Benjamin Netanyahu was interrupted five times by protesters who shouted and held up signs while the Israeli prime minister was delivering an address on Monday to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The protesters shouted “the loyalty oaths delegitimize Israel” and “the occupation delegitimizes Israel” while being escorted from the room. Their signs bore similar messages.
The disrupters were members of a group of young protesters convened by Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing activist organization. The protesters said that they were responding to the General Assembly’s focus on what has been called an international effort to delegitimize Israel. At a General Assembly that has made much of the involvement of 600 college students, the protesters claimed that they represented a political perspective and an age cohort that deserved a place at the conference.
But the group’s pretensions to representing a generational voice, manifested in the publication of a document roughly outlining their positions and titled the Young Jewish Declaration, were called into question by the presence of scores of young, pro-Israel activists in the halls of the G.A.
“I think the point is more that there needs to be space for people like us, people who don’t fit into the paradigm that’s been laid out,” said a member of the protest group, Eyal Mazor, 22, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who was born in Israel. Though involved in planning the action, Mazor was not one of the activists who disrupted the speech. “We need to be seen as a legitimate part of the Jewish community,” he said.
The protesters rose and shouted one at a time, separated by pauses of a few minutes. While the first few were escorted out with minimal interaction with the crowd, the fourth appeared to be pulled down violently by people sitting around him. One crowd member wearing a yarmulke stood on a chair to tear a sign carried by another protester.
According to members of the activist group, three of the disrupters were being detained until Netanyahu left the building and the remaining two had been let go.
Individual activists said in interviews that they supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, and JVP supports the right to engage in BDS campaigns, although a document created by the group does not mention BDS.
The Forward was given limited access to the protesters before the disruption on the condition that the information not be published until after the disruption took place.
On the night of November 7, in a Unitarian Universalist church a few miles from the site of the convention, a dozen young activists sat in a room crowded with half-drawn signs, debating the contours of the next day’s protest.
The activists had been based in the building since November 4, two days before the general assembly’s official kickoff. Convened by JVP, the group of 14 had spent two days engaged in training and skills sharing and preparing for their actions. Members ranged in age from 17 to 39.
Activists initially told the Forward that they planned to silently hoist signs. But in the meeting the night before the action, the plan seemed to be shifting. Rae Abileah, a staff organizer for the anti-war group Code Pink, was arguing for the disrupters to shout while being removed from the room. Abileah said that the time between when the signs are taken from the protesters and when they were removed from the room could total 15 minutes — time that could be used to shout slogans.
“We are often far [more] concerned with being polite and being politically correct and being nice than we are with human rights, dignity, justice, and international law,” Abileah said later in an interview. Abileah said that she has participated in similar disruptions at two recent AIPAC conferences.
In the end, Abileah apparently won out. She was among those who rose to interrupt Netayahu.
Communications staff at the JFNA knew of plans to disrupt Netanyahu’s speech as early as the evening of November 6. Staff members became aware that at least one person registered as a member of the press was actually an activist. JFNA staff sought to intercept any protesters going in disguised as press before they could enter the ballroom. It’s not clear whether they were successful.
Asked about the JFNA staff’s concerns about a disruption of the speech hours before the second plenary, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles president Jay Sanderson said, “I would rather my enemy be standing right in front of me than hiding. I’m not afraid of any kind of protest. At least we have an opportunity to respond.” Sanderson has been one of the architects of the Israel Action Network, the new JFNA anti-divestment initiative that has been a focus of the program at the G.A.
After the disruption, Jewish Council for Public Affairs senior vice president Martin Raffel, who is leading the Israel Action Network, said that the disruption demonstrated the atmosphere advocates for Israel face. “Trying to prevent the audience from hearing what the prime minister has to say is in itself a form of delegitimization,” Raffel said.
This is not the first time young activists have disrupted the federation movement’s annual meeting. In 1969, the North American Jewish Student’s Network conducted a sit-in at the general assembly of Council of Jewish Federations, an organizational ancestor of the JFNA, to protest what was described as the Jewish establishment’s lack of attention to issues concerning young Jews. They were ultimately invited to offer their own speaker at the event.
This week, JVP activists attended G.A. sessions and panels, some as participants and some posing as members of the press. JVP paid for the tickets of those attending as participants.
Activists offered different rationales for their decision to disrupt the prime minister’s speech and undertake other actions at the G.A. Some spoke of a feeling of alienation from the Jewish community; others of an imperative to confront what they saw as injustice.
“I think I’m very much succeeding in practicing tikkun olam and derech eretz by standing up for the rights for all people,” said Hana King, 17, a freshman at Swarthmore College. “It such hypocrisy for these Jewish leaders that I grew up admiring to say that, you know, that the Holocaust was a tragedy but what we’re doing to [the Palestinians] is fine.”
“We have to get their attention somehow,” she said.
King was in the room during the disruption, but did not stand or shout.
Other young people at the conference, whose registration fees had been subsidized by the JFNA and other groups, said that they supported the federation’s emphasis on opposing the movement to boycott Israel. One McGill senior attending with MASA, a Jewish Agency for Israel-funded program that facilitates longer trips to Israel for Diaspora Jews, said that she appreciated the support Jewish groups were marshaling to combat Israel delegitimzation on campus. “I think its speaks wonders to be supported,” said Aily Leibtag. “It means a lot to me to know that they care about what’s going on for us.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.