American Jewry should actively oppose the extremism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government rather than cutting their ties with Israel, opposition leader Yair Lapid said in New York in the last days.
“This is one of the most important moments in our history and you should not be neutral,” Lapid told American Jewish leaders during his visit to the United States this week.
“You have a voice and you have the right to use it,” Lapid said. “The question that everyone will ask in 10, 20 and 50 years is – where were you in the winter of 2023?”
He issued his statements during meetings he held with groups such as the Jewish Federation of North America, the Israeli Judaism Committee, Hillel, the Orthodox Union, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
His visit was aimed at shoring up both Jewish support for Israel and opposition to the existing government. Many American Jews have been concerned by Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul program, fearing it could transform Israel into a dictatorship.
They have not been swayed by Netanyahu’s argument that he is strengthening Israeli democracy.
Jewish groups have joined the Biden administration in calling on Netanyahu to seek a consensus approach to judicial reform that involves all of Israel’s political parties.
JFNA chair Julie Platt said after her organization met with Lapid that, “above all.. we have expressed our strongest possible encouragement that every party must do its utmost to seek and find compromise.”
Time of tense relations
Lapid is a former prime minister and one of Netanyahu’s top political rivals. He flew to New York at a time of tense relations between Netanyahu and both American Jewry and the Biden administration.
US President Joe Biden has not hosted Netanyahu since his return to power at the end of December and has publicly stated that he has no plans to host him in the near term.
Netanyahu is unlikely to travel to the United States without such a meeting.
Netanyahu, however, has met with Jewish groups in Israel and is expected, along with President Isaac Herzog, to address the JFNA’s special Israel at 75 General Assembly, which will take place April 23-26. Last month, 30 JFNA members flew to Israel to urge politicians to hold consensus talks on judicial reform.
In his talks with Jewish leaders, Lapid said Netanyahu’s government was “the most extreme in the history of the State of Israel. It has caused damage to security, the economy, internal cohesion and to our relationship with you, Diaspora Jewry. It will take a long time to repair such damage.”
Lapid echoed US officials in underscoring the importance of democracy to Israeli-American ties.“Our relationship is not based on the existence of a particular government but on values, principles, morals and the belief that we are a family,” he said.
But not all US Jews were pleased by his visit and his words.
An Orthodox lobby organization sent Lapid a letter, claiming he is “undermining the [Israeli] government outside its borders, calling on Diaspora Jews to counter the government.”
The letter, signed by Am Echad co-chairmen Shlomo Werdiger and Dr. Irving Lebovics, wrote of their “grave concern over your comments at the meeting with members of the Jewish Federations in New York.”
Am Echad is an Orthodox organization that became vocal after the Israeli government approved the Kotel compromise and later dismissed it. Both Werdiger and Lebovics are senior lay leaders in the Agudath Israel movement in the US, which explains the ideology of the organization. Am Echad’s website doesn’t specify who their members or leaders are.
The two explained that, “as an organization devoted to strengthening the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, we see these comments as sowing discord and delegitimizing not just the current Israeli government, but Israel itself in the eyes of the world, both Jewish and not.”
Lapid could criticize the government, they said, but he cannot call “on Diaspora Jews to counter the government and drive a wedge between Israel and Jews around the world.
“In your remarks, you accused the current government of being ‘the most extremist in history... causing damage to security, economy, social cohesion and relations with Diaspora Jewry,’” they said. “It would be an understatement to say that the issues facing Israel today are controversial and, at the very least, large swaths of the Israeli population support the government’s actions and view them as the fruition of election promises.”
Werdiger and Lebovics wrote that “it is disingenuous of you to accuse the government of undermining Israeli democracy and calling on American Jews to get up in arms to protect Israel from its own leadership. While we can argue about the prudence and wisdom of the current government’s policies and performance, rhetoric characterizing the government as ‘extremist’ and ‘undemocratic’ jeopardizes the relationship between Israel and world Jews.”
They concluded by asking Lapid to “refrain from damaging, inflammatory rhetoric against Israel and its government during meetings in the Diaspora.”
While in New York, Lapid met with Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres and Jerry Nadler.
Lapid told Nadler that, “the opposition in Israel is strong and will work to ensure that Israel remains a strong and vibrant democracy, despite the challenges we face. I spoke to him about the importance of the US-Israel relationship and told him that it goes far deeper, and is far stronger, than any particular government.”
Nadler tweeted after the meeting, “We reiterated the importance of maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship and protecting the democratic values that must remain at the heart of that relationship.”
Haley Cohen contributed to this report.