TEL AVIV (JTA) — In the coming days, Israel’s parliament is due to vote on a measure that, advocates on both sides say, will determine the country’s fate — or whether it can even survive.
It isn’t a peace deal or an attempt to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What it will do, if passed, is bar the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions it deems “unreasonable.”
Behind that somewhat technical language is a struggle over Israel’s soul. It’s an escalating fight that has seen the largest, most sustained protest movement in Israel’s history. It has seen demonstrators block highways, march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and pledge to boycott army service. It has seen both Netanyahu and his opponents warn that the end of democracy is nigh. And it has seen Israeli President Isaac Herzog, a figure meant to rise above the political fray, warn that the government’s push for major legislative change, and its critics, could lead to “real civil war.”
The reason for the dire pronouncements is that the “reasonableness law” is one piece of a broad plan, put forward by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition in January, to significantly weaken Israel’s judiciary. If passed in its totality, the overhaul would sap the Israeli Supreme Court of much of its power and independence, removing a major check on what the Israeli government can do.
But even though Netanyahu enjoys a solid majority in parliament, the plan, so far, has yet to be enacted. That’s largely due to a massive protest movement that says Netanyahu is endangering Israel’s democratic system. The demonstrations have brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets and led to widespread civil disobedience.
Both sides of the debate say the internal conflict is a test of Israel’s system of government. Now, a growing number of voices are using increasingly anxious language that would have been unthinkable just a year ago, from threats of street violence to warnings that the Israel Defense Forces could implode.
“This is a time of emergency,” Herzog said Sunday. “An agreement must be reached.”
The civil strife is occurring against the backdrop of heightened Israeli-Palestinian violence and while Netanyahu, 73, is on trial for corruption and has recently been hospitalized twice. Here’s a primer on the judicial overhaul, what supporters and opponents say is at stake, and what may happen next.
Netanyahu and his allies want to fundamentally change Israel’s court system.
At the end of last year, Israeli voters returned Netanyahu to office — and he assembled a coalition with far-right partners that holds 64 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Days later, his justice minister unveiled a plan that, in its original form, would have rendered the Supreme Court largely powerless.
The initial plan would have given the coalition complete control over the selection of judges, and would have allowed the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a bare majority. Another measure took aim at the “reasonableness” clause.
Netanyahu and his allies portrayed the legislative package as a curb on an increasingly activist Supreme Court that was out of step with the country’s right-wing majority. Its composition, they charged, was a vestige of Israel’s secular, Ashkenazi elite and did not reflect the country’s ethnic and Jewish religious diversity, including the country’s large number of Mizrahi Jews.
But a growing number of critics — from centrist and left-wing Israelis to foreign leaders to American Jewish organizations — cautioned that the overhaul would endanger Israel’s status as a democratic state.
Because the governing coalition by definition commands a majority in parliament, they say, the court reform would effectively give Netanyahu and his partners complete control over all three branches of government. The court has historically been a protector of the rights of minorities — from Arabs to LBGTQ Israelis to liberal Jewish movements — and critics of the plan worry that it would put those safeguards at risk. Those worries are exacerbated, they say, because the prime minister leading the effort to weaken the judiciary is currently on trial.
The overhaul effort has sparked a historic and growing protest movement.
Those critiques have coalesced into the largest protest movement in Israeli history, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets every week, many waving Israeli flags, to oppose the plan. Pro-government demonstrations, much less frequent, have also occurred.
Anti-government protest organizers have also escalated their tactics — blocking major highways, calling for strikes, crowding the main airport terminal and, this week, leading a days-long march of thousands of people from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And it has spread to cities across the United States and the globe, disrupting American Jewish gatherings in Israel and confronting Israeli officials on their visits abroad.
The most striking protest tactic has come from a growing group of IDF reservists — as of this week more than 10,000 — who have pledged to stop showing up for duty if the overhaul, or any piece of it, is enacted. Within Israel, the IDF is the country’s most widely trusted institution, and is seen as an indispensable guarantor of Israel’s security.
