Who’s Behind the Judicial Overhaul Now Dividing Israel? Two New Yorkers.
As part of a recent “national day of resistance,” a group of army reservists wearing masks converged at the Jerusalem office of a think tank and blocked its front door with sandbags and coils of barbed wire. Outside, protesters led a noisy rally on the street, waving dozens of placards and sharing a microphone for a series of furious speeches.
“The Kohelet Policy Forum has been hiding in the shadows,” shouted one speaker, standing atop a car. “But we are onto them and we will not let them win!”
For years, Kohelet quietly churned out position papers, trying to nudge government policy in a more libertarian direction. Then, starting in January, it became more widely known as one of the principal architects of the judicial overhaul proposal that has plunged Israel into a crisis over the future of its democracy.
If the plan succeeds, it would be a stunning victory not only for the think tank, but also for the people behind it: two guys from Queens.
The first is Moshe Koppel, a 66-year-old mathematics Ph.D. who grew up in New York City and moved to Israel in 1980. He founded Kohelet in 2012 and has been drafting laws and producing conservative and libertarian policy papers with a roster of full- and part-time scholars that now numbers 160.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant,” he told Ami, the Orthodox Jewish magazine, in 2019, “but in some sense we’re the brains of the Israeli right wing.”
Kohelet is not required to disclose the names of individual donors, and for years Mr. Koppel has artfully deflected questions about funding.
But one source of money is a second New Yorker: Arthur Dantchik, a 65-year-old multibillionaire who has donated millions to Kohelet, according to people familiar with his philanthropic giving. Mr. Dantchik did not return a call for comment.
American money and ideas, from the left and the right, have played a perennial role in Israeli politics. Today, American consultants are a regular feature of election campaigns, and the American-backed Israel Hayom, a free daily, is the country’s most widely read newspaper.
Until recently, though, few knew that the nation-rattling judicial proposals were largely an American production.
What to Know About Israel’s Judiciary Overhaul
A divisive proposal. A package of proposed legislation for a far-reaching overhaul of the judicial system in Israel has set off mass protests by those who say it will destroy the country’s democratic foundations. Here is what to know:
What changes are being proposed? Israel’s right-wing government wants to change the makeup of a committee that selects judges to give representatives and appointees of the government a majority. The legislation would also restrict the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament and weaken the authority of the attorney general, who is independent of the government.
What do opponents of the plan say? The front opposing the legislation, which includes Israelis largely from the center and left, argues that the overhaul would deal a mortal blow to the independence of the judiciary, which they view as the only check on government power. They say that the legislation would change the Israeli system from a liberal democracy with protections for minorities to a tyranny of majority rule.
Where does Benjamin Netanyahu stand? In the past, Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, was a staunch defender of the independence of the courts. His recent appointment of Yariv Levin, a leader of the judicial overhaul, to the role of justice minister signaled a turnaround, even though Netanyahu publicly promised that any changes would be measured and handled responsibly.
Is there room for compromise? The politicians driving the plan said they were prepared to talk and a group of academics and lawmakers, in the meantime, met behind the scenes for weeks to find a compromise. On March 15, the government rejected a compromise by Issac Herzog, the president of Israel, that was dismissed by Netanyahu soon after it was published.
The plan, which has spurred hundreds of thousands of Israelis to weekly protests, would give the government far greater control over the selection of judges and would make it harder for the Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by legislators.
Negotiations — which included Kohelet — for a scaled-back version of the judicial overhaul that would satisfy a broader swath of the Israeli public appear to be on hold for now. The government is determined to push at least some of its proposals through Parliament by early April.
Opponents of the overhaul say the courts are all that prevent Israel from devolving into a country with no checks on government power and no protection for minorities. Mr. Koppel and his allies believe that the real threat to Israeli democracy is activist judges, who, he says, now operate virtually without constraint.
While prominent in Israel’s conservative political circles for years, Mr. Koppel has long worked to maintain the lowest possible profile.
“I discovered that you get an awful lot more done,” he said during a rare interview at Kohelet’s headquarters, “if you let others get the credit than if you insist on announcing your contribution.”
Mr. Dantchik has for decades remained about as invisible as a man with his fortune can be. (With an estimated net worth of $7.2 billion, he ranks higher on the Forbes 400 list than marquee tycoons like Mark Cuban and George Soros.) He is a co-founder of Susquehanna International Group, a privately held financial powerhouse based in a sprawling campus in a suburb of Philadelphia, with offices around the world. The company has never taken outside investors, limiting what it is required to publicly disclose about the markets in which it operates — options, equities, cryptocurrency and sports betting.
“They are as quiet as a church mouse,” said Paul Rowady of Alphacution, a research group that specializes in proprietary trading firms. “These guys don’t like to talk, and they don’t want anyone in their business.”
Mr. Dantchik’s connection to Kohelet was first published in an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, based on reporting by the Democratic Bloc, a nonprofit in Israel that largely monitors right-wing groups.
“We spent months searching for a clue that would lead us back to the origins of the money,” said Ran Cohen, the Democratic Bloc’s director. “It was a maze of nontransparent U.S. companies and charities.”
The group’s research found that funds to Kohelet came through a 501(c)(3) called the American Friends of Kohelet Policy Forum, which was originally based in Bala Cynwyd, the same suburb as Susquehanna. Two of the nonprofit’s directors are siblings of Mr. Koppel’s wife. The third, Amir Goldman, works at Susquehanna Growth Equity, a private equity arm of Susquehanna International.
