On the Hill

Jewish House Dems urge Israeli leaders to ‘suspend’ efforts to pass current judicial reform package

The letter comes in response to urging from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements to lawmakers

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Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) attends an election-night gathering at Arte Cafe on August 23, 2022, in New York City.

A group of 16 Jewish House Democrats wrote today to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid urging Israeli officials to halt efforts to pass a judicial reform package as currently constituted and to come together to negotiate a compromise.

“As members of the Jewish diaspora and friends of Israel, we are heartened by President Herzog’s calls for compromise, and we call on the government to suspend its efforts to pass the bills,” the legislators wrote in a letter obtained by Jewish Insider. “We urge all parties to come together to fully consider the potential implications of the changes being debated in the Knesset and to negotiate fairly and openly so that a broadly acceptable resolution can be reached and Israel can continue to be the flourishing beacon of democracy we have long admired.”

The letter was signed by lawmakers representing various factions of the Democratic Party, including both pro-Israel stalwarts and legislators who have historically been more critical of Israel policy. The signatories include Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Becca Balint (D-VT), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), David Cicilline (D-RI), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Dan Goldman (D-NY), Sara Jacobs (D-CA), Greg Landsman (D-OH), Mike Levin (D-CA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Kim Schrier (D-WA), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Susan Wild (D-PA). Nadler and Schneider organized the letter.

An individual familiar with the situation told JI that the letter — a rare joint step from a broad ideological swath of Jewish House Democrats — was prompted by a joint call from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements for lawmakers to speak out.

The lawmakers expressed “profound concern” that the proposed changes would “undermine Israeli democracy and the civil rights and religious freedoms it protects” by giving the Knesset “supreme power, unchecked by the Supreme Court” and could be detrimental to “groups not in the majority, including Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jewish populations in Israel.”

They emphasized, however, that “it is neither our intention, nor our purpose to prescribe how Israel should refine or reform its system of government” and acknowledge that government reform, including judicial reform, are “legitimate exercises in governing.”

The lawmakers also highlighted their “great pride” in the “mutually beneficial” and “extraordinary” U.S.-Israel, and their own dedication to an “enduring U.S.-Israel relationship.”

“While maintaining that commitment, we feel it is both appropriate and necessary for us to share our concerns about the possible, even likely, potential impacts of the changes currently being debated in the Knesset,” they added. “America and the American Jewish community are closely watching and hope that the reforms being considered in Israel will maintain the Jewish, democratic heart of the nation and preserve the separation of powers and protection of minority rights that are the essence of vibrant democracies around the world,” the lawmakers wrote.”

The Jewish Democrats repeatedly highlighted the U.S. and Israel’s “shared values — a commitment to democracy chief among them” as foundational to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The letter comes on the heels of a day of protests in cities across Israel, and ahead of the anticipated second and third readings of parts of the judicial reform package in the Knesset next week.

It follows a letter signed by dozens of Democrats, including some liberal Jewish Democrats such as Nadler, organized by J Street, which warned that the judicial reform package could precipitate a “major conflict” in the region. 

It also comes on the heels of a statement from two Jewish Democrats, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL), urging lawmakers against publicly airing their concerns about the judicial reform process.

Gottheimer and Moskowitz, as well as Reps. Brad Sherman (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Lois Frankel (D-FL), Dean Phillips (D-MN) Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) and Kathy Manning (D-NC) did not join the letter. Sherman, Schiff and Auchincloss have expressed concerns about the judicial reform proposals in other venues. Frankel, Phillips and Manning side with the moderate, pro-Israel wing of the party. Phillips is also the new ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East subcommittee.

In their letter to the lawmakers, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements wrote, “To ensure the long-term viability of U.S.-Israel relations, and to preserve Israeli democracy and religious freedom and pluralism, we believe your clear and firm expression of concern is vital.” They emphasized that it will be “easier” to prevent the legislation from being enacted than attempting to roll it back after its passage.

The movements’ letter urged lawmakers to speak “in public or private — to key leaders in Israel and, if public, to the Jewish community and its leaders here.”

Some of the signatories to the Jewish Democrats’ letter have also spoken out individually about the judicial reform process — some warning that the plans could damage the U.S.-Israel relationship — but the new communique marks the largest unified effort from Jewish lawmakers to push back on the judicial reform effort.

In an interview with JI Wednesday night, Schneider emphasized the U.S. and Israel’s “shared common commitment to democracy” where “the rights of all citizens are respected.”

“Neither country is perfect, and it is the right of the Israelis to determine what is the best government for them, and make changes as they see appropriate,” Schneider continued. “But I also think it’s important that as they do make those changes, they do it in a way that upholds the vibrancy of their democracy. And I have no doubt that, on that assumption, the relationship between the United States and Israel is going to always remain strong.”

Wasserman Schultz expressed some reservations about the judicial reform plans to JI recently, but also said she is “confident that a steadfast majority of my Democratic colleagues will continue to advocate for Israel’s security and further the unbreakable bond between our two nations,” and that she was heartened by “the robust civic engagement and dialogue that is taking place across the country regarding the more controversial initiatives.”

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told JI the RAC was “pleased to see that Jewish members of Congress are listening and responding to millions of their Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish constituents who have asked for them to join in their advocacy for the democratic and pluralistic Israel that we love and to preserve the shared values that form the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

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