I was in Dubai last week as scholar in residence for the Jewish community — started in 2013 by my former Oxford student, a great visionary named Ross Kriel — and leading the prayers at the brand new and absolutely spectacular Abrahamic Family House, built by the Abu Dhabi government at huge expense to house a synagogue, a mosque, and a church. The shul, named after Maimonides, soars to the heavens and has a kosher mikveh, all built by an Arab Muslim government, a fact that is simply astonishing.
But just as my heart swelled with Jewish pride, it was felled by the mess going on in Israel. The strikes that followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firing of his defense minister included a shutdown of Israel’s international airport, Ben Gurion. I was stuck at the airport in Dubai trying to fly back to Tel Aviv. The shutdowns and general strike in Israel were hugely embarrassing to the Jewish state, especially as seen from the vantage point of Israel’s Abraham Accords partners, who value stability over all else.
Was Israel still a stable nation, they wondered?
My father passed away at the beginning of covid, in May 2020, and we buried him — at unimaginable effort — in Israel. As I returned from the Holy Land, I was confronted with New York City on fire. George Floyd had just been murdered by a Minnesota police officer and tens of thousands of protesters moved about New York, in stark contrast to Jerusalem, which was in total lockdown, which is what prodded my immediate departure from Israel as I was not permitted to say Kaddish for my father (imagine the irony of exiting the Jewish state in order to come back to the United States to find Jewish prayer).
But even then not a single New York airport was shut down. Not Kennedy, not La Guardia, and not Newark. In Israel, it seems, the first group to be punished by the protesters are the tourists. But were they the ones who were at fault?
I ask this question not to challenge the protesters’ right to take action against the government — that is the very essence of democracy — but rather to simply note that even protests often have boundaries, something American Jews ought to consider as they increasingly pummel the Jewish state in the media.
Let me be clear. I am not one of those people who believe that American Jews have no right to speak about Israel’s internal affairs. Of course they do. American Jews are proud supporters of Israel. But the criticism should be accurate and fair rather than fanatical and extreme.
Recently, a well-respected American Jewish commentator made a statement to the Jerusalem Post that I found shocking. “I never thought that I would reach that point where I would say that my support of Israel is conditional,” he said. “I’ve always said that [my support of Israel] is unconditional, but it’s conditional. I don’t think that it’s a horrific condition to say: ‘I love Israel and I want to love Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that respects pluralism. If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.”
Let’s unpack this for a moment. Even Bibi’s worst critics admit that Israel is in need of some kind of judicial reform, even if they argue that the reform proposed by the government is extreme. Why? Because the Supreme Court, while highly respected around the world, has become its own oligarchy, with judges appointing other judges with no accountability to the people. Yes, in the United States our judiciary is a completely separate branch of government. But Supreme Court justices are nominated by a President s elected by the people and is confirmed by senators who are also elected by the people.
In Israel, no such procedure exists. The people have no say in who their judges are.
We can say that the Netanyahu coalition wants to go way too far, and some would point especially to the proposal of the 61 members of the Knesset being able to overrule the Supreme Court. But however misguided, to say that Netanyahu is proposing this change in order to save himself from a corruption investigation is going way too far.
Do you really believe that a man who fought in two wars, buried his brother who was the hero at Entebbe, fought for Israel with great eloquence at the U.N., revolutionized Israel’s economy, and forged the Abraham Accords, would destroy his entire country over allegations that he illicitly took cigars, champagne, and pistachio ice cream?
Unlike here in the United States, Netanyahu never denied an election, never said that voting in Israel is corrupt, and never incited his supporters to storm the Knesset. So why is he being demonized? He can be opposed without being called the devil.
Moreover, however misguided, the proponents of the judicial overhaul cite judicial overreach, like the Supreme Court blocking a proposal to institute a death penalty for terrorists, a no-brainer here in America where monsters like Timothy McVeigh were put to death for murdering 168 people, including 19 children. Anyone miss him? Few were opposed to the capital punishment meted out to this evil mass murderer.
