‘We have to continue to raise our voices’

‘We have to continue to raise our voices’

Abe Foxman assesses the situation in Israel as he balances optimism and fear

Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and its planned judicial overhaul on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo by Matan Golan/Sopa Images/Lightrocket Via Getty Images)
Thousands rally in Tel Aviv to protest Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and its planned judicial overhaul on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo by Matan Golan/Sopa Images/Lightrocket Via Getty Images)

Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the retired longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, is an optimist, he valiantly reports about himself, and that claim is validated just about every time he talks about the state of the world.

But the fact that he has to talk about his optimism so frequently is in itself a cause for some alarm.

About two months ago, Mr. Foxman started talking about his alarm at the state of democracy in his beloved Israel after the elections that brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power yet again, but before he’d solidified his coalition and his cabinet. The December 7 story in the paper about his hope and fear for Israel — his optimism and his struggle to retain it resulted in the headline “Can his love for Israel be conditional after all?” — caught him as close to despair as he gets.

And Mr. Foxman — who was born in Poland in 1940, brought up by his Catholic nanny (whom he loved, and who loved him) until the war ended, his parents found him, and brought him to the DP camp where they lived until they emigrated to an egg farm in Toms River — knows about desperation, despair, and hope. And also about the importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people.

So, has anything changed?

Sort of, he says.

First, he wants to restate his message to Israel. “It was a call of concern that I wanted to make public,” Mr. Foxman, who has a very high profile in the Jewish community both here and in Israel, said. “I didn’t threaten. But I raised my voice to make sure that the prime minister and the government wouldn’t say, six months later, that they didn’t know how the American Jewish community felt, or that they didn’t understand what the consequences would be.”

Abraham Foxman

To be clear, this was the gist of his argument as we quoted him saying then: “If Israel’s likely once-and-future incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, makes a coalition with partners who are allowed to fulfill their promises, Israel will redefine who is a Jew. And that eventually would be the end of the relationship.”

Two months ago, he worried that Mr. Netanyahu’s allies, Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Avi Maoz, “have made promises to their voters about not considering non-Orthodox Judaism as being Jewish, about not accepting even some modern Orthodox conversions, about refusing to allow LGBTQ Pride parades, or for that matter openly LGBTQ Jews,” he said then. “They also talk about cutting back the power now held by Israel’s Supreme Court, and its judiciary.”

Mr. Smotrich now is Israel’s minister of finance, Mr. Ben-Gvir is its national security minister, and Mr. Maoz is its minister of education.

During the last two months, Mr. Foxman has been encouraged by how many other American Jewish leaders have spoken out. “I received many calls from people saying thank you. I urged them not to thank me, but to speak out. And in the last couple of weeks the American Jewish leadership has spoken out strongly, with letters and statements.

“It’s taken a while, but I am encouraged by all the voices, not only in Israel but here.”

Moreover, “I continue to be concerned with the political shenanigans of the new Netanyahu government. But that worry is offset by the fact that I am very encouraged by the broad response of Israeli society, of every aspect of Israeli society.

“Tens of thousands of Israelis went on the streets and continue to go on the streets, from Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv-Yafo, from Haifa, from Beersheba. From all over. Lawyers, judges, educators, entertainers, journalists, economists, business leaders, teachers, students, even charedim and Likudniks — members of Mr. Netanyahu’s own Likud Party — are marching.

“And there have been positive signs in response,” Mr. Foxman continued. “The government already has pulled back from the threat to dismantle public TV. It’s announced that it’s not on the agenda now. It’s pulled back on stopping trains on Shabbat.” (Mr. Foxman is Orthodox and would not take a train on Shabbat himself; the argument is whether they should be allowed to run at all.)

Mr. Foxman sits with the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“Likkud announced that it would not support a law to allow Deri to become a government minister.” (Israeli politics are complicated. Aryeh Deri, a founder of the charedi Sephardic Shas party, has held many high-level jobs in the Israeli government. He was convicted of bribery and fraud in 1999 and served a prison term. He’s been in and out of government ever since; his conviction sometimes bars him from positions, but at other times is not seen as a barrier. Last month, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that he could not hold a minister’s portfolio.)

“The prime minister feels the need to defend himself in a video every day,” Mr. Foxman continued. “Every day he makes videos defending and explaining himself. Every day he does a foreign interview, someplace like CNN or Fox or wherever. That shows that Netanyahu is listening, and that the protests are making an impact.

“There was a concern that two of the new ministers were given portfolios that would interfere with the military in the West Bank, but the military is standing firm. It is not permitting any political intrusions.

“And the American Jewish community is respectfully but firmly raising its voice.”

Last week, Mr. Foxman said, three Israelis who made aliyah from North America, all well-respected journalists, commentators, and writers — Matti Friedman, Daniel Gordis, and Yossi Klein Halevi — wrote an anguished open letter posted to the Times of Israel, asking for such raised voices.

“The North American Jewish community has steadfastly come to the aid of Israel at moments of crisis,” they wrote. “Israel belongs first of all to its citizens, and they have the final word. But Israel also matters to the entire Jewish people. When an Israeli government strays beyond what your commitments to liberal democracy can abide, you have both the right and the responsibility to speak up.

“Israeli leaders need to hear where you stand. North American Jews and their leaders must make clear to this government that if it continues on the path to transforming Israel into a country of which Diaspora Jews can no longer be proud, there will be no business as usual.

“We and our families, along with many tens of thousands of other Israelis, are in the streets every week demanding the government end its war against our democratic values and institutions. We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.”

