Emanu-El Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer at a recent pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Courtesy Singers)
Emanu-El Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer at a recent pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. (Photo/Courtesy Singers)

Some of Israel’s staunchest Bay Area supporters are speaking out against proposed judicial reform

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It was a letter that Jordan Hymowitz, an ardent Zionist and head of his synagogue’s Israel Action Committee, never thought he’d send.

Last month, he wrote to the Israeli consul general in San Francisco excoriating the Israeli government for proposing radical changes to its judicial system. In particular, he was incensed over a bill that would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

Should that bill pass as written, the San Francisco resident said, it could rupture his business relationship with Israel — through his hedge fund, which invests heavily in Israeli companies, and his family’s charitable gifts  — rendering it “permanently and irrevocably negatively damaged.”

Jordan Hymowitz
Jordan Hymowitz

“I won’t make another Israeli investment,” Hymowitz told J., referring to the millions of dollars his S.F.-based firm, Philadelphia Financial Management, has staked in Israel, especially in the banking and financial sectors.

“There’s very little chance I would invest in any of those companies again,” he said. “I don’t want Israeli exposure again.”

He said the weakening of Israel’s Supreme Court is not only bad policy, it’s bad for business. For example, as of last week, the shekel had lost 8% of its value against the dollar since the bill began moving through the Knesset. And Citigroup analysts have predicted the shekel will drop even more should the bill take effect.

“From a business point of view, I’m looking to make a profit,” Hymowitz said. “But without an independent judiciary it’s hard to do that. Investors don’t like uncertainty. They like the rule of law. They like constitutional guarantees.”

Hymowitz typifies the distress many pro-Israel Jews feel about the rightward shift in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a shift they fear may edge the country toward an undemocratic autocracy.

Last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned in a special address to the nation that the bill as written is “oppressive,” a “disaster” and a “nightmare,” while urging the government to “slow down and seek compromise.”

Hymowitz’s letter to Consul General Marco Sermoneta was one of many written by Bay Area Jews to Israeli officials. From letter writing to petitions to street protests in San Francisco and elsewhere, many Jewish community members are expressing fierce disagreement with Netanyahu’s policy plans.

Adina Graff, 7, at a gathering of Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans protesting the actions of Israel's new far-right government, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. (Photo/Lea Loeb)
Adina Graff, 7, at a gathering of Israeli Americans and Jewish Americans protesting the actions of Israel’s new far-right government, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. (Photo/Lea Loeb)

At S.F. Congregation Emanu-El, Rabbi Jonathan Singer launched a campaign with a Feb. 9 email blast, asking congregants (Hymowitz among them) to send letters to Sermoneta. “There are times to be silent, we are taught,” he wrote, “but there are also times like this one to speak out and engage even more deeply.”

Later in February, Singer traveled with his wife, Emanu-El Rabbi Beth Singer, to  attend a convention of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. They flew in a few days early to participate in one of the anti-government rallies in Tel Aviv — rallies that have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters.

“There was a sense of connection, seeing Jews who are religious willing to join the protests,” said Jonathan Singer, who carried a sign reading “Reform Judaism stands for democracy.”

“We need to unite around a vision for Israel that is democratic and Jewish,” he added, noting that Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people.

“We stand proudly with Israel, but part of being a Zionist is not just being in support, but speaking up when leaders… are doing something damaging and dangerous.”

Emanu-El congregant Alan Warshaw also wrote to Semoneta. Passionate about promoting pluralism, he visits Israel annually, supporting expansion of rights for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, women, LGBTQ Israelis and minorities. He has written to officials in the past, but this time, he said, the stakes are higher.

“The missing piece is protection for the minority,” Warshaw said of the proposed changes to the judiciary. “Winners [of elections] are not interested in the minority unless there are checks and balances [via] the courts.”

Marco Sermonetta
Marco Sermonetta

When asked to comment about the letters addressed to him, Sermoneta told J. via email that “the relationship with the Jewish community is important to the consulate and to the State of Israel. We appreciate the community’s involvement, including through direct correspondence from its members, in the developments in Israel. The consulate will continue to maintain a dialogue with the leadership of the Jewish community and convey their concerns to decision-makers in Israel.”

Israel supporters outside of the Bay Area who have expressed concern include columnist Thomas Friedman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both friends of Israel, who wrote damning columns in the New York Times. JTA reported that Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman and 14 other major donors and foundations, which collectively have given millions to Israel, signed a Feb. 19 letter urging Netanyahu “to reconsider his government’s plans and enter into a dialogue on the proposed judicial reforms.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella organization representing 146 Federations in the U.S. and Canada, sent an open letter to Netanyahu and Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid declaring a “deep and abiding love for the State of Israel” while urging the leaders to “make clear that a [simple] majority of just 61 votes of the Knesset is not sufficient to override a decision of the Supreme Court.”

