JFNA Head Eric Fingerhut Tells TML: If Reforms Advance, Israel Will No Longer Be Seen as Model Democracy
Plans for the Jewish Federations of North America’s ‘Israel at 75’ General Assembly to be held in Israel have been marred by the political division roiling the country
In an unprecedented move, a 30-member delegation from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) flew to Israel on Tuesday evening for a whirlwind 24-hour stay. Upon the delegation’s return, The Media Line spoke with Eric Fingerhut, JFNA president and CEO, who gave a candid assessment of meetings with Israeli officials from both the government and the opposition as the country continues to be divided over judicial reform legislation currently being pushed through the Knesset.
Alarmed at the contours of the Israeli government’s proposed reforms to the country’s judicial system, the breakneck pace with which it is moving forward through the legislative process and the divisions the process is causing, the delegation during its meetings with political and thought leaders called for immediate compromise, and relayed American Jewish concerns about the potential damage the government’s plan, if instituted as is, will have on Israel-Diaspora relations.
Eric Fingerhut, JFNA president and CEO, told The Media Line that “you cannot overestimate how critical the case for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is to the support of Israel. I don’t just mean monetary support from private philanthropy and the governments of the United States, but emotional support, and wanting to send our kids to Israel and to be involved in causes supporting Israel and having Israel be as an important part of our Jewish identity. … I think these are things that cannot be taken for granted.”
Fingerhut said that, despite some criticisms in Israeli circles that American Jewry should stay out of this debate, everyone the delegation met with – including those in the governing coalition, “expressed enormous gratitude that we came, that we obviously care about what’s happening in Israel, and that we want to not only share the reactions and the concerns from North America, but we want to help because this is obviously just tearing Israel apart.”
There isn’t anybody saying: ‘It’s this or nothing. It’s got to be 100% my way.’ Now, that is distinguished from whether there is a path to negotiation and to compromise.
Despite the government’s immediate rejection of a compromise plan laid out on Wednesday evening by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, which JFNA backs as a baseline for negotiations, Fingerhut said it is significant that everyone the delegation spoke with – including the judicial reform plan’s architect, Knesset member Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – saw an opportunity for compromise and a need to change some elements of the current package.
“There isn’t anybody saying: ‘It’s this or nothing. It’s got to be 100% my way.’ Now, that is distinguished from whether there is a path to negotiation and to compromise,” said Fingerhut. He added that those who feel like the current debate in Israel is a typical negotiation where both sides present maximalist opening positions before meeting somewhere closer to the middle “probably underestimated and set off a conflagration that I’m guessing they didn’t expect. Once that starts to happen, then people start saying things about each side and digging in their heels, and compromise starts to look like defeat.”
During the JNFA fly-in, members of the delegation met with Herzog, Economy Minister Nir Barkat (Likud), Opposition Leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), lawmaker Benny Gantz (National Unity), Rothman (Religious Zionism) and lawmaker Danny Danon (Likud), along with other members of the Knesset from the coalition and opposition, and senior business leaders who oppose the reforms.
While Fingerhut said those meetings were private and off the record, he indicated that Rothman “didn’t in any way question what we were there for and listened to our appeals to him for negotiation and compromise. He very much wanted to make sure that we understood the deep motivation behind his position that, to him, was a correction of historic wrongs that have, in his opinion, created imbalance between the judiciary and the Knesset, and gave several examples that he felt exemplify that.”
Fingerhut noted that Rothman is among those who want to make as few changes as possible to the current government-backed outline.
The delegation met with Professor Moshe Koppel, the leader of the right-wing Kohelet Forum, an Israeli think tank which developed the outline for judicial reform largely adopted by Rothman.
Fingerhut said he was heartened by public statements made by the Kohelet Forum calling for a need for compromise on the issue.
In the bigger picture, Fingerhut says the details of the proposed reforms are largely best left to the Israeli public to sort through themselves. The delegation mainly focused on the difficulties resulting from the so-called override clause, which would, if passed, allow the Knesset to override any Supreme Court decision striking down legislation by simply again passing the same legislation with a simple majority vote.
“Our point simply is, democracy as understood around the world is both majority rule and protection of minority rights that is accomplished through a system of checks and balances. Every country can implement a different system of checks and balances and it doesn’t have to look like what we have in the United States. But, there must be one, or it will be very difficult to lift up Israel as a model democracy,” he said.
The JFNA delegation also met with Barkat and Danon – no surprise since the umbrella organization and individual federations have long-standing relationships with both from Barkat’s tenure as Jerusalem mayor and Danon’s stint as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Both are among a handful of senior Likud members who have publicly expressed the need for compromise on the judicial reforms.
“We have the kind of relationship with both (Barkat and Danon) where we didn’t have to meet to mince words. We can be very clear. They are well aware of these concerns, but we felt that hearing from us in person, given our long relationships, would be very important to them. And I think it was,” said Fingerhut.
Fingerhut, who characterized meetings with the two as “candid,” pressed them on Likud’s historical role as Israel’s flagship liberal – in the classical sense – national party, protective of free market economics and individual freedoms; standards which Fingerhut said are not met by the coalition’s current path.
He said those Jews who live in the US and Canada in free and open democratic societies hold shared values with Israel that regard such governments as being indispensable.
“It’s the first thing we say in every conversation with every political leader. I think we could so easily lose a generation of people who would see this (current judicial reform plan) as Israel stepping away from its commitment to being not just a democracy, but a model democracy in an area of the world that doesn’t have many of them,” said Fingerhut.
JFNA is set to return to Israel next month for its annual General Assembly, which is billed as a mass celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary, with thousands of attendees from dozens of Jewish community Federation missions expected to fly in to participate. With the current crisis unlikely to be solved by then, the envisioned celebration could turn into more of an open therapy session for North American Jewry struggling to reconcile the growing chasms.
Fingerhut said that even if a compromise is reached by next month, “there will still be healing to be done.” He said the planned event will try to hold onto its celebratory nature, as well as give North American Jewry a chance to “acknowledge the sacrifices and the losses that have been suffered by so many Israeli families in order to guarantee this 75 years of independence.”
But he conceded it would be “completely tone deaf to not acknowledge that these issues are happening around us and that, whatever the state of affairs is in April, there has been great divisions and some harsh things said on all sides.”
The General Assembly program is being adjusted, he said, to incorporate discussions, briefings and more opportunities to meet and get caught up with community leaders, members of Knesset and other leaders involved in the current debate. The essential tone coming from JFNA membership is that, no matter where they stand on Israel’s political spectrum, the overriding concern is to bring down the temperature and forge a compromising path forward.
“To the extent that we can help bridge some of these divides that have grown larger, we want to help that,” Fingerhut said.