Even unprecedented criticism of Israel by American Jewish leaders rings hollow without action.
A view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Eli in February 2023. Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has vowed to legalize dozens of illegal settlement outposts in the occupied territory.
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As Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government advances its plan to dismantle the country’s judiciary, the American Jewish establishment has begun to worry. On February 1st, 170 American Jewish communal figures—including former leaders of AIPAC, Jewish federations, and the Conference of Presidents (CoP) of Major American Jewish Organizations, as well as prominent rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements—issued a joint statement expressing their “concerns” that “the new government’s direction mirrors anti-democratic trends that we see arising elsewhere,” and calling for “critical and necessary debate.” The next day, several writers known for their consistently pugilistic defense of Israel—Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Daniel Gordis—published an open letter criticizing Netanyahu and his coalition. “Protecting Israel also means defending it from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundation of the Israeli success story,” they wrote. Even the famously hawkish Abe Foxman, former CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), has started to fret: In December, he told the Jerusalem Post that “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it” and its relationship to diaspora Jews will be in jeopardy.
Yet the emergence of largely retired Jewish establishment leaders and a few center-right commentators as newly minted critics of the Israeli government signifies less than it might seem. While many of these figures are speaking out in uncharacteristic ways, they have kept their rhetoric within carefully circumscribed boundaries. The message of the communal leaders’ joint statement is one of loyalty, not combativeness: It does not threaten any action to hold Israel accountable. Instead, it stresses the signatories’ “steadfast support for [Israel]’s security and well-being” and their commitment to “upholding the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship” based on “shared democratic values.” (They ignore the fact that, but for a brief period after Israel ended martial law over its Palestinian citizens in 1966 and before the occupation of the West Bank began the following year, Israel has never resembled a full democracy.) In Friedman, Halevi, and Gordis’s letter, neither the word “Palestinian” nor the word “occupation” even appears. In a subsequent interview with Jewish Insider about a recent speech he gave to AIPAC, Gordis said, “Israel needs support no matter what.”
It is not coincidental that these statements do not center Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. It reflects a misapprehension—which also afflicts the mass protests currently taking place in Israel—that Israel’s democratic backsliding within the Green Line can be arrested while maintaining the undemocratic military rule in the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. In fact, there is no way to understand why the Israeli right has turned the country’s judicial system into its enemy without recognizing the role that they believe it plays in thwarting their territorial-maximalist agenda in the West Bank. Israel’s High Court has in practice sustained the occupation and enabled settlement construction. Yet past decisions to demolish illegal outposts and settlement projects, and, in a few instances, to halt the demolition of Palestinian homes, have convinced the settler right that the court impedes the realization of its ultimate goal: to formalize full Israeli sovereignty over all of “Greater Israel” and expel the Palestinian population living there. The settler right now in power understands that, if put to a vote, the annexation of part or all of the West Bank would find support among a plurality, if not a majority, of Israel’s legislators, including current members of the so-called opposition. One of the primary objectives of Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial overhaul plan is to prevent the court from impeding the settler movement and its allies ever again.
It’s no surprise that establishment leaders are struggling to mount a credible threat to these anti-democratic Israeli policies. It has long been the mission of groups like AIPAC, the CoP, and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to shield the Israeli government from any consequences for its systematic violation of Palestinian human rights. Indeed, it is ironic that the authors of the communal leaders’ statement found it necessary to expand at length on the fact that “it is profoundly irresponsible to conflate charges of antisemitism with criticism of Israeli policies, especially when antisemitism is on the rise,” when for roughly three decades, the organizations that many of the signatories once led or supported worked assiduously to quash criticism of Israel and to defame Israel’s critics, including its Jewish ones, as antisemites. If Jewish communal leaders now fear accusations of antisemitism themselves, it is because of the McCarthyite climate within the Jewish institutional world that they helped to create.
But beyond suggesting a certain ideological thaw within elite communal circles, the Jewish establishment figures’ gentle criticism suggests little in the way of a departure from longstanding policy. Even as some American Jewish leaders bemoan the potential consequences of the judicial overhaul, Israel trips, hasbara efforts, and lobbying against BDS campaigns all proceed apace. There is no indication that they will stop. The inertial quality of Jewish institutional work is perhaps why few current leaders are in a position to speak up: Nearly all of the most prominent signatories of the communal leaders’ statement—like former AIPAC executive director Tom Dine and former CoP chair Alan Solow—have retired or moved on from those roles. As Israel advocacy work continues as usual, such statements should therefore be read as part of a pattern, most recently displayed in 2020, when Netanyahu threatened to annex the West Bank. According to this playbook, major Jewish communal organizations and figures maintain the programming and policies that enable the Israeli government to act with impunity while simultaneously lamenting the political consequences. In other words, even if Levin’s “judicial reforms” go through, American Jewish organizations will continue to support an undemocratic, ethnocratic Israel in the future—they already do so today.