Far right Israeli lawmaker Avi Maoz speaks on Nov. 28, 2022. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

American Jews have responded; among other responses, 169 rabbis and other people prominent in American Jewish life signed another open letter, this one also to the Times of Israel, reaffirming their deep love for Israel, and their unshakable commitment to it, but also their fears for its future.

“We are, for example, concerned about the Israeli Justice Minister’s plan to limit the Supreme Court’s power, proposed modifications to the Law of Return to change the status quo on conversions to Judaism, and calls by ultra-Orthodox coalition members to outlaw non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall,” they wrote. “We are also concerned about provocative actions that seek to open the Temple Mount to Jewish prayer in defiance of long-standing international norms and coalition agreements, legitimize settlement outposts retroactively, and expand Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.”

(Some local rabbis signed this open letter, which like most letters is far more scattershot than exhaustive in its list of signatories.)

“And then, in a restrained but firm way, the U.S. government got involved,” Mr. Foxman said. When he visited Israel and met with Mr. Netanyahu in late January, the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, “told the prime minister that what links our countries is democracy and shared democratic values.”

Mr. Blinken told Mr. Netanyahu that American support for Israel is based on shared belief in “core democratic principles and institutions, including respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society — and the vibrancy of Israel’s civil society has been on full display of late.”

(That “full display” Mr. Blinken referred to are the protests that bring people out in the streets every Saturday night.)

“The crisis isn’t over,” Mr. Foxman said. “Several of the ministers in the government are determined to promote their supernationalist ultra-Orthodox agenda at all costs.”

He talked about Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount in early January. “He has the right to go there, and to go to the site of the last terror attack — but it’s the way that he does it.

Mr. Foxman speaks at Auschwitz; members of the IDF stand behind him.

“Ben-Gvir does it to provoke, rather than to exercise this right, and that can restart a tragedy. What I find troubling is that the prime minster isn’t stopping him. He didn’t stop him going to the Temple Mount. He didn’t stop his provocative language at the terrorist site.

“I am fearful that the campaign and the victory and the coalition agreements have broken many of the taboos in Israel, just as campaigns in our country have broken norms here.”

On January 26, an Israeli raid that the Israel Border Police conducted in Jenin, on the West Bank, killed 10 Palestinians. The raid was to forestall a terrorist attack and to arrest three Islamic Jihad terrorists. The next day, a terrorist attack near a synagogue in Neve Yaakov, in East Jerusalem, killed seven people and wounded three others. It was a large and dangerous escalation of rage and death, and many Israelis connected it to the new government and its rhetoric. There were other nonlethal but still dangerous incidents that followed.

“I don’t remember a Christian cemetery being vandalized in Israel before,” Mr. Foxman said; that happened in early January, in Jerusalem. “And there’s been a significant increase in anti-Palestinian violence in the last months; it’s six times more than it’s been in the past.

“So it’s a mixed bag.

“In totality, I’m encouraged by the fact that the stampede to destroy has been weakened, but the political extremists still are not willing to tolerate other views.”

After the attack on the synagogue in Neve Yaakov, “the people organizing the marches said that they wouldn’t march the Saturday night after the tragedy if the government would put a freeze on what it calls judicial reform during the week of shiva.

“The answer was no. The head of the Supreme Court publicly said to the president that she is willing to enter into negotiations to come up with a compromise judicial reform bill — that there is a need for some reform — but asked that they freeze the negotiations for two weeks — and they said no.

Mr. Foxman stands in front of the Knesset.

“Again, there is some good news. Two-thirds of Israelis reject these efforts to change the democracy, and even a majority of the Likudniks polled in the last week reject the change in the balance of government between the judicial, executive, and legislative branches,” Mr. Foxman said. “The public is on the right side. I hope that they hold out.

“But will the government listen?”

There are echoes of what’s going on in the United States today, Mr. Foxman said. “Majority rules in a democracy, but the government is supposed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. But they keep saying, ‘We won. We won. We won!’ and that is not how a democracy works. Until that changes, we are going to have to continue raising our voices.

“When Bibi says, ‘I will rule for all of Israel,’ that’s fine. Okay. But take all of Israel into consideration, not just your coalition members.”

There’s the international Netanyahu and the Israeli one, Mr. Foxman said. “Bibi is smart. He knows the American public, and the American Jewish community. Of course, he says all the right things. When he speaks to CNN, to the American Jewish community, he has to say this, this, and this, and he does. But he is in office because he made promises to extremists. He is beholden to them.

“I saw an interview with him last week where he said, ‘I promised them something, so I need to give them something.’ The question is, what is that something?

“We have to continue to raise our voices,” Mr. Foxman concluded. “Threats don’t work. But I think that the American Jewish community should say that changing Israel’s democracy and who is a Jew is existential to us.” He’s talking about the government’s statements that it will change the Law of Return, as well as how it defines a Jew, including whose conversion it will accept, for the question of citizenship. “You have to understand that just as security is existential to you — and we accept your decisions on security, and on questions that are about your life and death and future — the question of who is a Jew is existential to us.

“You can’t just ride roughshod over that question, because you got elected by a community that doesn’t respect American Jews, doesn’t respect Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or even modern Orthodox Jews.

“We have to say it in a respectful way, but we have to say to them that if we are one, then they have to listen to what hurts us,” Mr. Foxman said.

Still, he’s optimistic, he said. And his voice shook only a little when he said that.