Diaspora dealings

Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister readies for battle against BDS movement

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Amichai Chikli says U.S. Jews have the right to criticize Israel, but ultimately have no say in its internal affairs

Reuven Kopichinski

Amichai Chikli

In early February, days after a Palestinian terrorist opened fire in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, killing seven Israeli Jews, Israel’s newly appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli ordered his staff to put together a primer showing how Palestinian schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip celebrated the attack.

The four-page report, which was filled with images of Palestinian schoolchildren from Hebron in the West Bank to Rafah in the Gaza Strip proudly displaying photographs of the assailant in celebratory ceremonies, was sent out to a long list of foreign ambassadors and dignitaries based in Israel with the aim of highlighting how the Palestinian leadership encourages the murder of innocent Jews.  

“They need to be named and shamed,” Chikli told Jewish Insider in a wide-ranging interview last week. “The Palestinians are the ones who need to be banned, they are the ones who need to be divested from, they are the ones who need to be delegitimized – it’s ridiculous that we need to even explain this.”

Tackling the worldwide Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel was added to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s portfolio when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up his new government two months ago, and Chikli, who also serves as minister of social equality in that government, said he is determined to flip the approach in an attempt to defeat what he calls the most “antisemitic movement on the face of earth.”

“The goal is to move to their side of the playing field, to stop being defensive and to go on the offensive,” he told JI. “It is the Palestinian Authority that must be delegitimized, they are the ones who need to be banned.”

Chikli, 41, first made national headlines in 2021 as a firebrand instigator in the then-incoming government of former Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. Newly elected to the Knesset as part of Bennett’s right-wing Yamina Party, Chikli declared that he would not support the new coalition, which was made up of a broad range of political parties, including, for the first time, an Arab faction, because he said the move contradicted campaign promises. His constant opposition to multiple policies and proposals over the first year, was what, in part, led to the government’s eventual downfall.

Ousted from Bennett’s party and initially banned from running for a Knesset seat in the last election, Chikli sought refuge in Netanyahu’s Likud party. His resistance had gained him admiration in right-wing circles, and Netanyahu eventually rewarded him by appointing him to head the ministry that engages and liaises with the Diaspora, despite Chikli’s having expressed hardline views against Reform Judaism in the past and also having made clear his support for controversial and sensitive reforms to the Law of Return – the immigration legislation that grants anyone with a single Jewish grandparent the right to seek Israeli citizenship.

Chikli’s past criticism of Reform Jews in Israel for “​​going back to their roots in Germany of anti-Zionism and anti-nationalism” – as expressed in a Jerusalem Post interview last year – appears to have softened slightly. During his short time in office, he has met with a wide array of Jewish American community leaders, including the head of the Reform movement in the U.S., Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

“I have invested dozens of hours listening to their voices,” Chikli told JI, listing the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, as well as leaders of community organizations such as the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America, and many more, that he has already met with.

“And it’s not just me, they’ve also met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they’ve met with the prime minister, they’re meeting leaders from the opposition,” he continued. “They’re raising their voice in many forms, and they’re making their impact and that’s perfectly OK, but they’re not going to have a vote in the Knesset, and we all know it.”

On Saturday night, Jacobs became the first Diaspora Jewish leader to address Israel’s anti-government, anti-judicial reform protesters in Tel Aviv, saying that Diaspora Jews “are with you to fight the threats to Israel’s democracy.” His comments followed a similar sentiment expressed last week in an open letter sent to the Israeli government by the JFNA, which also expressed concern that the government’s plans might harm Israeli democracy.

“Criticism is OK,” Chikli said. “I don’t think that these letters are negative. We are reading them all and listening to the voices, but in the end, unlike the grandchild clause in the Law of Return, it is eventually an inner political debate.”

Chikli, however, was not so generous with his patience in his response to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who said in a recent interview that the Biden administration had been urging Netanyahu to “pump the brakes” on efforts to reform the judiciary.  

“The ambassador is not the federation, that is diplomacy,” explained the minister, who publicly chided Nides in a national radio interview last week. 

“The ambassador speaking to the prime minister of the State of Israel as if he was speaking to his child is a problematic statement,” said Chikli. “We’re not the children of Tom Nides – he should be more respectful; this is a political debate between the coalition and the opposition, it is an inner issue. I did not hear Nides criticizing Sweden, Norway, France or the UAE about their inner political issues.” 

Chikli continued: “We have mutual security challenges, we have mutual foreign affairs challenges, we share mutual values and indeed the U.S. is extremely important, but it does not mean there are no red lines in the interference of the ambassador.” Nides’ office turned down JI’s request for a comment. 

The minister stands firm on the need to reform Israel’s judicial system, pointing out that “the Supreme Court in Israel is the most elitist, unequal institute and system of the State of Israel.”

“We’re going to change it, and that is for the best,” he stated. “We will have more people from Masorti backgrounds, from Eastern backgrounds and from the Arab, religious and maybe even the Haredi community; it won’t be the closed social club or family, as [former President of the Israeli Supreme Court] Aharon Barak claimed it to be of white secular leftists or Ashkenazi secular leftists.”

The widespread public protests against the reform, which have seen tens of thousands of Israelis take to the streets over the past month and a half, said Chikli, were the response of a “frustrated elite” who had failed to cross the threshold in the election and not out of worry that the government is attempting to assert its control over an independent branch of the government. 

Chikli accused former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, former ministers Yair Golan and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, some of the high-profile figures who have spoken out against the reform proposals, of looking for ways to return to power. He said their protests were dangerously inciting against the government.

“There is a huge difference between saying that we need to go to a civil revolt or to a war and asking the government – the coalition and the opposition – to sit and talk and to make sure that we keep an independent judiciary,” Chikli explained.  

On issues such as ensuring there is a place for non-Orthodox and pluralistic prayers at the Western Wall and plans to change key sections of the Law of Return, which would make it harder for some Jews to move to Israel, Chikli acknowledged that it could spark tension with the Diaspora, but waved off claims that the changes would severely harm those relations.

“At the Kotel, I don’t see any change in the status quo; for better or for worse, the situation is just going to stay the way it is,” he insisted.

“Shas tried to bring a change but they were pushed back pretty fast by the coalition,” Chikli continued, referring to a recent rejected proposal by the ultra-religious Sephardi party to create legislation that would prosecute women for dressing immodestly at the holy site.

Regarding the tightening of immigration laws, which will put into sharp focus the question of who is considered to be Jewish, Chikli insisted that changes are needed.

Revealing to JI that he is in the process of establishing a special committee – together with Minister of Immigrant Absorption Ofir Sofer and President Isaac Herzog – to explore the matter, he said there needed to be a process with more “effective checks and balances to make sure that we are implementing the law with its intention and [that] we’re not opening the gates for an uncontrolled immigration process.”

“Around 40% of immigrants are going back to their countries after two years, and a large number of the people that are coming are not affiliated to Judaism; they are not coming because of Zionist motives, or a motivation to be part of the Jewish people,” said Chikli, sharing statistics that only around 28% of those who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union in 2020 were Jewish.

“There’s only one reason why we have the Law of Return,” Chikli concluded. “That is to take care of the Jewish people and to make sure that every Jew has a safe haven in the State of Israel.”

Addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog cautioned against eliminating the clause, however, warning that “it will create a rift among the Jewish people – both in Israel and among world Jewry.” 

“It stigmatizes sectors of the Israeli population who contribute to the state and are an integral part of it,” he said. “This change would also detach millions of Jews around the world from Israel.” 

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