(AP) — An array of U.S. Jewish leaders are sounding alarms about what they see as a threat to Israel’s democracy posed by its new government, fearing it will erode the independence of its judiciary and legal protections for minority groups.
While some Jewish leaders dismiss such fears are overblown, a solid majority of mainstream Jewish American groups are voicing unprecedented criticism of the Israeli government, raising fears about a growing rift between Israel and the predominately liberal American Jewish population. Some progressive voices have gone even further, saying Israel can never truly be a democracy as long as it rules over millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to vote.
The controversies come even amid a flare-up of deadly violence involving Israelis and Palestinians. On Wednesday, Israeli troops conducted a raid in the West Bank, triggering fighting that killed at least 11 Palestinians and wounded scores.
Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu took office as prime minister in December after the country’s fifth election in less than four years. His coalition allies include ultra-Orthodox parties and ultranationalist parties dominated by hardline West Bank settlers.
Critics are alarmed about coalition members' wish list of expanded settlements, narrowing the eligibility for would-be immigrants claiming Jewish heritage, and restricting non-Orthodox access to a sacred site.
They see a planned judicial overhaul as threatening the checks and balances on Israel's government — echoing concerns voiced by tens of thousands of Israeli street protesters in recent weeks.
“Here we are, about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Jewish democratic state of Israel that we love,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a liberal denomination representing the largest U.S. Jewish religious population. Yet that anniversary is approaching amid fears for “the weakening of Israel’s democratic foundations,” Jacobs said.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella group for Orthodox Jews in the U.S., said Netanyahu's government and its political opposition share responsibility for the tensions.
“Is the government’s initial proposal extreme and in need of correction? Probably," Hauer said. But he said there's room for compromise.
The Knesset, dominated by Netanyahu and his allies, voted this week for bills that would give the governing coalition control over judicial appointments — currently made by an independent committee that includes lawyers, politicians and judges — and curtail the Supreme Court’s ability to review the legality of major legislation. The Knesset also voted to empower lawmakers to overturn high court decisions by simple majorities.
The bills require additional votes before becoming law.
Representatives of the influential American Jewish Committee have urged Israeli government officials to consult with opposition leaders, judges and others, said Jason Isaacson, the AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer.
“If you’re going to fundamentally alter a system that’s been in place for a number of years and guarantees the independence of the judicial system … do it carefully, do it slowly," Isaacson said.
That said, “the sky is not falling,” Isaacson said, predicting Israel would retain a robust democracy.
Opponents say the proposals would push Israel toward a system like Hungary and Poland, where the executive wields control over all major levers of power. Under Israel’s system, the prime minister already controls the legislature through his majority coalition.
There could be widely acceptable changes to judicial selection, Jacobs said, but current proposals will “cause deep harm to the structure of the rule of law.”
Attempts by Israel’s figurehead president to broker a compromise — efforts supported by many U.S. Jewish organizations — have failed to make headway.