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


A prominent Reform rabbi in New York City gave a sermon on Friday he labeled “the most painful” of his career, addressing Israel’s contentious judicial overhaul which he said was a move by the government “to speed headlong toward the abyss.”

“In a parliamentary system, especially a young democracy like Israel’s that lacks a written constitution and centuries of common law, the government can speed headlong toward the abyss and if determined enough — or unhinged enough — very little can stop it,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the senior rabbi of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

Hirsch said that for many years, Israel’s immediate fight for survival took precedence over legislating the nation’s fundamental 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 lamented the “breakneck speed” at which the government was pushing through the overhaul.

“The Israeli government is tearing Israeli society apart and bringing world Jewry along for the dangerous ride,” he said.

“To be clear: This government was lawfully, legitimately and democratically elected. It has a mandate to govern,” Hirsch said. “Still, even democratically elected governments are obligated to uphold democratic principles — not only the will of the majority, but the preservation and protection of minority rights — as determined by adequately empowered and independent courts.”

“I hope that the silver lining of this crisis will be the opportunity to finally address the foundational principles of Israeli society. While it is for Israel’s citizens to determine these principles, world Jewry has an important role to play. Jews are bound to each other by the bonds of history and destiny,” he said.

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

The Reform rabbi also had sharp words for the members of the government, Israel’s most hardline to date.

“I will not sanitize supremacists, extremists, and religious fundamentalists. They distort Judaism and are an embarrassment to the Jewish people,” he said.

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

Hirsch, who last year launched a program that aims to push back against anti-Zionism within the religious movement, as younger US Jews slide away from steadfast support for Israel, said: “As long as I am here, this synagogue will not abandon Israel, especially in its hours of greatest need.”

Polls have shown that younger American Jews are increasingly estranged from Israel. A firm majority of US Jewry continues to support and connect with the Jewish state, though.

Mounted policemen block a protestor against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system from approaching to the main freeway in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Hirsch went to high school in Israel, served as a tank commander in the IDF and was formerly the director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. (He has 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 with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight altogether, and put the selection of all judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

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

Opponents argue it will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters call it a much-needed reform to rein in an over-activist court.

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

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

Luke Tress contributed to this report.

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