jewry against the government’

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli talks judicial reform, antisemitism in the U.S., sovereignty and Israel-Diaspora relations.

One month after taking office, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli is contending with one of the greatest challenges facing the current government—the need to explain the government’s policies to Diaspora Jewry. Above all, the judicial reform plan and the desire to change the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return.

The very person who epitomized rebelliousness in the previous Knesset, who opposed every single act of the “government of change,” is now the one charged with explaining to the Jewish world what the State of Israel will look like going forward.

“This gives me a sense of immense responsibility, a feeling that from now on, in any sphere relating to me, I can point an accusatory finger at only one person—and that is me, of course. These are topics that I had much to say about in the past, and now it’s squarely in my court,” said Chikli.

Following the formation of the government, many Jews in the Diaspora voiced significant concern regarding what steps it was about to take, mainly regarding issues of religion and state. Ironically, these issues have for the moment been somewhat overshadowed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform plan and the coalition’s desire to amend the Law of Return so that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jews will no longer be automatically eligible to immigrate to Israel.
Chikli recalled heated meetings with senior figures in the Jewish world. “I came across concern, chiefly from people who are more identified with the liberal-progressive approach,” he said. “I understand their concern, but I really think that it is mainly due to a considerable amount of disinformation. A political campaign by the opposition that has crossed a red line,” he added.

“I cannot remember a single situation in which the opposition has ever recruited forces from Diaspora Jewry against the government. This is contemptuous. Instead of enlisting their help in the fight against Iran’s nuclear program, they are recruiting them to take part in a political argument between the right and the left,” he said.

“Having said that, these senior figures are no fools and quickly identify that this is ‘much ado about nothing,’ with numerous false alarms regarding the end of democracy and a regime coup—statements that could not be further from the truth,” he said.

Q: In the past, there have been people who warned of a potential rift with Diaspora Jewry. Do you feel that such a rift exists?

A: I have met with a number of important figures within Diaspora Jewry and I don’t feel that there is any such rift. Some sectors are worried, but I believe that we can solve the disputes. I look at U.S. Jewry and fully understand that one of the most important tasks is to preserve the strong bond that keeps them all together. It is an extremely complex task to keep this people together.

Q: The anger expressed by many Jews results, among others, from the attitude of certain members of the government, your colleagues, pertaining to the Western Wall Outline. Don’t Reform and Conservative Jews deserve a place, too, at the Western Wall?

A: I don’t look at it from the perspective of one faction or another, but from a much broader point of view. The Western Wall Plaza should remain unchanged. There is a partition, there is room for prayer, and this is how it should remain. At the same time, there is the Ezrat Israel plaza (the area designated for egalitarian prayer), and this should enable a couple visiting Jerusalem with their children to come and place a note in the Wall. It doesn’t have to be considered a major incident. A family should not have to split up into two halves in order to place a note in the Wall. Currently, there is no access to the Wall in the Ezrat Israel and I am in favor of regulating this issue. As far as I am concerned, the arrangement reached is in the right direction and is most appropriate.

The Law of Return

The Diaspora affairs minister is also working towards attaining broad consensus and dialogue on another issue currently on the agenda, one which is even more of a powder keg—the “grandchild clause” of the Law of Return. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 70% of those making aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

“We are in need of urgent amendments,” said Chikli. “An individual who is not Jewish, and whose link to Israel is via his grandfather or even his great-grandfather, should not automatically be granted citizenship. This issue is currently completely wide open, and the State of Israel is entitled to request that an individual who does not adhere to a Jewish way of life in any form, undergo an orderly process to make aliyah,” he said.

Many people were entering the country that shouldn’t be, and “forty percent of them leave after receiving the economic benefits associated with making aliyah,” he continued.

“It is clear that somebody who has strong Jewish roots enjoys a completely different status. The State of Israel has the right to examine whether a person seeking to come and live in Israel because his grandfather was Jewish wants to be a part of the Jewish people, and perhaps even undergo a conversion process if he is coming to live here for good or for a shorter period. The figures require us to invest a serious effort in addressing this issue. This is not a game,” he said.

“I am looking to advance this issue based on consensus as it is a genuinely complex matter. I aspire to make the requisite amendments to the grandfather clause from a national perspective, but also based on dialogue and consensus. As far as I am concerned, the idea put forward by the president to convene a committee to work on these amendments is most welcome, and we shall of course ensure that representatives of Diaspora Jewry are also included on such a committee. It is important to respect them and to listen to them. I believe that an orderly process needs to be set in motion, just as you receive a visa for a number of countries so that somebody who has no direct link to Israel can make aliyah.”

“What are you on about?”

While Chikli is in favor of dialogue with the Diaspora on the grandchild clause, he is categorically opposed to dialogue when it comes to the issue of judicial reform, which he fervently supports.

