NEW YORK — Around 2,000 protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul rallied Friday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside UN headquarters in New York City, as he delivered a speech to the General Assembly.
The demonstration culminated a week of protest activities against Netanyahu while visiting the US for the annual UN gathering, and appeared to be the largest demonstration against the judicial legislation held outside Israel since the government announced the legislative package at the beginning of the year.
The Israeli-led crowd included many non-Israeli US Jews and filled a plaza across from the UN with Israeli flags bearing the slogan “free in our land,” a line from Israel’s national anthem.
They carried signs that said “democracy or rebellion,” “protect Israel’s democracy,” and “history has its eyes on you.”
Drummers from the Pink Front Israeli protest group led the crowd in chants of “We’re not afraid,” using the feminine form in Hebrew to highlight alleged threats to women’s rights, “This is what democracy looks like” in English, and “We won’t give up” in both languages.
When news arrived that Netanyahu had taken the stage at the General Assembly, the crowd broke into chants of “democracy.”
US Jewish leaders including Elliot Cosgrove of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue and Amy Spitalnick, head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, addressed the crowd, along with Israeli protest leaders.
Representatives of Israeli activist groups were in attendance including the Brothers in Arms veterans group, the Anti-Occupation Bloc, academics and high-tech workers. US groups included the dovish rabbinic rights group T’ruah, which led a prayer ahead of the protest.
“This democratic crisis is both one of the scariest and one of the most hopeful moments in Israel’s history,” said T’ruah director Rabbi Jill Jacobs.
“Terrifying because of the real risk of dictatorship and fascism, and also hopeful because the uprising among both Israelis and among Jews in the US and around the world has been the most extraordinarily hopeful thing that I’ve seen in my political life,” she said.
Some conservative groups have come out against the anti-Netanyahu protests in the US, and around a dozen pro-Netanyahu protesters gathered opposite the main demonstration.
They chanted “64 mandates,” referring to the coalition’s majority in the 120-seat Knesset, and “their money will not help you.” Netanyahu and his allies have alleged that the protest movement is funded by outside sources, without providing evidence. Organizers in New York launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $30,000 for this week’s activities.
“Leftists are traitors,” the Netanyahu supporters chanted at the protesters.
“We very much support democracy and the Israelis elected democratically Bibi Netanyahu, so sorry that these people are upset that they lost but a democracy is a democracy,” said Netanyahu supporter Hillary Barr, adding that she opposed demonstrations in the US.
“If you want to protest in Israel, 100%. But Americans, New Yorkers don’t understand the nuances and all they’re seeing is Jew against Jew, and all this does is it foments antisemitism,” Barr said.
Protest organizers in New York have said their protests are motivated by patriotism and Zionism, and that their public support for democratic rights and equality projects a positive image of Israel.
The US Jewish groups Orthodox Union and Am Echad, an affiliate of the Agudath Israel of America Orthodox umbrella group, have both issued statements condemning the protests in the US.
On Thursday night, several dozen pro-Netanyahu demonstrators led by the right-wing Zionist Organization of America rallied outside Netanyahu’s hotel.
The anti-overhaul demonstrators have hounded Netanyahu throughout his US trip, holding rallies attended by hundreds earlier this week in Times Square and outside a meeting between Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden. Protesters also held a series of events in California as the prime minister visited for a meeting with Elon Musk earlier in the week.