For his part, Netanyahu has repeatedly demonstrated that he is not fazed by the toothless criticisms of the American Jewish establishment. In fact, he has been preparing to supplant them. The prime minister has invested substantial time and effort in consolidating a new counter-establishment, comprised of Christian evangelical groups like Christians United for Israel; Orthodox and Hasidic groups the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel; American pro-Likud bastions like the Zionist Organization of America; and American conservative stalwarts like the Hudson Institute and the Wall Street Journal editorial board. When Ron Dermer, now Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said in 2021 that Israel should focus on outreach to Christian evangelicals, whom he called “the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States,” and eschew American Jews, whom he named as “disproportionately among our critics,” he was describing a shift in Israel’s public diplomacy strategy that has been underway for years.
Netanyahu does, however, appear to be worried about the potential economic fallout of the judicial overhaul plan. Several high-profile tech entrepreneurs have said that they would leave the country in response to his government’s policies. The CEOs of Israel’s major banks and the governor of the Bank of Israel have warned that the plan’s implementation could scare off foreign investment. Amid anxieties among Israeli executives that a brain-drain could be in the offing, a leaked internal memo from JPMorgan speculated that cascading effects from Levin’s “judicial revolution” could make Israel appear to be a risky place to invest and lead to the downgrading of the country’s credit rating. To assuage such concerns, Netanyahu has taken to Twitter and TikTok, uploading frenetic videos in which he promises that investors will be more attracted to Israel, rather than frightened away, as a result of his policies. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has taken a more direct route, personally beseeching the CEO of Costco to bring his business to Israel.
The palpable sense of panic derives from a real vulnerability. Many of Netanyahu’s supporters consider him to be responsible for the recent flourishing of Israel’s high-tech industry and its strong economic performance. Guaranteeing such profits is a key part of his political strategy. But now his turn to a hard-boiled, right-wing populism has spooked the more liberal elements of Israel’s capitalist class. While it is unlikely that such liberals constitute a majority among Israeli capitalists—Israeli high-tech and venture capital is deeply enmeshed with the defense establishment—pressure from within this class clearly has Netanyahu worried.
And yet, American Jewish organizations remain resolutely committed to shielding Netanyahu from the consequences of divestment. As Jewish Currents has reported, establishment organizations including the ADL, JFNA, and CoP recently joined an effort to pressure the investment research firm Morningstar to cease applying the term “occupied territories” to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, in order to normalize investment in settlements. The ADL expressed concern after Israel’s November election about “individuals and parties in this Israeli government whose policies on Israel’s judiciary, relations with Israel’s minority communities, LGBTQ rights, religious pluralism, and Palestinian affairs historically run counter to Israel’s founding principles.” But when Norway’s state-owned investment fund announced the following month that it was preparing to withdraw its investments in Israeli banks because of their ties to West Bank settlements, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt denounced the move as “antisemitic” and “a form of economic warfare.” Even now, no major American Jewish organization or communal leader will embrace conditioning US military aid. This includes the liberal Israel lobby J Street, which opposes the occupation and has denounced the Netanyahu government’s judicial “reforms,” but which has so far called for only tepid American action, like putting more oversight on aid to Israel without threatening to impede its flow.
Beneath all the hand-wringing, the status quo remains. For now the response of the American Jewish communal organizations to the potential dismantling of Israel’s judiciary resembles their reactions to what appeared to be Netanyahu’s impending annexation of the West Bank in the spring and summer of 2020. For example, while acknowledging that annexation would almost certainly constitute a diplomatic and PR nightmare for professional Israel advocates, Jason Isaacson, Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), wrote in the summer of 2020 that he and his organization would “make the strongest case possible for a decision reached by an elected Israeli government and supported by Israel’s (and anyone’)s most powerful partner, the United States.” In a leaked memo from June 2020, the ADL outlined that it would enable “local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s decision,” while simultaneously lobbying to neutralize what it called “anti-Israel legislative proposals, e.g. condemning and singling out its human rights record and conditioning its military aid.” Then as now, when liberal-leaning establishment leaders warned in the abstract of the disastrous implications of a looming Israeli government action, they also promised to maintain their support, even if the red line was crossed.
One might be forgiven, then, for treating the criticism by some Jewish establishment figures with skepticism. Without backing up their condemnations with any meaningful action, they appear more concerned with heading off the potential PR damage caused by Netanyahu’s coalition and neutralizing the fallout among American Jews than with the impact of the government’s policies. And that may be, at least in some cases, because they don’t actually oppose them. For example, Gordis, who has now taken it upon himself to tell hard truths about Israel to AIPAC’s flock, openly suggested in his 2009 book that the forced transfer of Palestinians out of Israel might be necessary for the resolution of the conflict. Many in Netanyahu’s government would agree.
The Knesset is poised to approve the first half of the proposed changes to the judiciary within the next week. It is clear by now that the “judicial revolution” will not be implemented in one fell swoop. Israel’s opposition may still succeed in softening Levin’s overhaul plan, likely along the lines laid out by President Isaac Herzog last week. But even if partly defanged, the resulting changes to Israel’s judicial system will still leave the messianic, ethnonationalist right more empowered and more dangerous than ever before. And despite all the agita, American Jewish communal organizations have given no indication that they’ll do anything about it.
Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.