Back-and-Forth with Bibi
Netanyahu presses need for judicial reform in meeting with divided American Jewish leaders
In a 'respectful' meeting in New York, the prime minister argued that those opposing the reforms 'have the wrong perception'
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed his case for the need for judicial reform in a wide-ranging, hour-long meeting with Jewish leaders in New York on Friday afternoon, trying to convince the skeptics in the room that they have the “wrong perception” of his government’s controversial moves.
The discussion with about 20 Jewish communal leaders from across the political and denominational spectrum took place at the Israeli Consulate hours after the prime minister addressed the U.N. General Assembly. The meeting also touched on issues including threats from Iran, the role of women and the rise of antisemitism.
“The prime minister kept his remarks short and then it was opened up to questions, responses and a few back-and-forths,” Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), told eJewishPhilanthropy as she was leaving the closed-door event. “I brought up gender and women in Israel. It was a robust conversation with a diverse cross set of Jewish leaders; not the full swath of Jewish leaders but a diverse set of mainstream leaders.”
“Everybody was really respectful, thoughtful and kind, which is notable because it’s not always that way,” Katz continued. “There are two different tales in the Jewish community. What I heard in a lot of the comments today was everybody saying their side is right. Prime Minister Netanyahu told us our perception is wrong. He spent a lot of time trying to clarify that we have the wrong perception on judicial reform. I didn’t hear everything I wanted to hear but did get a better understanding of where the administration is.”
“I heard interesting things that didn’t match my perception of what was going on,” Katz said, pointing to “discussion about Israelis feeling threatened for their physical safety as a result of judicial reform protests.” (There have been almost no cases of physical violence by demonstrators, though police have been accused of using unnecessary force against protesters; members of the government have been verbally harassed on the street and at events.)
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), echoed that the meeting was respectful, adding it “had no fireworks.”
“Even people on the left that I spoke to, I won’t mention names, said they were very impressed with Netanyahu’s explanations,” Klein told eJP. “They said they wished Netanyahu would have explained all this before [judicial reform] went to legislation. They said they understand better this is a rational approach to the judicial system.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), who has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government’s judicial reform push, also used the word “respectful” to describe the meeting.
He said he was the first person to bring up judicial reform in the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. “I got the chance to ask the question that I very much wanted to ask. I spoke about how our large Reform movement all across North America, I don’t know of a single congregation that didn’t have a sermon over [Rosh Hashanah] about how much we love Israel and at the same time about how distraught we are about judicial reform and how much we feel it undermines Israel’s democracy and endangers women, LGBTQ, non-Orthodox Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. I said you’re the prime minister, we have an internal problem, there’s a fray of our Jewish unity, I’d like to hear what you can say that will give us a sense of hope. He gave a very detailed answer of why this is not an erosion of democracy,” Jacobs told eJP.
Katz and Jacobs have demonstrated against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul measures, both in Israel and this week in New York. In February, Jacobs was the first Diaspora leader to speak at a protest against the measures in Tel Aviv. Two months later, Katz was the first to address an anti-overhaul protest in English.
The divide in the U.S. Jewish community over the issue was on vivid display on the streets of Manhattan on Thursday, where dueling rallies — a larger one protesting it, which Jacobs addressed, dubbed the “Protest for Israel’s Democracy,” and a smaller one supporting it — took place outside Netanyahu’s hotel.
Klein participated Thursday in a rally across the street in support of Netanyahu, dubbed “We Stand with Israel and its Democratically Elected Government.”
Klein told eJP ahead of the meeting that he planned to encourage Netanyahu to stay the course on his government’s plans to weaken the judiciary and to continue building settlements in the West Bank, which he referred to by its biblical name. “I’m urging him to stay strong and not stop building on Judea and Samaria, Jews have every right to live there, [and] to stay strong on judicial reform,” Klein said.
On the other hand, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the USCJ, told eJP ahead of the meeting that he hoped to encourage the Israeli premier to put on hold his government’s plans to further reshape the country’s balances of power and start a process of finding compromise. He also said he would stress U.S. Jews’ commitment to Israel even if they “may oppose or protest some of his policies” and that they “do so out of love and support for the State of Israel.” At the same time, Blumenthal said he planned to discuss his concerns “about Israel’s character as a strong and democratic state that is committed to individual rights and religious pluralism.”
In addition, Blumenthal said he took issue with Netanyahu’s handling of his meeting with Elon Musk. “The prime minister’s remarks in his meeting with Elon Musk did not go far enough in condemning the ways antisemitism is permitted and boosted by Twitter/X. Moreover, he needed to condemn specifically Musk’s ‘blame the victim’ strategy in threatening to sue the ADL,” he said.
In addition to URJ, NCJW and ZOA, among attendees at Friday’s meeting were representatives from Jewish Federations of North America, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Anti-Defamation League, Orthodox Union, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Jewish National Fund, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, World Jewish Congress, Jewish Agency for Israel, Young Israel, Hadassah and Agudath Israel. Leaders from the local Persian, Syrian and Bukharian communities were also in attendance.
Other participants included Israeli First Lady Sara Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog.
An Israeli diplomatic source told eJP that Netanyahu made an effort to invite more women to the meeting but pointed out there aren’t many females leading major Jewish organizations.