After Haaretz published its feature in March 2021, the Democratic Bloc found that the primary conduit for funds to Kohelet changed.
A financial disclosure report filed in Israel by the think tank in April of that year showed that more than 90 percent of its $7.2 million in income came from the Central Fund of Israel, a family-run nonprofit that gave $55 million to more than 500 Israel-related causes in 2021, according to its website.
In previous reporting on Kohelet’s funding, Mr. Dantchik was cited as a key donor along with Jeff Yass. Mr. Yass is a fellow co-founder of Susquehanna and a prolific conservative political donor in the United States, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes at $28.5 billion.
But people familiar with giving by both men say that Mr. Yass has never been a Kohelet donor. He declined to comment for this article.
Should some form of the Kohelet-backed overhaul go through, Mr. Koppel would become an improbable godfather of a refashioned Israeli judiciary.
He is not a jurist, nor did he attend law school. Before he turned to politics, his expertise was in machine learning. A lean man with a graying beard and the faint remnants of a New York City accent, Mr. Koppel lives in a relatively upscale settlement in the southern West Bank, one filled with plenty of transplanted Americans.
Even many of his detractors like him personally, and most open with this assessment: “He’s brilliant.” One of his gifts is describing policy positions and himself in ways that make both sound eminently reasonable.
“You see I’m wearing a kippah on my head, but I’m not in favor of religious coercion in any form whatsoever,” he said in a recent interview on the podcast “Two Nice Jewish Boys.”
He would not say how he connected with Mr. Dantchik, who grew up in Queens and graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton with a degree in biology.
Mr. Dantchik’s roommate there was Mr. Yass, a friend from high school, and the men bonded over a shared love of poker. The two moved to Las Vegas after graduation to become professional players, with modest success. They later lugged briefcases filled with cash from a “consortium” of like-minded gamblers to make thousands of small bets on long-shot combinations at horse tracks. In 1985, at Sportsman’s Park in Cicero, Ill., they won $764,284, then one of the largest payouts in U.S. racing history.
The pair started Susquehanna in 1987 with a handful of friends. Poker, with its emphasis on probabilities and decision making under pressure, remains so central to Susquehanna’s culture that its monthslong training program includes weeks of Texas hold ’em.
Former Susquehanna employees say Mr. Dantchik is a much-admired character at the company — quiet, warm and exceptionally generous.
“He ran the training program when I started,” said Francis Wisniewski, who joined Susquehanna in 1993 and stayed for a decade. “My grandfather died during it, and he offered me his Audi so I could immediately drive four hours home. He said, ‘I’ll get a cab. You take my car.’ That’s just the way he was.”
If money talks, it is apparently the only way Mr. Dantchik does so in public. What is revealed through his public philanthropy is a man interested in supporting mostly moderate Republican politicians; he has given approximately $850,000 to political candidates and groups that disclose their donors, according to data provided by OpenSecrets.org.
Far more of his giving is channeled through the Claws Foundation, which is based in Reston, Va., and lists Mr. Dantchik and Mr. Yass as two of its directors. The latest Claws Foundation filing with the I.R.S., which appears on ProPublica’s site, reported that the organization gave $36 million to more than 30 recipients, including theaters, hospitals, synagogues, universities and libertarian think tanks, such as the Cato Institute and the Ayn Rand Institute.
On paper, Mr. Dantchik and Mr. Koppel have a lot in common, most notably a shared passion for Israel and libertarian ideas. Mr. Koppel became interested in politics 20 years ago, when he began attending hearings of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. In the interview, Mr. Koppel said he quickly learned that busy and short-staffed politicians are grateful to anyone willing to help draft legislation.
“That person has a lot of power, the person with the pen,” Mr. Koppel said.
After a couple of failed attempts to write a formal constitution for Israel, he formed Kohelet — the word is Hebrew for Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible — more than a decade ago.
From the start, Kohelet targeted the ideological pillars erected by Israel’s socialist founders. The group promotes the familiar libertarian menu of small government, free markets and privatized education. In recent decades, Israel has tiptoed away from regulation and emphasized its hospitality to entrepreneurs. But Kohelet’s libertarianism feels to many Israelis like a foreign intrusion.
Describing Kohelet’s policies as an American import, Gilad Kariv, a Labor Party lawmaker and former chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said, “They are not only getting their financial contribution from the United States, but they are bringing in an ultra-right-wing, neocon philosophy.”
One of Kohelet’s triumphs came in 2019, when the Trump administration announced that the United States did not consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank a violation of international law, reversing four decades of American policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a video message at a Kohelet conference, thanking the group for supporting the new doctrine.
But the proposed judicial overhaul represents the height of Kohelet’s influence. When Yariv Levin, the minister of justice, unveiled the plan in January, he publicly thanked the director of Kohelet’s legal department for his assistance. Mr. Koppel would only say that Kohelet’s judicial proposals were “similar” to the government’s.
“We can’t tell them what to do, only give advice,” Mr. Koppel said. “They’ve taken some of the advice and rejected some of the advice.”
Soon after this interview, tensions in Israel went from a simmer to a boil, and the president recently warned of the real possibility of civil war.
A speaker at the protest outside Kohelet this month denounced rich Americans who export ideas to Israel “straight from the delusional fringes of the Republican Party.”
Onlookers tossed fake $100 bills in the air.
Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.