Major Diaspora philanthropists warn of danger to Israeli democracy

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 29: Charles Bronfman speaks onstage during the Jerusalem Post New York Annual Conference at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on April 29, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by noa grayevsky/Getty Images for RSL Management Corpnoa)

By Asaf Elia-Shalev

(JTA) – They have donated untold millions to develop Israel and defend it from its detractors. Now, a group of major philanthropists in North America have come together to warn that Israeli democracy is in jeopardy as the new government seeks to overhaul the judiciary and grant itself veto power over Supreme Court rulings.

Fifteen major donors and charitable foundations, including Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman, released an open letter Sunday urging Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to reconsider his government’s plans and enter into a dialogue on the proposed judicial reforms as recommended last week by the country’s president, Isaac Herzog.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition has pushed the court reform legislation forward in the face of mass protests that have brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets. The proposed reform has also drawn criticism from legal scholars, public intellectuals and foreign leaders, including President Joe Biden.

“Because of our love for Israel, we are deeply troubled by this attempt to curtail the independence of the judiciary, one of the key features that makes Israel one of the most vibrant democracies in the world,” the donors’ letter reads.

In addition to Bronfman, the signatories include Adam Bronfman, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Lester Crown, Jeffrey Solomon, Marcia Riklis, Daniel Lubetzky, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Leichtag Foundation, Georgette Bennett, the Joyce & Irving Goldman Family Foundation, the Russell Berrie Foundation, the Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, Dana Raucher, and Jeremy and Anne Pava — the founders of Micah Philanthropies. (Raucher sits on the board of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent organization.)

The letter argues that Israel’s political system lacks many of the checks and balances that exist in other countries, such as a bicameral parliament, making the Supreme Court’s independence an essential component of Israeli democracy. But the letter also says that some reforms to the court are needed.

“The only counterweight to the legislative and the executive is an independent judiciary, which — while imperfect and in need of improvement — plays a critical role in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of all Israelis and ensuring that the laws of the country are applied fairly and justly,” the letter reads.

It continues, “While we appreciate that judicial reform was a campaign issue and that many Israelis voted for the governing coalition hoping for changes to the country’s judiciary, we strongly believe that democracy demands discourse. Swift legislation without adequate dialogue can undermine the checks and balances that are at the core of Israel’s democracy, threatening critical relationships both within Israel (among Jews and between Jews and Arabs) and between Israel and the Diaspora.”

When the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history came to power in December, many Jewish philanthropists and communal leaders expressed concern over Israel’s future privately. But as time has gone on, tensions between the Israeli government and Israel’s backers in the Diaspora have increased.

A leaked policy memo from the party of a deputy minister in the Israeli government, for example, portrayed many American Jewish donors to Israel civil society as a nefarious force bent on imposing pluralistic values on Israeli school children. And while speaking at gatherings hosted by American Jewish organizations, Netanyahu and his Diaspora affairs minister, Amichai Chikli, have swatted away criticisms of the government’s decisions.

The letter is the latest in a mounting pile of open pleas from groups who say the proposed reforms threaten Israel’s future. Also this weekend, new letters were distributed by the Conservative/Masorti movement of Judaism, 200 U.S. Jewish scientists and Arab Israeli leaders.

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