The three saddest words I heard at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum were "No Thank You." These words were uttered by delegates when I and other dedicated Israeli citizens volunteering outside the conference approached them to share our hope that they would join us in defending democracy. “No Thank You,” they would say, and walk on, a rejection in stark contrast to the commitment of millions of Israelis who have taken to the streets out of love of Israel and our democracy, over the past 23 weeks, who would like nothing more than to thank them for standing with us in our hour of need.
As a long-time professional, volunteer and board member (including AJC) in the American Jewish organizational landscape, I find it inconceivable that former congressman Ted Deutsch – who was a champion defender of democracy during the Trump Administration years - and the organization he now leads, have failed to identify the threat to Israel which arose on January 4th, 2023, when the Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, announced his plan to overhaul the judiciary in his own ideology. It is inconceivable that millions of Israelis, including myself, have sacrificed work, sleep, and precious time with family to make our voices heard, while the AJC stands by and does nothing. It is inconceivable that the AJC accepts the coalition's naked attempts to concentrate power in their grasp by eliminating the only check on unbridled executive authority in Israel—the power of the Supreme Court.
Of course, I am not alone. The magnitude of this threat has even led many of us who have dedicated our lives to the Israel-diaspora relationship and Israel's standing in foreign political circles to advocate for diaspora Jews to stand with us. We perceive the question of Israel's democracy as critical to the future of the diaspora's relationship with the state and the Jewish people.
Naturally, when we heard the AJC would be holding their Global Forum we were hopeful. We believed the AJC, an organization dedicated to Israel and whose very mission is defense of democracy and human rights around the world, would join us in taking a strong stance against so-called judicial reform. Not only were we met with a resounding "No Thank You" from the leadership of the American Jewish Committee, in March, the American Jewish Committee published a communique stating that “Israel would remain a vibrant democracy regardless of what happened with the proposed judicial overhaul.”
It is hard to describe the degree of shock this position brought to many of us who have long regarded the AJC as an organization committed to democracy, human rights, and the preservation of the liberal democratic character of both the United States and Israel. It shocked us that the AJC, which has intervened in other international issues related to liberal democracy, would not clearly state that concentrating power within the ruling coalition is inherently undemocratic, and a big step on the road to dictatorship.
Closed Door Meeting
Instead of standing with the millions of Israelis rallying for democracy by inviting an activist from the citizen’s pro-democracy movement to brief the AJC Global Forum they invited the very same Minister of Diaspora, Amichai Chikli, who had to sneak in by the side door, the very person who recently blatantly disrespected Israelis by gesturing obscenely at the New York Salute to Israel parade this year. Instead of constructively engaging with the everyday Israelis living and working within walking distance from the David Intercontinental conference center, at the last minute, behind closed doors AJC CEO Ted Deutch, it’s chairman of the board and one other high official meet with a handful of protest leaders for a private meeting.
When American Jews are most needed but the leadership is absent, failing to stand up for Israel’s democratic structure protecting civil rights for all citizens, it undermines the trust and relationship. Adding insult to injury they make a place on their closing plenary podium for the Minister of Diaspora Affairs to denounce the protest movement as “worse than BDS” they lose their claim to legitimacy.
This was the outcome we desperately wished to avoid. I pray that the congressman from Florida, who currently leads the American Jewish Committee, will reconsider the organization's strategy as the threat to Israel's democracy continues to loom. It is essential for the American Jewish Committee to reassess its stance, realign itself with the values of democracy and human rights, and reaffirm its commitment to the preservation of Israel's democratic principles. Only then can we hope to rebuild the trust and strengthen the bond between the Israeli and American Jewish communities.
June 13, 2023
Ken Toltz is an Israel-based writer who make Aliyah 4 years ago. Among many other Pro-Israel activist roles he served on the Colorado board of directors of the American Jewish Committee.