Jewish activists in US react to Israeli judicial overhaul

Jewish activists in US react to Israeli judicial overhaul
4 min read
Washington, D.C.
28 July, 2023
American Jews supporting Israel's pro-democracy movement say they see signs of hope for Jewish activists in the US supporting Palestinian rights, though they are much less hopeful for the future of Israel.
American Jews in Washington, DC demonstrate during Bezalel Smotrich's visit in February. [Brooke Anderson/The New Arab]

Following this week's news of Israel's confirmed plans to overhaul its judiciary, which could drastically curb civil and human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians, Jewish communities in the US across the political spectrum are continuing to speak out over the new reality that was until recently considered a serious possibility.

Like the demonstrations and public statements over the past seven months, Jewish groups from different political persuasions have been consistently raising the alarm over Israel's planned judicial overhaul, which in addition to restricting the civil rights of Israelis, has the potential to lead to complete annexation of the occupied territories.

This time, however, with months of concern finally turning to reality, US Jewish groups largely considered moderate or conservative-leaning are making strong statements typically used by progressives. 

"Here in the US, there is something of an awakening of American Jews," Matan Arad-Neeman tells The New Arab. He is communications director with IfNotNow, a progressive group of American Jews, which describes itself as organising to end Israel's apartheid system and demanding equality and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. 

"We're seeing people who otherwise wouldn't be willing to talk about the consequences of Israel's apartheid. That's encouraging," he says.

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He points to recent statements by public figures, including Israeli political officials, in mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, suggesting that the US rethink its largely unconditional aid to Israel.

He is also encouraged to see a trend of American Jews turning away from AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been referred to as the Jewish lobby for decades, is now generally referred to as the Israeli lobby, with its growing support from right-wing (often antisemitic) Christians. 

"I think American Jews are seeing AIPAC for what it is. It lobbies for unconditional support for apartheid," says Arad-Neeman. 

"At home, they're putting us in danger by supporting antisemitic candidates," he said, referring to the lobby group's growing tendency to support far-right politicians, some of whom have espoused the Great Replacement Theory and other antisemitic theories.

Ori Nir, an Israeli living in the US and spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, an Israeli-affiliated progressive group that advocates for a two-state solution, tells TNA that he, too, is seeing some cause for hope for Israel's "democracy movement" in the short term.

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In addition to seeing what he believes to be a growing anti-occupation movement within Israel's worldwide anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, he has also seen statements by centrist US Jewish groups. He notes a recent statement by the Anti-Defamation League, a group he sees as something of a bellwether, noted its disappointment over Israel's judicial overhaul. 

"If you look at their statement, it starts by saying: we're deeply disappointed," he said. "It's something that really captures what I'm hearing from people -- not just our supporters, but from more centrists."

For now, he expects Israel's judicial reforms to be incremental, a tactic he believes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will use to prevent from losing support. After that, he expects to see more anti-democratic initiatives become law.

But what about the long term within Israel itself? Nir does not hold back his pessimism.

"In the long term, that has to do with the nature of the country, with the demographics," he says. "The demographics are such that the sectors of Israeli society that are most prone to be conservative and anti-Arab and racist and so on, are growing at a much higher rate than the overall population."

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Joel Beinin, an emeritus professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, himself a member of a liberal synagogue, also expressed pessimism about the future of Israel's pro-democracy movement, including in the US.

"I'm much less optimistic than, say, the central current among the American Jewish community organisations, maybe because I frame it differently than they do," he tells TNA. "I've always said Israeli democracy was problematic or non-existent, to begin with."

He says, "What you have is essentially a social movement whose main thrust is to maintain a liberal version of Jewish ethnocracy. Some people say you need it for tactical reasons. Other people are doing it because that's what they believe. Alongside that, there is a smallish anti-occupation group, which has grown."

Looking to the future, he says, "So, the best that can happen, the very best that can happen, is some return to the status quo. I don't think that's even in the cards."