Because of its mandatory draft, it has also historically been viewed as a reflection of Israel’s diverse Jewish citizenry. But those who have pledged to boycott their duty say they are unwilling to continue risking their lives for a government that is no longer democratic.
The overhaul’s proponents, including Netanyahu, say that threats to refuse military service cross a bright red line in a society that faces external threats and prizes national service. In a recent address, Netanyahu said threats to avoid reserve duty as a pressure tactic violated the principle that the civilian government must wield control over the military.
Efforts at compromise have failed and rhetoric is becoming only more severe.
Months ago, the government took steps to advance the major pieces of the judicial overhaul. A rapid spike in protests and criticism in March, however, convinced Netanyahu to pause the legislative effort and enter dialogue with his political opponents.
But those talks — brokered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial — have collapsed. A few weeks ago, Netanyahu announced that he was restarting the legislative process with the “reasonableness law.”
Now, both sides are making arguments that, at their core, sound almost identical.
Critics of the plan say that a country without an independent and empowered court system cannot be a democracy. They have accused Netanyahu of ramming through a major change to Israel’s governing system without broad consensus, and point to surveys showing that most Israelis oppose the overhaul plan.
The plan’s supporters say that, in fact, they are the majority — pointing to the fall elections that their side won. The true failure of democracy, they say, is the elected coalition being rendered unable to govern due to a protest movement that is blocking roads and calling on soldiers to shirk their duty.
This week, the military reserve protests have led to more urgent warnings. The Institute for National Security Studies, a respected think tank, warned on Sunday that the IDF “is at risk of disbanding.”
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi has a similar message.
“If we will not be a strong and unified army, if the best do not serve in the IDF — we will no longer be able to exist as a state in the region,” he wrote in an open letter.
The internal Israeli turmoil is happening alongside increased Israeli-Palestinian violence.
In tandem with the conflict over the court reform, clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank have escalated this year. More than 100 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed in IDF military raids on terrorist cells, while more than two dozen Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attacks in the West Bank and Israel. There has also been conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and concern over Iran backing attacks on Israel.
Recent months have also seen a series of riots by Israeli settlers, who have entered Palestinian villages, torched cars, homes and shops and injured Palestinians in response to terror attacks. Palestinians have been killed amid the riots, and senior Israeli figures have described the riots as a “pogrom” or “terrorism.”
Hardline figures in Israel’s government have called for harsh tactics in response to the violence. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for a Palestinian village to be wiped out before walking the remark back and apologizing. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right national security minister, has expressed sympathy for the rioters while also speaking out against vigilante justice.
While the riots are not directly connected to the overhaul effort, there are links. One of the right’s criticisms of the Supreme Court is that it has restrained Israel from expanding West Bank settlements, while critics worry that weakening the courts will mean removing an occasional protector of Palestinian rights. Meanwhile, Ben-Gvir and other right-wingers have charged that the government is responding more harshly to the settler rioters than to disruptive anti-government protesters in Israel — something he has called “selective enforcement.”
The situation is leading observers to question the U.S. relationship with Israel.
Heated discourse about Israel’s conflicts has spread to the United States. President Joe Biden has repeatedly criticized the judicial overhaul effort and has recently issued a series of warnings suggesting that if passed, the legislation could damage the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Speaking to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman last week, Biden said the protests display “the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship,” and said that Netanyahu needs to “continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”
Elsewhere in the Times opinion pages, Nicholas Kristof wrote that the recent news out of Israel has led him to question if “it really make[s] sense for the United States to provide the enormous sum of $3.8 billion annually to another wealthy country?” That annual foreign aid allocation is at the core of U.S.-Israel relations and has been portrayed as sacrosanct by presidents from both parties.
And last week, an address by Herzog to a joint session of Congress, meant to be a celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday earlier this year, took place shortly after a prominent progressive Democrat, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, called Israel a “racist state” — a remark she later walked back. Six other Democratic members of Congress boycotted Herzog’s speech.