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund co-signed that letter, then went a step further, issuing a Feb. 27 joint statement with the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area. The statement noted that “the most right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s 75-year history” has provoked reactions of alarm and anxiety “about the coalition’s more extreme members, whose track records of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and anti-Arab racism stand in stark contrast to our beliefs and values.”

The statement stressed the two organizations’ shared values, including support for “a strong liberal democracy that respects both the will of the majority as well as the rights and protections of minorities,” and belief in the “civil, economic and social equality of all citizens of Israel, including its Arab citizens.”

Tye Gregory of JCRC speaking at the Here I Am: Press Conference Against Antisemitism and Hate in 2021. (Photo/Facebook)
Tye Gregory of JCRC speaking at the Here I Am: Press Conference Against Antisemitism and Hate in 2021. (Photo/Facebook)

“We’re trying to hold up a mirror to where the Bay Area Jewish community is on these issues,” said Tye Gregory, CEO of JCRC Bay Area. “People are looking for direction on how to connect with an [an Israeli government] that doesn’t share our values. We’re telling people, don’t despair; get engaged. Let’s invest in peacemakers rather than focus on radicals on the fringes.”

Joy Sisisky
Joy Sisisky

Joy Sisisky, CEO of the Federation in San Francisco, told J. that the statement was released “out of a moral obligation to say something.”

“This comes from a place of love for Israel, and concern,” she added. “Watching and reading the news, or being in Israel as this is unfolding, brings a lot of mixed emotions, including confusion, sadness and anxiety.”

Added Federation board chair Arthur Slepian: “Our community’s connection to Israel is a deep bond built on a set of shared narratives and stories about Israel. These stories have the potential to start fraying, and when that happens, our own community becomes weaker. Many might say there’s an existential risk here, which is why JFNA is speaking out. We’re used to existential threats, but usually from Hamas or Syria. Here, Jews are in conflict with each other. That’s new and scary.”

Gregory, Sisisky and Slepian agree that supporters of Israel should not curtail their philanthropy to the country, however unhappy they may be with the current government’s policy decisions.

Although images in the media might convey a sense that opposition to Netanyahu’s proposals is nearly universal, it is not. Some in the Jewish community support reform of the judiciary and reject the foment in the streets.

Native Israelis Ricki and Zvi Alon of Los Altos Hills run Alon Ventures, which partners with venture capital firms and invests in Israeli companies. They have lived in the United States for decades but remain proud Israelis, usually voting Likud, the party of Netanyahu. Both feel judicial reform is necessary — though not as currently proposed — and that the massive street protests are disingenuous.

Ricki Alon voting in Israel's 2020 election at an elementary school in Jerusalem. (Photo/Courtesy Alon)
Ricki Alon voting in Israel’s 2020 election at an elementary school in Jerusalem. (Photo/Courtesy Alon)

“I’m absolutely for reform,” Ricki Alon said. “We have on one hand a judiciary dictatorship, which is insane in its power. It has no constitution. [Judges] influence who is in that group of people, and they believe they can invalidate the rules of the democratically elected majority of the State of Israel.”

According to an Israeli government website, judges are “selected by the Judicial Selection Committee which is composed of nine members: the Minister of Justice (chair), another cabinet minister, the president of the Supreme Court, two other justices of the Supreme Court, two members of Knesset and two representatives of the Israel Bar Association.”

“I would change the way judges are being elected,” Ricki Alon said. “They have way too much power. They represent a small group of views in Israeli society. You won’t  find people on the right. It’s their own clique.”

Zvi shares his wife’s views about reform, adding, “I believe changes have to be made, and some compromises have to be found. If it’s not possible, then the political system is such that whoever controls the Knesset was elected to govern. They need to be given the power to govern. You cannot have an alternative [judiciary] system, that has not been elected, dictate to the governing body whether they can or cannot govern.”

Though he, too, says it would be “unfair” for a simple majority in the Knesset to be able to overturn a Supreme Court decision, he remains optimistic that a compromise will be reached. “I don’t see the doomsday coming,” he said.

As for other proposals coming from Israel’s empowered religious right — proposals that would tighten the Orthodox grip on religious affairs in Israel and curtail rights of women and LGBTQ Israelis — Zvi Alon feels “that’s not in the spirit of the last 75 years of Israel, and it would impose a hardship on the majority, so that probably should not happen.”

In his March 9 address to the Israeli people, Herzog hinted that a behind-the-scenes compromise solution may be in the offing. But it hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, the protests and letter writing will continue.

“One has to step back and ask what is the purpose of a Jewish state,” Jonathan Singer said. “It is not just to be a sanctuary for Jews. It is to be an embodiment of Jewish values. It’s time for us to talk about the bigger issues at hand: How do you acknowledge the diversity of the Jewish people and truly make Israel a better home for all?”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.