How far-right American Jews are enabling Netanyahu’s court takeover

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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A prominent member of the Israeli parliament has a warning for America’s Jewish community: one of the greatest threats to Israeli democracy comes from within its own ranks.

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On a visit to New York to rally opposition against the “judicial coup” by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, rabbi Gilad Kariv cautioned that “rightwing forces in the Jewish community in America and ultra-right players” were driving and financing the push toward a political takeover of Israel’s supreme court and nationalist policies to tighten control over the occupied Palestinian territories.

“There are major Jewish players here in America that are coming from the American far right who are deeply involved in pushing this reform. If liberal and progressive and democratic Jewish forces around the world will not stand together with us, other players will influence events in a much more serious way. That’s a real battle for the future of the Jewish state,” he told the Guardian.

Kariv, a Labour party member of the Knesset who sits on its constitution, law and justice committee, pointed to the libertarian Kohelet Policy Forum as the architect of the judicial reforms that have prompted unprecedented mass protests by Israelis who say they are a threat to democracy.

“The Kohelet Forum, which is the main ultra-conservative thinktank that designed this judiciary reform, is fully supported by the leading Jewish donors of the American ultra-conservative camp,” said Kariv.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed two years ago that the organisation is partly funded by two Jewish American billionaires, Arthur Dantchik and Jeffrey Yass, who made their fortunes as founders of a global financial firm, Susquehanna International Group, including by investing in the invention of TikTok. Both have funded rightwing causes and politicians in the US.

Kariv at his office in the Knesset in Jerusalem on 24 November 2021.
Kariv at his office in the Knesset in Jerusalem on 24 November 2021. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The Kohelet Policy Forum was founded in 2012 by an American Israeli, Moshe Koppel, who has described it as “the brains of the Israeli right wing”. It was unknown to most Israelis until the recent protests shone a spotlight on its work attempting to shift almost all aspects of governance to the right, including undermining free education and cutting welfare.

The Haaretz investigation said American donors have given tens of millions of dollars to Kohelet through US-based organisations that shield their identities. Yass and Dantchik have also been influential through their ties to leading Republicans in shifting US policy on Israel including in providing the Trump administration with legal justifications for recognition of settlements in the occupied territories.

The moves to weaken the Israeli supreme court are also influenced by another US organisation, the Tikvah Fund led by Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative former senior official under several Republican presidents who played an important role in the US’s bloody involvement in Central America in the 1980s and one of the intellectual architects of the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago.

The proposed reforms to give politicians the power to appoint supreme court judges and constrain the court’s powers to rule against the government have already drawn criticism from some Jewish American religious leaders and community groups, and some longstanding supporters of the Israeli right. They include Miriam Adelson, the billionaire widow of one of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson who founded the Israeli rightwing newspaper Israel Hayom and funded settlements.

The Kohelet Forum … the main ultra-conservative thinktank that designed this judiciary reform, is fully supported by the leading Jewish donors of the American ultra-conservative camp

Rabbi Gilad Kariv

Leading Jewish organisations also refused to meet the Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, during his visit to the US earlier this month after he called for Israel to “wipe out” a Palestinian town. Earlier this week, Smotrich prompted further criticism when he claimed “there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation”.

But Kariv said many in America’s Jewish community have remained silent because they have long defended Israel – no matter who is in power – by saying they back the country not the government. He said that the involvement of wealthy American rightwingers means it is now “the right, the duty, of American Jews” to speak out over events in Israel.

“As one of the Israeli legislators that deals on a daily basis in the last two months with this judiciary takeover, for us it is clear that right now there are only two effective tools that will help us to either block this reform or to force the government and its coalition to sit around the table and reach an agreement or compromise,” he said.

Kariv said one such tool is the unprecedented level of civil protest in Israel. The other is “the voice of Jewish communities around the world, the voice of Jewish politicians in western countries”.

Kariv is a rabbi in the Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the US but a relatively small one in Israel. The president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the US, rabbi Rick Jacobs, invited him to New York to rally support within the Reform movement for protests against Netanyahu’s government.

“One of the things that’s a bit surprising is how many Israelis who previously would have said: ‘You’re in the diaspora. You can say and think whatever you want but you don’t have a right to intervene.’ Many of those very same people are crying out saying, ‘We need to hear you. We need to know that you stand with us,’” said Jacobs.

“This is a moment where it’s not that we disagree with a policy or a bill in the Knesset, or an individual in the government. This is a moment where the very integrity of the foundation of the Jewish democratic state is being threatened.”