Singer dances in the center of a group of women, smiling and hosting a Torah scroll up over her head
Rabbi Beth Singer of S.F. Congregation Emanu-El dancing with a Torah during Women of the Wall's monthly service at the Western Wall, April 2015. (Photo/JTA-Flash90-Miriam Alster)

Israel’s new right-wing Knesset troubles Bay Area supporters

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Across the Bay Area, leaders of Jewish organizations are expressing worry over Israel’s new right-wing government and what it might mean for democracy in the Jewish state they support.

“I am currently searching for that fine line of continued respect and love [for Israel], and preparation for what looks like…a battle for the soul of the democracy of Israel,” said Sam Lauter, a board member of Democratic Majority for Israel, which advocates support for the U.S.-Israel alliance among progressives and elected leaders.

The first action item Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Knesset have pushed forward is a proposed overhaul of Israel’s judicial system, reducing the Supreme Court’s influence and giving the government more control over appointing judges. A detailed plan was released on Jan. 11.

“That doesn’t strike me as democracy,” Lauter said.

Sam Lauter at the Western Wall with the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in 2016.
Sam Lauter at the Western Wall with the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in 2016.

The San Francisco resident, who is also a board member of A Wider Bridge, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ inclusion in Israel and support for Israel within the LGBTQ community, signed a petition circulated by that organization last month denouncing Israel’s newly elected “extremist leaders.”

Before they start making good on their promises, Lauter said, “we must keep speaking out so their words don’t become actions.”

Meanwhile, he plans to visit Israel in May with the San Francisco-Haifa sister city committee, a weeklong tour in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the partnership. The group will include Mayor London Breed, on her second trip to Israel and first as mayor, and will feature meetings with LGBTQ Israelis and marginalized groups, Lauter said.

Bob Tandler
Bob Tandler

Bob Tandler, who chairs the sister city committee, said he wants to keep the focus on the people and not the politicians. “It’s very much our commitment not to opine on Israel’s government, but rather to seek out the positive elements of Israel, and where we [San Franciscans] can make those connections.”

He said members of the committee serve as ambassadors, promoting shared values between residents of the two hilly cities, and will have to “work harder” to overcome the backlash over the Israeli government’s policies and politics.

Multiple conservative leaders who were elected to the new Knesset have expressed homophobic attitudes and anti-LGBTQ agendas.

Avi Maoz, leader of the far-right Noam party, said in an Israeli radio interview that he wants to study the option of canceling Israeli pride parades and revoking LGBTQ  benefits and rights. Orit Struck of the Religious Zionism party said in a radio interview in December that religious health care providers should be able to refuse to treat LBGTQ patients.

Netanyahu publicly rebuked Struck, calling his remarks “unacceptable to me and to members of Likud” and promising that the coalition agreement would not allow for LGBTQ discrimination.

“Whether the actions of the government match the rhetoric is what we will be watching for,” said Tye Gregory, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Gregory, who is gay, noted that the new government includes Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu loyalist and the first-ever LGBTQ speaker of the Knesset.

JCRC CEO Tye Gregory at the White House Dec. 13 for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act.
JCRC CEO Tye Gregory at the White House Dec. 13 for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act.

The new Knesset also has seen the rise of Otzma Yehudit, an ultranationalist faction of the Religious Zionism party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s new national security minister who previously was convicted of ties to a racist anti-Arab organization.

“Such an openly racist and antidemocratic faction has no place in an Israeli governing coalition,” JCRC warned in a Nov. 2 statement immediately following Israel’s elections, before the new government was even formed.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a similar statement on Dec. 22 critical of the new far-right members of the Knesset, noting that the ADL will “not shirk from calling out expressions, policies and actions by the Israeli government and particular Israeli leaders that are hateful, racist, anti-Arab or homophobic, anti-democratic or harmful to non-Orthodox streams within the Jewish people.”

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation will continue it s support and focus on strengthening Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state,” Barak Loozon, the Federation’s Israel office director said in a statement sent to J.

“We invest in building the internal capacities of our partner organizations to network across all sectors of Israeli society — to increase their impact, be resilient in the face of change, and create a shared future in Israeli society,” he added.

Bay Area rabbis across denominations expressed varying levels of optimism and steadfast loyalty to Israel, even in the face of its controversial government.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen, founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network, believes the “doomsday predictions” many are contemplating are overblown and improbable. The Orthodox rabbi said he’s going to give the new Israeli government a chance to prove itself.

“I can understand why there are a lot of people that are nervous about the religious communities getting more power within the government,” Felsen said. “I think the reality is, under this new leadership, they’re going to be forced to have to contend with the whole country.”

Rabbi Beth Singer, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, a supporter of Women of the Wall and an advocate for a two-state solution, said her impulse now is to remind current Israeli government officials that “Israel should be a safe haven for every expression of Judaism.”

Whether the actions of the government match the rhetoric is what we will be watching for.

“When we hear about plans to turn away non-Orthodox ritual expression at the Kotel; plans to deny the Jewishness of certain Jews and converts; and plans to minimize the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, I know the impulse to turn away, or to pull back our support for Israel,” Singer said in a statement sent to J. “But I think it is vitally important to engage.”

Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon
Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon, the associate rabbi and school director at Conservative Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, has fielded questions from congregants about the new government, and has addressed the issue from the pulpit at Shabbat services.

“I believe the majority of Israelis want Israel to be a democratic and free society,” Goldhaber-Gordon told J. “And we need to be strengthening those voices and being part of it.”

One of her concerns is about the curtailing of women’s access to abortion under the new minister of health, Aryeh Deri of the ultra-religious Shas party. (The Supreme Court decided this week to disqualify him from serving after he was convicted on tax charges. Netanyahu’s coalition has vowed to fight the decision.)

“Right now, it is easier to get an abortion in Israel than it is in many states in the United States. But I don’t know how long that will continue,” she said. She’s even more worried about what’s at stake for LGBTQ rights under the new government.

Her response to these concerns? Donate to causes that support Israeli rights and freedoms.

She’s not alone. The U.S.-based nonprofit New Israel Fund, which supports religious freedom and social equality in Israel, has seen increased donations since the new government took power. Last month, NIF’s Israeli team held a two-day crowdfunding campaign and saw contributions from more than 2,500 Israeli donors, surpassing the fundraising goal of 2 million shekels (approximately $575,000), according to CEO Daniel Sokatch, a San Francisco resident.

Daniel Sokatch (From file)
Daniel Sokatch (From file)

“The BiBi bump” is what Sokatch calls the uptick in donations to NIF that happens when the right wing in Israel overreaches, he said.

“We see ourselves and our responsibilities at this moment to step up the work that we’ve always done defending Israeli democracy and defending human rights,” Sokatch said. NIF will “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with, and sometimes right in front of, those peoples whose rights are most threatened at this time.”

Their concerns with the new government, however, have not impacted the deep connection these Jewish leaders feel toward Israel.

During a recent Shabbat service, Rabbi Goldhaber-Gordon introduced the traditional prayer for the State of Israel by quoting lines from the 1982 poem and song “I Have No Other Country” by Ehud Manor — the same lines Nancy Pelosi recited numerous times as House speaker, including after the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and in June 2022 when the Supreme Court removed federal abortion protections by overturning Roe v. Wade:

“With an aching body, and with a hungry heart,

Here is my home./I will not be silent. 

For my country has changed her face. I will not give up on her, I shall remind her and sing into her ears, until she opens her eyes.”

“I feel that way about both America and Israel when our countries make bad decisions,” Goldhaber-Gordon said. “You don’t abandon our country, but we call out the bad decisions.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.