What happens next?
The vote on the “reasonableness” bill will almost certainly take place in the coming days and, if Netanyahu’s promises are any indication, could pass along party lines. But that almost definitely won’t be the end of the struggle over the judicial overhaul, even as a large number of Israelis say they fear civil war.
Netanyahu’s right-wing allies, including Ben-Gvir, have vowed to pass the overhaul’s more sweeping components next, while opponents of the legislation have pledged to maintain and escalate their opposition.
It remains to be seen who will prevail in the conflict, or what winning might even look like after more than half a year of civil unrest. Supporters, opponents and observers of the overhaul have all made clear that at this point, what is at stake is no longer just a piece of legislation but rather the military, the governmental system and, perhaps, the future of the country itself.
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Elon Musk, in live chat with right-leaning Jews, insists antisemitism isn’t a problem on X
(JTA) – Elon Musk called himself “aspirationally Jewish,” waffled on a prominent rabbi’s invitation to visit Auschwitz, and insisted that claims of rising antisemitism on his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, were “absurd.”
The billionaire tech mogul added that antisemitic posts should not be deplatformed, but should instead be met with “counterpoints.” He said that antisemites who aren’t presented with other views online are “just going to be hidden antisemites, and that’s not going to do. That’s perhaps worse.”
As an example, Musk cited Kanye West, whom he reinstated on X after the rapper’s antisemitic tirade got him banned last year.
Those statements and more were made during a friendly forum on Thursday featuring Musk and a lineup of Jewish men, most of them avowed conservatives, addressing antisemitism on X under his watch.
Hosted by the politically conservative Orthodox Jewish pundit Ben Shapiro and his publication The Daily Wire, the nearly two-hour chat was titled “X, anti-Semitism, Faith and Free Speech.” It came days after a call from more than 120 Jewish activists, most of them progressive, for advertisers and app stores to drop the platform, and in the wake of a series of attacks from Musk on the Anti-Defamation League. Musk blames an ad boycott spearheaded by the ADL for the site’s revenue loss, and has threatened to sue the antisemitism watchdog for billions of dollars. He has also amplified antisemitic accounts on X that have joined in condemning the group.
Musk has previously denied being antisemitic. On Thursday, he went further, saying, “in some respects I think I am Jewish, basically,” owing to what he said was his large proportion of Jewish friends.
“They use the X platform and I’m like, ‘Do you guys see anything?’ And they’re like, ‘Nope,’” he said.
He also insisted that “multiple third parties” have verified that hate speech has declined on the platform since his acquisition but did not share what those sources were.
Musk also defended himself from accusations of antisemitism, noting that Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of him hadn’t turned up any evidence of it. “He’s a pretty smart guy,” Musk said of Isaacson. “He might have figured it out if I was antisemitic.”
At another point in the call, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Chabad-affiliated chair of the European Jewish Association, asked Musk if he would visit the Auschwitz death camp alongside an upcoming mission of European rabbis.
At first Musk rejected the invite, saying, “I’m very well aware of the Holocaust and Auschwitz and Dachau and whatnot, and all the things that happened that were terrible. So this is not certainly new information for me. So I don’t need to visit Auschwitz to understand. I get it.”
After Margolin pressed the issue, Musk responded, “I will seriously consider it,” before later adding that he could swing by after a visit to a factory he owns in Berlin.
“Consider it a tentative yes,” he subsequently said. He also apologized for not responding to a petition from Jewish leaders worldwide to push X to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s working definition of antisemitism, a widely adopted document that has attracted controversy for defining some forms of Israel criticism as antisemitic. Musk said he hadn’t known about the petition.
At another point, Musk said that one of the main lessons he has taken away from learning about the Nazi era is that “Hitler and the Nazis were extremely censorious. … The Nazis loved censorship, big time.”
