As they prepared to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, leaders of U.S. Jewish organizations expected to ask him about his contentious effort to weaken the Israeli judiciary.
They didn’t expect to get an answer from Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
But that’s what happened when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and an outspoken critic of the overhaul, asked about Netanyahu’s condemnation of the protest movement, which the prime minister recently accused of cooperating with Israel’s adversaries. Jacobs said he tied his question to Yom Kippur, which begins Sunday evening.
“I said it was almost Erev Yom Kippur, and I’m asking you about the way your government has demonized not only the protesters but so many of the people who are at risk,” Jacobs said. “And he gave an answer and Sara Netanyahu asked if she could follow up with asking me a question.”
Sara Netanyahu asked if Jacobs would condemn the death threats against her family.
“I heard the emotion,” Jacobs said. “She’s not wrong.”
He said he told her, “Absolutely, but the majority of people have been peaceful, but I would not condone that behavior.’’
At the meeting, attendees said Netanyahu raised the topics he preferred to discuss, such as the threat from Iran and prospects for a treaty with Saudi Arabia. And the American Jewish leaders brought up topics on their mind as well — among them the judicial overhaul; relations with the Palestinian Authority; Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners; and women’s rights in Israel.
The meeting at the Israeli consulate in New York City took place hours after Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly, which focused on the potential Israeli-Saudi deal as well as the Iranian threat. Netanyahu met with President Joe Biden earlier in the week.
The meeting included 24 representatives of groups across the Jewish political and denominational spectrum. Most of the groups in attendance have voiced criticism of the judicial overhaul, which aims to sap power and independence from Israel’s Supreme Court, in addition to other Israeli government policies. The judicial overhaul has also sparked a mass protest movement in Israel that has offshoots abroad: In New York, a crowd of protesters demonstrated outside of the consulate on Friday.
“There were probably half a dozen questions that were asked and to be honest, everyone was answered whether or not people felt satisfied,” Jacobs said. “And I have to say that to me, it was more than I had expected.”
One Jewish leader brought up Netanyahu’s convivial meeting earlier in the week with Elon Musk, the tech mogul who has relentlessly attacked the Anti-Defamation League on his social media platform, X, formerly known as Twitter. Musk has also interacted with white supremacists on the platform.
Netanyahu and ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt joked about how Musk seems to like Netanyahu better than Greenblatt, one participant said.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, called the meeting “warm, actually.” Katz said she brought up concerns of increasing gender segregation in public spaces in Israel.
“I asked about the perception of things going backwards and what’s at risk, and toxic segregation,” she said. She said Netanyahu responded that he did not recognize that as happening.
Katz said she valued the opportunity to discuss their different perceptions.
“When we’re doing organizing, when we want to change hearts and minds, when we want to collaborate with other people — whatever it might be — you have to understand where people are,” she said.
The CEO of the American Jewish Committee, Ted Deutch, said in a statement that the meeting was productive. His statement mentioned the two-state solution, which would entail the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Large American Jewish groups have historically supported that outcome, though Netanyahu has said he is against it and partners with far-right politicians who vehemently oppose it.
“While the vision of a two-state solution too often seems out of reach, AJC stands firm in our dedication to pursuing a path toward peace and prosperity for all in the region,” Deutch said.
“The Abraham Accords once felt impossible – and look where we are today,” he said, referring to the normalization agreements with four Middle Eastern countries signed under a previous Netanyahu government. “We remain committed to expanding normalization and supporting programs that promote Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, knowing that these efforts will bring us closer to enduring peace.”