One of the reasons I was in Israel last week was to participate in the graduation of our son Yosef from Sayeret Golani, a distinguished Israeli combat unit. This is our third child who has served in the IDF. If you ask me, as the parent of three IDF soldiers, whether I believe in the death penalty for terrorists, the answer is, sadly, yes.
The terrorists murder Jews, they are put in Israeli prisons where they and their families receive pensions from the Palestinian Authority in “Pay for Slay” payments — some of it provided by the American taxpayer — and then Hamas tries their best to kidnap Israeli soldiers to exchange 1000 terrorists and murders for a single Israeli soldier, as happened with Gilad Shalit. Leaving these murderers alive in Israeli prisons — after all their legitimate legal appeals have been heard — is an invitation to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
Yes, Israel needs a Supreme Court with the power to strike down inhumane laws. But even here there must be balance, as there is here in the United States.
But let’s return to how another prominent American Jewish personality dealt with the questions of judicial reform. Last Sunday Noah Tishby, who has done an admirable job standing up for Israel with passion and eloquence, posted on her Instagram that her position as Israel’s Envoy Against BDS and Antisemitism had been terminated by the Netanyahu government. She publicly attacked the very government she was supposed to defend and said that she had been fired because of her criticisms of Israel’s elected government.
How sad that she undermined her own belief in democracy and her credentials as a defender of the Jewish State with this petty public complaint. She is well aware that this is completely normal practice here in the U.S. and around the world for ambassadors to be replaced with every change of administration. Every American ambassador knows that as soon as a new President comes into office, they must voluntarily submit their resignation, as a President has a right to choose the ambassadors he or she wishes to represent them. Thus, my friend Ambassador Elan Carr did an amazing job as America’s antisemitism envoy under President Trump. But he was quickly replaced by Deborah Lipstadt under President Joe Biden, who is likewise doing a very good job. Elan did not pen a screed attacking America publicly or engaging in conspiracies as to why he was replaced. Trump lost the election and he was replaced. It’s standard practice. Noah Tishby would be wise to amend her public comments as she is falsely maligning the Jewish state and its democratically elected government.
Then there is the utterly bizarre story of Asaf Zamir, Israel’s largely undistinguished Consul General in New York, who finally got noticed by New York media last week, but only because he resigned and humiliated the country he is supposed to represent. Here is how ABC 7 New York reported his actions: “Israel’s Consul General in New York — Asaf Zamir — says his decision to resign should not be seen as a rejection of Israel or its people, but rather a move to join the fight for Israel’s future and democracy. Zamir says the political situation in Israel has reached a critical point — as evident in the chaos there now.”
Hey, Asaf? Was it more chaotic than the burning of Paris at the same time? But did you hear of the French Consul General in New York cursing out Emmanuel Macron and resigning in protest?
I would guess not. And why? Because the right to public protest is the very proof of a free democracy, even as in France it led to widespread violence and destruction of property, unlike in Israel.
While in Israel last week I sat with my close friend Amir Ohana, the new speaker of the Knesset, who is openly gay. In his inaugural speech before the Knesset, he gave the most moving tribute to his husband, Alon, and his two children, born of an American surrogate mother. Needless to say, no speech like this had ever been delivered in the Knesset in its history and perhaps not even in the halls of United States Congress. And he delivered it as part of what is being labeled the most extreme, fanatical, homophobic right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Which leads me to the following conclusion. Israel is a robust democracy, and the hundreds of thousands of people protesting the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just proves it. Unlike Paris, which is being torched so badly right now over the raising of the retirement age that King Charles of Great Britain had to cancel his first overseas trip as sovereign, the demonstrations in Israel have been entirely peaceful. Netanyahu has now paused the judicial overhaul and his government is participating in talks with the opposition, overseen by Israel’s president, Yitzchak Herzog, which shows that public protest in Israel works. Try that in any Arab nation.
So before prominent Jews give eulogies over democracy in the Jewish state, it would be wise for them to study the facts and get them straight, lest they not only fail in their stated goal of defending Israel against defamation, but participate in a libel.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “The Israel Warrior” and “Judaism for Everyone.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.