The call provided a small window into how Musk does seek to address hate speech on X. In addition to his comments on deplatforming and “counterpoints,” he framed the question of limiting hate speech as a largely economic one, rather than a moral one. “If we just hammer people with hate, they’re going to leave the platform,” he said. He made a similar statement in a recent live chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He also dodged a question from Shapiro about whether he would demonetize or reduce the reach of accounts that spout antisemitism, although later in the call, he did hint that X might begin experimenting with “freedom of speech, but not reach” — which would mean that X would reduce the visibility of hateful accounts.
Musk also would not commit to a request from former Israeli politician and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky to limit anti-Zionist speech on the platform, saying, “I think there is some value to not being draconian.”
The nine Jews on Thursday’s call were all male, and mostly on the right-leaning end of the political spectrum. They included former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz, who represented former President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial and has also often described himself as a liberal; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has acted as a rabbi-to-the-stars and once ran for Congress as a Republican.
One woman who had been scheduled to participate, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s new envoy for combating antisemitism, was not audible when called upon. Moderators attributed her absence, and that of one other participant, to technical difficulties.
Shapiro and other speakers on the call paid Musk a series of compliments on what they said were his positive views of Jewish people and his modeling of Jewish values — including the commandment to have large families. Musk has fathered more than 10 children via his ex-wife, Justine Wilson; his ex-girlfriend, Grimes; and Shivon Zilis, an executive at one of his companies for whom he was a sperm donor. Dershowitz noted that his son is also named Elon.
Boteach even told Musk he could “take credit” for “peace in the Middle East” if Israel and Saudi Arabia reach a normalization agreement, predicting that Musk’s electric car company Tesla would reduce the Saudis’ oil wealth and push them to come to the diplomatic table.
The participants on the call also agreed with Musk that the ADL shouldn’t be the sole voice speaking for Jews. Shapiro challenged the group’s reports that hate speech on X has risen since Musk’s takeover, saying his own experiences with antisemitism have declined.
“Of late they’ve become significantly more partisan in their progressive politics, to say the least,” Shapiro said, saying that Musk “happens to be right on the merits here” and calling his threat to sue the group for defamation “pretty funny.”
In response to a comment from another participant, Rabbi Ari Lamm, that the ADL controversy is “a distraction from the conversation serious Jewish people of all backgrounds should be having,” Musk said, “They definitely have impact on advertisers, I’ll tell you that.”
Tt other times Musk displayed a level of comfort with conspiracy theories on his platform, saying, “I think we’re running out of conspiracy theories that didn’t turn out to be true.”
Musk gave himself a positive grade, on the whole, when it came to fighting antisemitism on X.
“Overall I think things are actually pretty good, but I’m not saying they’re perfect. And we want to work to make them better,” he said. He added, “My entire life story is, in fact, pro-Semitic.”
“I think my values do match that of the Jewish people,” he said at another point. “Knowledge, reading, understanding, debating, these are all Jewish values and I very much agree with those.”
Musk’s conversation Thursday came less than 24 hours after X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, addressed his feud with the ADL at a tech conference in Dana Point, California. According to reports from the conference, Yaccarino noted her own dialogue with ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who she said “continues to question the progress as it relates to antisemitism.” She added, “It is disappointing that there is not equal time given to all the progress.”
In a discussion about Musk’s threats to sue the ADL, according to Axios, Yaccarino said, “I wish that would be different. We’re looking into that.” She later added, “Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to speak their opinion, no matter who they are, including Elon.” Shortly afterward, she reportedly left the stage abruptly.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety who was fired after a dispute with Musk over the site’s approach to moderating hate speech, also appeared at the conference.Roth, who is Jewish, said hate speech had gotten worse on the platform under Musk’s ownership.
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A Jewish cemetery in Belarus was destroyed by Nazis. Now its headstones are being made into a memorial.
(JTA) — Earlier this year, a British Jewish nonprofit received a call from a young couple in the city of Brest, Belarus, who had just purchased a fixer-upper house and needed some help with a difficult situation: Their basement was built from old Jewish gravestones.