“In 24 out of the 38 member states of the OECD, it is the political leadership that appoints the highest legal authorities,” he said. “In the United States, the president appoints the Supreme Court judges subject to a majority in the Senate—a conservative president appoints conservative judges and vice versa. We are simply taking a further step toward what happens in the United States, and this redressing of the balance is occurring as a result of the change of government,” he added.

“It is impossible to detach the court from political issues, such as Judea and Samaria, religion and state, refugees, etc.; therefore, the balance must emanate from the fact that different governments appoint different judges. When you look at the current composition of the Supreme Court in Israel, it represents a rather restricted range of views, from Meretz to the Blue and White Party,” he said, adding that it did not even fully represent the range of positions on this end of the political spectrum.

“I really do not think that the judicial reform is going too far on this issue. Of all the OECD member states, only in Turkey and Greece do the judges appoint themselves,” he said.

Chikli said that he had held meetings with senior figures in the Diaspora Jewish community who had expressed concern about the judicial reform plan’s “override clause,” but noted that the clause had originally been introduced by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.

Israel is progressing towards adopting the U.S. model, and this is a welcome step forward, he said. Those who object to the idea of an override clause should address their reservations to Barak, he added.

The Diaspora minister also claims that the way Israeli attorney generals are appointed also needs amendment.

“In western states, it is simply not acceptable that the power of the attorney general supersedes that of the ministers. The perception of the courts as the gatekeepers of democracy developed here as a supplement to the judicial reform that occurred in Israel during the 1990s, and I am happy that I have the right to put an end to this bizarre anomaly,” he said.

“Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara is living proof of the need for such an amendment. When serving under a left-leaning government she was as quiet as a mouse. I don’t remember her uttering a sound when the Pegasus spyware scandal erupted, during the Gilboa Prison guard pimping affair, or when, on the eve of the elections, former Supreme Court Justice Menachem Mazuz sought to become appointed as chair of the advisory committee for the appointment of senior officials. … Now, when a right-wing government is formed, she magically springs to life,” he added.

Q: Yet, it is still impossible to ignore the claim that if this was a political appointee, their word would be void of any value.

A: I have no problem with the fact that this does not have to be a political appointee, but it should be crystal clear that they provide purely non-binding recommendations and that it should be possible to fire a legal counsel under special circumstances. It is unacceptable that a legal counsel is not prepared to represent the minister’s position. This is a situation in which you need to remove that legal counsel from their position. You don’t want to represent the minister’s position? Fine, then go home.

Q: There are some extremely senior individuals voicing opposition to the judicial reform, referring to it in extremely harsh terms.

A: All the hysteria and talk about a regime coup and the end of democracy as we know it is utterly baseless and completely irresponsible. In complete contrast to the outgoing government, which was formed under false pretenses and by stealing people’s votes, this is a legitimate government, with a majority of 64 Knesset members and mass popular support. This clearly might spook certain people. There is an entire section of the left wing that has become hysterical and … unable to act rationally. You hear people like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak … beginning to stutter and talk nonsense about civil unrest. Excuse me, but what are you on about?

Even at the time of the Oslo Accords and Israel’s unilateral evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements, the right-wing leadership never talked in these terms. Maybe on the radical fringes of the right, but not the senior leadership. Some of the leaders of the current protest have explicitly stated that while the people may have made their choice at the ballot box, they chose wrong. They don’t regard their [own] vote as being equal to that of Biton from Beit She’an or Segal from Ofra—they regard themselves as being the lords and masters of this land. These are people who come from very specific areas within the population. It is their right and their duty to express their opinion, but it is important to note that there is a considerable degree of patronization, and a lack of willingness to accept the fact that there are other voices and communities of citizens with equal rights.

The method: shaming

In early February, Chikli presented a summary report on antisemitism for 2022, highlighting a significant rise in anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli sentiment.

“Hand in hand with a decline in the scope of antisemitism around the world, an increase in antisemitism in the United States was recorded,” said Chikli, adding, “There is cause for concern.”

Israelis and Jews in the United States face real danger, he continued. “The Ruderman Foundation recently conducted a survey in which it emerged that 90% of American Jews are concerned with the sharp increase in antisemitism in the United States. More than 40% experienced an antisemitic incident.”

The most problematic situation, he said, was on university campuses.

“Sixty-five percent of the lecturers in political science and Middle East studies faculties think that Israel is an apartheid state, and a quarter of the students believe this to be true. One of the most important issues here is the need to adopt a completely different approach,” he said.

“To date, the State of Israel has been dealing with hasbara, or public diplomacy, but I believe that this is an extremely feeble term. No single country in the world has a ‘Ministry of Public Diplomacy’; we don’t need to explain anything. These are ‘brand awareness’ statements to the effect that Israel has a right to defend itself. This is obvious. So far we have been playing on our half of the pitch, and the goal should be to shift the play to the other half of the pitch,” he continued.

