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Even without Netanyahu, protesters find plenty of targets at American Jewish conference in Israel

The disruptions surrounding the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly hinted at a resurgence of liberal Zionism, while highlighting many setbacks

TEL AVIV – As the largest annual conference of American Jewish leaders convened here in Tel Aviv on Sunday, it was at times hard to distinguish the protesters from the object of their protest.

Hundreds of people with banners reading “GA 23, speak up for Israeli democracy,” stood outside the convention hall, forcing the 3,000 people attending the event to run a gauntlet of pounding drums and screeching whistles in order to enter. But once inside, those same convention-goers gave Julie Platt, chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, perhaps the largest applause of the night when she spoke to the protesters from the podium, saying: “We see you, we hear you and we are inspired by your love of Israel.”

By Monday morning, though, Platt was in the uncomfortable position of watching from the front row of a panel on the Law of Return as security guards hauled half a dozen protesters out of the room and stripped them of their conference badges.

“We tried to have the opportunity to learn from many people on many sides of the issue,” she said after the panel. “Unfortunately, it was disrupted.”

Platt and other leaders of the JFNA have been trying to navigate a fine line as they host the annual conference known as the General Assembly on the eve of Israel’s 75th birthday — and in the midst of mass protests against the Israeli government for its proposals to reduce the judiciary’s power. They rejected calls to disinvite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the opening session, but after he canceled his Sunday evening appearance, nobody mentioned the head of state during the ceremony that went on in his absence.

Protesters had threatened to shut down the freeway en route to the convention center and to interrupt his remarks. Netanyahu also declined to send a video message, which several conference attendees said they would have disrupted.

You could not hear the drums, whistles or pro-democracy chants inside the venue, where speakers stood in front of a video screen shaped like a Star of David with the slogan “One past. One future. One people.” But attendees could hardly have missed that the speeches strayed from the spirit of simple celebration. 

“We have all been involved in a passionate and public debate about Israel’s very structure,” Doron Almog, chair of the Jewish Agency, acknowledged to the crowd. “These debates expose how fragile our unity can be and how hard one needs to work to maintain it.”

A protester holds a flag during the opening ceremony of the Jewish Federations of North America’s conference in Tel Aviv. Photo by Jewish Federations of North America

This General Assembly has had an unusually politicized air. The delegates have been egged on by the Israelis who have led the anti-government protests, many of whom have been frustrated for months that their American peers have failed to come out more forcefully against the judicial overhaul.

“We’ve come here to tell them, ‘You have to join us,’” said Brian Milliner, who was waving an Israeli and American flag outside the convention center where federation delegates were gathering. “You’ve got to help us end this madness.”

In an interview before the conference, its co-chair, Jeffrey Schoenfeld, was adamant that the protests not be allowed to dictate the conference’s program.

“They didn’t sign up because they want to be part of whatever political turmoil is going on in Israel,” Schoenfeld said on Thursday, referring to the attendees. “They signed up because they want to be part of the joy of celebrating Israel’s 75th anniversary.”

That’s not always how it felt on the ground.

Protests from within

Without Netanyahu speaking at the event, the far right Knesset member who sponsored the judicial plan that would remove the Supreme Court’s power to review laws passed by the Knesset and give it sway over judicial appointments became the main target of protesters at the conference.

They packed into the room where that lawmaker, Simcha Rothman, was to speak on Monday, some standing with flags, others turning their backs on him and some shouting and using noisemakers. Federation leaders made valiant efforts to calm the room, at times succeeding only to see Rothman and the panel’s two other speakers join the fray.

After several fiery exchanges with Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Rothman suggested that Plesner leave the stage. “If you want to protest, maybe go down and join the protest,” Rothman said.

Later, Alex Rif, an advocate for Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, stood up from her seat on the stage and picked up a poster imploring Rothman to reverse the government’s decision to end fast-track immigration for Jews from Russia and Belarus.

“They are stuck there and they join the army and they die in the front,” she told Rothman. “Please, please let our people in.”

The raucous session was the second in two days in which Rothman sparked ire. A Sunday afternoon meeting of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors at a nearby hotel devolved into heckles and jeers because of his appearance on a similar panel as part of the agenda.

When Rothman tried to speak, several members of the board itself began shaking groggers, the noisemakers used on Purim to drown out the villain’s name.