Jewish groups — including the nonprofit The Together Plan and its American arm, the Jewish Tapestry Project, founded to aid Belarusian Jewry — have been receiving such calls for nearly two decades from residents of Brest who have collectively discovered thousands of Jewish headstones in their city’s construction. All of the headstones come from a historic cemetery that was destroyed during and after the Holocaust.
Today, an athletic complex sits on the site of the cemetery, which once contained tens of thousands of graves. But by the end of next year, The Together Plan expects to complete a memorial to the cemetery. It is also in the process of organizing and cataloging more than 3,200 remnants of the cemetery’s headstones, which were used after World War II in construction projects throughout the city.
“Currently there’s nothing there to say it’s a cemetery,” Debra Brunner, CEO and co-founder of The Together Plan, the group leading the project, told CNN.
Before World War II, Brest — also known as Brest-Litovsk, or Brisk to the Jewish community that lived there — was home to more than 20,000 Jews and was a center of Jewish culture and study. But when the city was liberated after the Holocaust, only about 10 Jews remained there. Today, it has a total population of more than 300,000.
The Nazis also destroyed the city’s Jewish cemetery in part by selling half of its headstones. In the decades following the war, when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and construction materials were hard to find, the gravestones became the foundations of homes, supermarkets, garden walks and cellars. In some cases, the Hebrew lettering on the stones was chiseled away.
The memorial will be erected on what was once a corner of the cemetery, some distance away from the sports complex. It will be made from broken pieces of the headstones that have been recovered over the past two decades and will feature a black granite plaque with text in Russian, Hebrew and English. The area surrounding the memorial will be covered with trees, grass and wildflowers.
Jewish cemetery preservation has been at times a contentious issue in Belarus. As recently as 2017, a Belarusian court approved a plan to construct a luxury apartment building on top of a Jewish cemetery in the city of Gomel, near the country’s borders with Ukraine and Russia. The Brest municipality has pledged to maintain the upkeep of its city’s memorial but did not provide any funds directly to the project. It is being led by the Together Plan and the Jewish Tapestry Project and supported by the Religious Jewish Union of Belarus, the Illuminate Foundation and the charitable Belarus-based organization Dialog.
“Jews have always honored the memory of their ancestors,” Boris Bruk, chairman of the Orthodox Jewish community of Brest, said in a campaign video for the project. “And as there is no cemetery, we wanted to have a memorial sign, or a memorial place which would tell our descendants that their ancestors lie at this place, the people who lived, worked and prayed in this city.”
In 2004, residents, construction companies and homeowners with properties paved with headstones began making phone calls to Regina Simonenko, the head of the Brest Holocaust Foundation and museum, wanting to return them. In 2011, the municipality of Brest approved the construction of a memorial using the headstones. The Together Plan joined the project in 2014 and has been fielding the calls since then.
Apart from 1,287 remnants with writing, another 2,000 to 2,500 headstone fragments without any writing have been collected and stored in a warehouse, where they have been photographed, cataloged and added to a searchable database.
The memorial is being designed by Dallas-based artist Brad Goldberg, who plans to build two arcs opposite each other that each feature some of the headstones. According to his website, Goldberg “sees his work as a fusion between sculpture, landscape, and the built environment.”
“It isn’t a cemetery,” he told CNN. “They are all facing in different directions as if they are having a conversation with each other.”
He added, “One rabbi that we have consulted has described it as being about life rather than about death.”
Goldberg has a connection to Brest, too, which led to his work on the memorial. His family had taken in a Holocaust survivor, the late Jack Grynberg, when Grynberg came to the United States following the war. Somewhere between 70 and 100 of Grynberg’s relatives were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Grynberg was one of only a few Jewish residents of Brest to survive.
In 1997, Grynberg and his son Stephen traveled to Brest together. Stephen Grynberg is a filmmaker who has done work for the Shoah Foundation and was the one who recommended Goldberg as the memorial’s designer. The younger Grynberg is also donating a third of the memorial’s estimated $325,000 cost.
