As a high school student, I was involved with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. I remember a misty Sunday afternoon spent demonstrating for the freedom of Soviet Jewry in front of the Bronx County Courthouse. The Bronx’s borough president, Herman Badillo, supported our cause and helped rally us into action. Badillo later become one of the first Hispanics elected to Congress. Subsequently, as chair of the City University board of trustees, he successfully ended the disastrous open admissions policy and helped raise the standards for admission to its senior colleges.
The movement to free Soviet Jewry, one of the great civil rights movements of the last decades of the 20th century, reached its crescendo with a march on Washington and more than 200,000 participants crying out to Mikhail Gorbachev: “Let my people go.” Greater MetroWest’s Jackie Levine was chair of this mobilization. At the 25th anniversary of the march, sponsored by the Jewish Federation, she had the honor of introducing Natan Sharansky, who personified this quest for freedom.
The movement succeeded, with the exodus of well over a million Soviet Jews, primarily to Israel. And with the Lautenberg amendment, which bestowed refugee status on Soviet Jews and others suffering religious persecution from Soviet authorities, hundreds of thousands graced our shores.
With the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, our government used the tool of trade to put pressure on the Soviet Union to free its Jews. Both Republican and Democratic administrations exerted additional diplomatic pressure on Soviet diplomats and political leaders to free Soviet Jews. While recognizing that realpolitik may be the primary process used in diplomacy, exerting pressure on human rights for repressive governments has been the hallmark of our foreign policy. When greeting Soviet Jews at Ben Gurion airport, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz was astonished by the number of Soviet Jews carrying musical instruments. When he noticed an empty-handed arrival, he asked his profession. “I’m a pianist,” the immigrant responded.
During kiddush last Shabbat, I was invited to join a demonstration in front of the Capitol in Washington when Yitzchak Herzog was scheduled to speak in front of a joint session of Congress. The Israeli who invited me has lived in the U.S. for some time. “Come join us as we will demonstrate to stop Israeli madness,” he said.
“Herzog is the one who’s trying to resolve this issue, using his bully pulpit to lower the temperature and reach a compromise,” I responded. “Shouldn’t your message be more positive, showing your support for his efforts, rather than the negativity?”
This led me to think about what parameters should guide our policy on interfering with another country’s internal affairs. As alluded to earlier, certainly advocating for human rights should always be in our diplomatic toolbox.
But the administration’s incessant message about preventing Israel from “going off the rails” from its democratic values during the judicial reform crisis is an unwarranted interference in Israel’s internal politics. Adding insult to injury, the administration urged Israeli authorities to “protect and respect the right of peaceful assembly,” as if Israel were an authoritarian state like Iran.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated for their vision of democracy, with very few injuries and only dozens detained. At last count, close to 600 Iranians were killed during their demonstrations, while numerous press reports disclose our secret negotiations with Iran, mortal enemy of Israel and Ukraine, that would not freeze or roll back its nuclear program and be awarded with billions in the process.
The conflict in Israel revolves around two rights: the power of the elected representatives and that of the judiciary to curb the former’s excesses. Thankfully, the ill-begotten Knesset override of a judicial decision by only a slim majority was removed from the legislation. The controversy now is regarding how much the “standard of reasonableness” can be invoked by the court to invalidate decisions by the Knesset. The proposed legislation would eliminate this standard.
There are valid arguments on both sides. For example, reasonableness “in the extreme” was used to cancel the ministerial appointment of Aryeh Deri, convicted of corruption and tax evasion. Will this create an opening for his reappointment if the legislation is approved?
On the other hand, reasonableness is amorphous, and its use should be limited, according to Justice Noam Sohlberg, as “decisions made by elected officials …are for the most part decisions that reflect a worldview … a professional worldview. As such,” the reasonableness doctrine was not appropriate to test decisions … of a professional nature by elected officials.”
These comments were made in reference to judicial restraint imposed by the justices themselves. But he later clarified that this should not be handled legislatively.
The U.S. government should not interfere with the internal machinations of the Israeli body politic.
Did the State Department rebuke President Emanuel Macron for endangering democracy in France by bypassing Parliament entirely in imposing pension reform? Has our government scolded the French government for amassing 45,000 law-enforcement officers who have detained more than 2,000 protestors?
Regarding judicial oversight of a legislature, in the United Kingdom, Parliament is the supreme legal authority and “generally, the courts cannot overrule its legislation,” according to the Parliament’s website. Has our government condemned this example of legislative overreach? Meanwhile our own Supreme Court overturned the administration’s own executive overreach with the overturning of the administration’s cancellation of $450 billion in student loans at a time when we face $33 trillion in debt, with Medicare and Social Security in fiscal straits.
Turning to the Middle East, during the 2020 presidential campaign candidate Joe Biden promised to treat Saudi Arabia as “a pariah state” after the senseless killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. After the election, the Biden administration held up arms sales to the Saudis. This well-intentioned human-rights-driven policy apparently boomeranged when the price of oil skyrocketed even after deploying our strategic oil reserve. So, hat in hand, the president pleaded with the Saudis to increase the supply of oil, which they ignored. Hedging their bets on U.S. reliability, the Saudis brokered a deal with the Chinese, normalizing relations with the Iranians, creating a quandary for both Israel and the U.S.
So, well-intentioned interference on human rights collided with realpolitik.
I think the opposite side of the coin on this issue should also prevail. Israelis should not lobby with the U.S. to interfere on either side of these internal political squabbles. Demonstrate, lobby for your point of view with Israeli legislators and public opinion. Otherwise, you would be compromising Israel’s sovereignty and setting an awful precedent for future governments.
We need to lower this torrid temperature, which is a salve for our enemies. Reservist pilots and reservists not reporting for duty are scandalous and undo the patriotism shown by the hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens marching in the streets.
As we observe Tisha B’Av, we are reminded that internal conflict hastened the destruction of the Temple and our loss of sovereignty for 2,000 years. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of renewed Jewish sovereignty, let cooler heads prevail and forge some kind of compromise that will resolve this serious conflict, hopefully leading to a pathway to a constitution without outside interference.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.