Leading NY rabbi: Israeli government speeding ‘headlong toward abyss’ with overhaul


A prominent Reform rabbi in New York City delivered a sermon on Friday that he called “the most painful” of his career, addressing Israel’s controversial judicial overhaul that he said was a move by the government to “progress in towards the abyss.”

“In a parliamentary system, especially a young democracy like Israel that doesn’t have a written constitution and centuries of common law, the government can veer toward the abyss and if decided enough — or not enough — can’t much to stop it,” said Rabbi Ammiel. Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Hirsch said that Israel’s immediate fight to survive for many years was to enact the nation’s basic constitutional principles.

“It is legitimate, even necessary, to debate the proper balance of power between the unelected judiciary and the elected legislature,” Hirsch said.

However, he bemoaned the “breakneck speed” at which the government was pushing through the reform.

“The Israeli government is tearing Israeli society apart and leading the Jews of the world to the dangerous journey,” he said.

“To be clear: This government was elected legally, legitimately and democratically. He has a mandate to rule,” Hirsch said. “Still, even democratically elected governments have a duty to uphold democratic principles — not just the will of the majority, but the preservation and protection of the rights of minorities — determined by independent courts of sufficient power.”

“I hope that the currency of this crisis will finally have a chance to address the basic principles of Israeli society. Although it is up to the citizens of Israel to determine these principles, world Jewry has an important role to play. Jews are bound to each other by the ties of history and destiny,” he said.

Hirsch praised the hundreds of thousands of people protesting in Israel every week, noting that they were “proportionately equivalent to 12 million Americans.”

The Reform rabbi also had harsh words for members of the government, Israel’s hardest line so far.

“I will not sanitize supremacists, extremists, and religious fundamentalists. They distort Judaism and are a source of shame for the Jews,” he said.

Protesters supporting women’s rights dressed as characters from the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” attend a protest against government plans to reform the judicial system, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 11, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Hirsch, who last year launched a program aimed at pushing back against anti-Zionism within the religious movement, as young US Jews slip away from staunch support for Israel, said: “As long as I here, this synagogue will not forsake Israel. , especially in the hours of greatest need.”

Polls have shown that young American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel. However, a solid majority of US Jews continue to support and associate with the Jewish state.

Hirsch went to school in Israel, was a tank commander in the IDF and before that was the director of the Society of Reform Zionists of America. (It is also written on The Times of Israel’s open blogging platform.)

The Israeli government’s plan, as it stands, will allow the Knesset to override court decisions by a bare majority, shield all laws from all judicial oversight, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial reform, outside the US consulate in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2023. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Opponents argue that it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call the reform much-needed for reunification in an overactive court.

The reform plans have drawn intense public criticism and fierce opposition across Israel, prompting mass protests and warnings from economists, legal professionals, academics and security officials. Protesters have been pouring into the streets since January in countless days of “disruption” and “resistance”.

Israel’s Consul General in New York expressed his “deep concern” Thursday about the direction the country is heading, in a rare criticism of government policy from a sitting diplomat.

Luke Tress contributed to this report.

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