“In 1997 there were no signs of the cemetery,” Stephen Grynberg told CNN. “We were taken there and our guide said, ‘This is where the cemetery was.’ Like so many things with the Holocaust, you can’t really understand them, you just have these complicated visceral feelings.”
He added, “I was just trying to compute the idea of them bulldozing a cemetery and building on it. That was the empty feeling I had.”
Man in Peru charged with making recent bomb threats to US synagogues, FBI says
(JTA) — Authorities in Peru have arrested a 33-year-old man who the FBI has charged with making a string of bomb threats targeting U.S. Jewish institutions, including synagogues on Rosh Hashanah.
Eddie Manuel Nunez Santos made more than 150 threats, mostly by email, against synagogues, hospitals, school districts and other institutions in five states between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, according to the FBI’s complaint against him, which was unsealed Thursday. Nunez Santos was arrested in Lima on Tuesday, according to the FBI.
The FBI says Nunez Santos, who is Peruvian, embarked on the bomb threat spree after asking teen girls to send him pornographic pictures of themselves and being rejected. He is also being charged with crimes related to those requests, the FBI said.
Some of the emailed threats included phone numbers to contact. Those phone numbers, the FBI said, belonged to the teen girls who had rejected or cut off contact with him.
The tally of threats in the complaint reflect only some of those that have been reported by synagogues or their local police departments in the last few months. None of the threats have been credible.
After Rosh Hashanah, which began on the evening of Sept. 15, the Anti-Defamation League said it had counted a total of 71 threats against Jewish institutions in 14 states since July 21. But the ADL, an antisemitism watchdog, cautioned that the real number may be even higher: Some communities, it said, had chosen not to disclose the threats they received, in part to avoid gratifying whoever was issuing them.
The bomb threats targeting synagogues have, in many cases, led to congregations being evacuated in the middle of prayer services so that police can conduct a sweep of the building. In addition, the threats included in the complaint resulted in thousands of schoolchildren evacuating their schools; a lockdown of a hospital; and flight delays, according to the FBI.
The FBI and antisemitism watchdogs did not immediately respond to questions about whether additional people might have been responsible for the recent wave of bomb threats. The threats in the complaint were made to institutions in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Arizona, and Alaska, according to the FBI, but evacuations were reported in several other states including several in New Jersey on Rosh Hashanah.
The complaint includes an example of a complaint received by a synagogue in Westchester County, New York, on Sept. 17, the second day of the holiday. “I placed multiple bombs inside the Jewish Center,” the threat said. “The bombs I placed in the building will blow up in a few hours. Many people will lay in a pool of blood.”
At the time, the Westchester Jewish Council’s security committee emailed synagogues in the county saying that local police and the council’s own security official had investigated the email and others received in the area that day and deemed them non-credible. The committee emphasized that all threats needed to be investigated, a warning that came after months of recurring fake threats.
Using data tied to the emails, and by investigating the included phone numbers, law enforcement agents were able to trace the emailed threats to Nunez Santos, who works as a web developer.
The five charges that Nunez Santos faces, if he is convicted, carry the potential of significant prison time. The charges of conveying hoaxes and communicating threats across state lines carry maximum sentences of five years in prison. The charges related to child pornography and exploitation carry much harsher penalties.
“Not only did Santos allegedly email hundreds of hoax bomb threats terrorizing schools, hospitals, and houses of worship, he also perversely tried to sextort innocent teenage girls. His actions wasted limited law enforcement resources, put first responders in unnecessary danger, and victimized children,” the FBI’s assistant director in charge, James Smith, said in a statement. “The FBI will not tolerate anyone who seeks to induce fear in our communities, and we will do whatever it takes to put the perpetrators of such actions behind bars, regardless of their location.”
This is not the first time false bomb threats have been called into a series of Jewish institutions. More than 100 such threats were called into Jewish community centers in the early months of 2017 — most of which, it was later discovered, came from a teen in Israel. In 2020, dozens of JCCs received a separate series of emailed bomb threats.
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