Lea Mühlstein, a Reform pulpit rabbi in London and a member of the organization’s executive board, was one of the loudest protesters, blowing a whistle while holding up an Israeli flag and a gay pride flag. Almog, the agency chief, resisted calls from some in the room to have Mühlstein hauled out — “There is supposed to be some kind of authority,” an exasperated Rothman muttered at one point — and she agreed to continue her protest in silence.

“I kind of hoped that they would have carried me out of the room or brought security over,” Mühlstein said afterward. “I didn’t feel like it was my place to hold hundreds of people hostage in a room when nothing could happen.”

At one point, Ami Dror, a technology executive and Netanyahu’s former security director, appeared at the door of the Jewish Agency meeting, chanting “demokratiya.”

And Josh Weinberg, head of the Reform movement’s Zionist wing — who had stood with an Israeli flag in silent protest — later asked Rothman: “Are you willing to risk the U.S.-Israel relationship and also a $3.8 billion security relationship?”

Rothman quickly found himself attacked not only for the the judicial changes, but for a number of controversial proposals the coalition government has promoted, including measures that could limit immigration to Israel for those who only have a Jewish grandparent, and allow the Orthodox rabbinate to decide which foreign conversions the state would recognize.

“You are hijacking the Zionist dream,” Daryl Messinger, former chair of the Union for Reform Judaism, told him. “You are literally canceling millions of Jews.”

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, leader of the Conservative movement, said he could not perform a funeral or officiate at a wedding in Israel without facing harassment.

“The only thing that protects my rights is a strong court system,” Blumenthal told Rothman. “What prevents this from becoming Hungary, Poland or Turkey?”

(The Zionist Organization of America was a rare voice defending Rothman during the comment period, with Liz Berney, the group’s director of research, saying that the Israeli supreme court has undermined Israel’s security.)

Uneven progress by protesters

But there were limits to the impact that American protesters, many of whom were affiliated with the liberal Jewish denominations and organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women, seemed to be having in Israel.

Last week, progressive members of the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem had banded together to pass a series of resolutions defending an independent judiciary as well as religious pluralism and LGBTQ+ rights. But their conservative opponents managed to indefinitely postpone final votes on the resolutions via parliamentary tactics.

American Jewish leaders ignored calls to disinvite Rothman, the judicial overhaul architect, who spoke at three major gatherings in four days — the GA on Monday, the Jewish Agency Sunday and the Zionist Congress on Friday, when he was escorted out by the police as protesters shouted “shame.” 

And Netanyahu refused on Sunday to rule out nominating May Golan, a lawmaker who has said she is “proud to be racist,” as consul general in New York, despite overwhelming criticism from American Jewish leaders. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform movement, declared that Golan is neither “thoughtful, diplomatic” nor “morally credible.”

In some ways, the flurry of activity by Jewish liberals in Israel just shows how much ground they have lost in recent years. The center-left delegates were a minority at the Zionist Congress in part because they were outflanked in the last elections by a new Orthodox slate.

Outside of the nod toward protesters, the General Assembly’s opening festivities showed no leftward drift. Brooke Goldstein, a right-wing activist who has claimed that Palestinians don’t exist, appeared in a feel-good video about visiting Israel. Israel’s diaspora minister, who told the U.S. ambassador to “mind your own business” after he called for consensus on the judicial overhaul earlier this year, was received as an honored guest. 

And in his keynote address, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the last Labor Party leader to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu, was reduced to proposing the creation of a “Jewish Davos” to solve turmoil related to Israel.

At Sunday’s Jewish Agency panel, the person sitting opposite Rothman to represent the opposition to judicial reform was a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, the nationalist party once itself considered beyond the pale because its leader supported stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship.

Erika Rudin-Luria, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was added to the panel at the last minute to offer a diaspora perspective on the reforms. She was unsparing in her criticism, saying the court overhaul “undermines the great project that is Zionism.”

But in making her case, Rudin-Luria found herself invoking a controversial law passed five years ago that designated Israel as the nation-state of Jews and removed Arabic as an official language — a measure that the federation system called “a step back for all minorities” when it passed.

“The 2018 ‘nation-state’ law promised that Israel is the land of all Jewish people,” she said. The current court overhaul and proposed changes to the Law of Return, though, are “a complete contradiction of that law and a slap in the face to world Jewry.”

Still, the confrontational stance of otherwise stalwart American supporters of Israel seemed to be shattering taboos. As Rudin-Lurai concluded: “The days of telling American Jews we want you to love us, but from over there, are over.”

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