(JNS) The head of the Knesset committee overseeing the government’s judicial reform plan returned from the U.S. this week confident that he allayed concerns from allies about the repercussions proposed to Israel’s judicial system.
MK Simcha Rothman, of the Religious Zionism party, traveled to New York this week for an event launching former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s book. But Rothman, who heads the Knesset’s Law, Justice and Constitution Committee, told JNS he spent part of his two-day trip meeting Jewish organizations, reporters and others to explain both nuances and the big picture of the controversial, proposed reforms.
Rothman would not reveal names or details about those with whom he met, other than the Orthodox Union. The general responses were positive following discussions, he said.
“It was the first time they heard the story straight, without the big bias,” Rothman said. “They knew that if they read something in The New York Times, or some other media outlets, they should take it with a grain of salt, but they wanted to understand what the situation is exactly.”
The trip came after multiple mainstream U.S. Jewish organizations expressed concern and alarm publicly about the Israeli government’s plans for the judiciary.
Last Friday, Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, criticized the proposed legislation in a letter to supporters, “imploring” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put the brakes on laws. That, per the letter, would allow, for a Knesset override of Supreme Court decisions and government control over the selection of Supreme Court justices, over which the judges themselves currently exercise de facto veto power.
Rothman met mostly with like-minded groups and individuals, who are “supportive of the state of Israel and very Zionist.” He noted the extensive media coverage, as in The Wall Street Journal.
“For us in Israel, it’s a big deal. But anywhere else around the world, who cares?” he said. “What made them care is the lies that are spread in the media, by the opposition and by some of the organizations that are fighting the reform.”
Rothman lamented the damage that falsehoods, which opponents are spreading, inflicted on the court’s independence.
“All democratic countries elect their judges in a democratic manner, except Israel,” he said. “If (what the government is proposing in terms of judicial selection) means we don’t have an independent judiciary, then that means no democratic country in the world would have one either.”
His goal during his U.S. trip was to explain why Israel needs judicial reform, because those who don’t understand the problems cannot understand why change is important.
“It’s more about protesting the government and trying to frighten the public in Israel,” he said. He called such criticism a hypocritical “campaign to delegitimize the state of Israel, not even the government of Israel.”
Critics of Israel’s current government say it takes U.S. support for granted and is ignoring American criticism. But Rothman insisted he takes U.S. concerns seriously.
“When I speak to my brothers and sisters across the sea, I always care for a debate and in trying to hear and trying to explain,” he said. “Some people say to me, ‘Why are you trying to explain so much? You have the power to do whatever you want.’”
Rothman runs his Knesset committee similarly, believing deliberative processes, and not majorities running roughshod over opposition, are best for democracy.
“I have the majority to pass these laws. We could do it in a day. I don’t believe that’s the way democracy should work,” he said. “Democracy is there to have a serious talk in the parliament about what we’re trying to do, and for the ideas that come through the process.”
Rothman was convinced in committee conversations with experts and legal advisers of the need for a mechanism to address conflicts when the legal advisers of various ministers would interpret legislation affecting those ministries differently. Under pending legislation, ministers could select their own legal advisers, rather than the attorney general’s office appointing them, thereby creating the potential for differing legal points of view on a single issue.
Outside of a few select issues, Rothman said the criticism brought to him is over issues that have already been addressed, and with legislation that has essentially been in the public domain for a decade, including a version in the coalition agreements of 2015, there aren’t many issues left that haven’t been touched on along the way. He is answering criticism of the government’s methods by countering the claim that its judicial reform process is rushed and insular.
“We are trying to undo what a group of oligarchs, who sat in one room, decided with zero public debate,” he said. “To tell us we’re not listening to anyone–that’s not true. We are solving a problem that was made by people doing exactly that.”
Still, mainstream American Jewish organizations, such as The Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee—typically apolitical, especially about Israel—have aired concerns publicly over some of the new government’s proposals, including judicial reform. They fear it may harm minority rights and put Israel’s judicial independence at risk, and by extension its defense against international prosecution.
Rothman said the perception that the current government doesn’t care deeply about American Jewish support is false. Israel’s public broadcaster reported that the coalition allowed Rothman to miss key votes in order to make the U.S. trip, seeing value in the mission.
“The connection with Jews around the world and in the U.S. is very important to us. That’s the beginning and that’s the end of every conversation I had on this issue,” he said. “But when I ask them what they are worried about, usually the answer that I will get is that they heard we’re trying to pass legislation against gays. That’s the first lie they’re told.”
Rothman is addressing concerns about the government’s plans to potentially revise the Law of Return, in order to eliminate the clause granting automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.
“For some reason, they think this applies to American Jewry. Some 97% of the olim from the U.S. are eligible to make aliyah without any connection to the grandfather clause,” he said, using the Hebrew words for “immigrants” and “immigrate to Israel” respectively. “There are immediate family members that make aliyah with their family, and they’d still be entitled to, even if they would otherwise fall under the grandfather clause.”
Rothman told JNS that these viewpoints are generally a product of individual media consumption, even if the concerns are genuine and come from a good place.
“For some in the U.S, everything that they know about the state of Israel is coming through very political media outlets,” he said. “If I would read The New York Times, I would be very worried about what’s going on in Israel. In the same way, if I would only listen to Fox News and hear what’s going on in the U.S., I would be extremely worried, because I will get only one side of what’s going on.”