“We intend to publish a rating of the most antisemitic campuses in the US. Shaming for those institutions that promote antisemitic stances, where Jewish students feel uncomfortable.”

Another front in the effort to combat antisemitism lay closer to home, he said.

“The Palestinian Authority is the most antisemitic state entity in the entire world. Some 93% of the public there hold antisemitic viewpoints. This is an appalling statistic. The P.A. is the focal point for the dissemination of the new antisemitism, namely denial of Israel’s right to exist; demonization and comparing it to the Nazi regime; accusing it of ethnic cleansing, etc. The Fatah newspaper features caricatures that would not put Der Stürmer to shame. They lead virulent incitement against the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Only Iran, perhaps, compares with the P.A. in terms of the intensity of its anti-Jewish hatred.

The European Union, he added, was part of the problem.

“The European Union provides a clear contribution to promoting campaigns against the State of Israel. While its official declarations oppose defining Israel as an apartheid state and support its right to self-defense, there is a dramatic disparity between them and the actual activity adopted by it. The E.U. finances dozens of organizations, including those that refer to Israel as an apartheid state and call on the United States to put an end to its military aid to Israel. We addressed the E.U. with a request to understand whether these actions are conducted with its awareness, whether the decision-makers are aware of the volume of funds that are transferred to organizations of this kind.

“As far as I am concerned, the watershed on this issue is the Oslo Accords, which represent the State of Israel’s most severe strategic disaster, equivalent only in terms of its severity to the surprise attack that set in motion the Yom Kippur War back in 1973. Since then, the State of Israel’s position has been seriously undermined, and there are more and more voices identifying the State of Israel with apartheid and other similar bizarre claims.”

“Gaining a stronger grip”

Chikli thinks a sea change is necessary with regard to Israeli policy pertaining to relations with the Palestinians.

“It’s about time that we address the question of the long-term alternatives, and I am not sure that the P.A., in its current format, is relevant to the future of the region. With sufficient imagination, boldness and dedication it is possible to find alternative options, starting with Dr. Mordechai Kedar’s proposed ‘Palestinian Emirates Plan,’ and I wouldn’t take the Jordanian option off the table, either.”

Q: So what is the solution for Judea and Samaria? Sovereignty?

A: It is the P.A. that is currently imposing sovereignty on the ground, as part of a strategic partnership bankrolled by the E.U. … operating in Area C as if it belonged to it while trampling Israel’s sovereignty there underfoot and ignoring Israel’s security and national interests, as well as the State of Israel’s profound historical link to these areas of its homeland.

It is happening at Tel Aroma, a Hasmonean fortress in Samaria on the remains of which a mosque was built in memory of the ‘shahidim‘ [martyrs, i.e. terrorists]; on Mount Ebal, which has already been damaged and on which an entire residential neighborhood has been planned; and in numerous other locations, too. During the weekly government meeting, I recommended to the prime minister that he should announce a state of emergency regarding the damage to sites of global heritage and annex those areas to Area C, in order to protect irreplaceable historic sites.”

Q: Having said all that, do you support imposing sovereignty throughout Judea & Samaria?

A: As I see it, declarations are less important. The really important issue here is gaining a stronger grip over the territory via the settlement enterprise and expansion of the settlement blocs, alongside an all-out war on the Palestinian efforts to take over Area C by the methodical dumping of waste into the streams, illegal quarries, burning refuse and the charcoal kiln pollution. There is a genuine need for urgent action to be taken.

The Negev

Chikli also serves as social equality minister, and as such is in charge of the planning and oversight for Israel’s Arab population. According to him, the problems in Judea & Samaria are the root cause of the unequivocal radicalization occurring among the Bedouin in the Negev.

“There are more than 300,000 Bedouin living in the Negev, of which 25,000 families live in unauthorized villages, with no connection to the most basic infrastructure. Polygamy is rife among this population, too, and this often involves the spread of Palestinian nationalism as a result of Palestinian women originating from villages in Judea and Samaria marrying into Bedouin society. The majority of violent incidents that have included elements of terrorism have been carried out by the sons of women who have come into Bedouin society from the P.A. Sons of Palestinian mothers are four times as likely to be involved in terrorist activity than the rest of the local Bedouin population, and so the problematic issue of polygamy is at the top of the agenda,” he said.

“We need to effect a change in the financial benefits so that they are granted according to the father and not the mother, as currently importing women from the P.A. is a real business, as they receive national insurance, allowances, and even plots of land. There is also a phenomenon of forging divorce papers in order to define the mother as a one-parent family and thus gain relevant benefits. We need to put a stop to this, and to do so quickly.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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