Activists gear up for chance to bring 3,000 visiting US Jews into anti-overhaul fray

With Federation General Assembly set to kick off, groups gather at airport and hotels to explain why Diaspora Jews have a stake in thwarting the government’s proposed changes

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Angling to discuss the country's ongoing judicial shakeup, Israeli activists greet arriving passengers, Ben Gurion International Airport, April 21, 2023 (Courtesy Ben Gurion Airport Ask Me About Democracy Team)
Angling to discuss the country's ongoing judicial shakeup, Israeli activists greet arriving passengers, Ben Gurion International Airport, April 21, 2023 (Courtesy Ben Gurion Airport Ask Me About Democracy Team)

The arrival of over 3,000 North American Jewish community leaders to Israel for a large conference has afforded groups protesting the government’s plan to diminish the judiciary the chance to press their case and gain the support of an influential Diaspora community.

While protest organizers are careful to avoid saying their goal is to get conference attendees to pressure the American government into intervening against the shakeup, they say they embrace the face-to-face opportunity to explain to American Jews why they should take an active role in opposing the domestic policy reforms of a foreign country.

“They should understand that they are, by definition, part of the Jewish state and they have a role to play in shaping the future of this country,” said Yiftach Golov, one of the leaders of the Brothers and Sisters in Arms protest group, which represents military veterans as part of the constellation of associated organizations against the judicial overhaul.

Critics say the moves, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government

“We want people to be able to go home and say ‘this is what’s happening in Israel,'” said Ami Dror, a protest activist who previously oversaw Netanyahu’s security during his first term as premier in the late 1990s. “We understand something that Hungary, Poland and Turkey didn’t understand in time,” he said, pointing to three countries which saw anti-democratic power grabs by leaders in recent years.

Hoping to personally convey these messages to attendees of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel at 75 General Assembly, protest organizers are sending activists to greet them at the airport, at hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and plan to stage demonstrations at the conference itself.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s keynote speech at the conference is set to be met with a large protest, and sessions with overhaul champion MK Simcha Rothman and Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli are similarly expected to be demonstrated against.

This effort is running parallel to the protest’s main thrust to engage Israelis and pressure their government to stop changes that will strip the judiciary of its independence. Its hallmark event is a Saturday evening protest on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street thoroughfare, entering its 16th week this weekend.

Tens of thousands of people protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation during the Passover holiday in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

In late March, Netanyahu put the overhaul drive on hiatus in response to rapidly intensifying protests to allow for compromise talks with the opposition on the outlines of the plan. Limited discussions have been held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, though no tangible progress has been reported.

The Knesset is scheduled to return from its month-long recess on April 30, with a law to put judicial appointments within political control, one part of the legislative package, ready to be passed within days.

Throughout Friday, waves of English-speaking volunteers were deployed across Ben Gurion International Airport, as well as several prominent Tel Aviv hotels, in what organizers called “welcoming committees,” rather than protests.

“We’re here and we’re welcoming them to the democratic, Jewish State of Israel and that ‘we’re still a democracy,'” said Mor Shamgar, who is in charge of a group of activists deployed at the airport. That last bit, she said, “alarms them.”

Like Shamgar, activists deployed at hotels are wearing shirts emblazoned with “ask me about Israeli democracy,” armed with leaflets, Israeli and American flags, stickers and information on walking groups to Kaplan Street for a large protest planned on Saturday night. Several have offered to be available for talks on demand on the sidelines of this week’s conference.

But the activities have also drawn censure from some Israelis passersby, who have heckled the group by telling them that “you’re hallucinating,” and that “we need the reform.”‘

Standing outside of Jaffa’s swanky The Setai hotel, Max Moss said that some Israelis have yelled, “shame” or “why are you embracing the Israeli flag for this cause” at him.

But he also recalled engaging a Canadian couple that “was very interested to hear what’s going on.”

Israeli activists stand outside of The Setai hotel, angling to discuss the country’s ongoing judicial shakeup, Tel Aviv, April 21, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

While the proposed changes have elicited near-unprecedented protests nationwide, as well as loud grumblings of concern from abroad, many on the right continue to advocate for its passage, arguing that the moves will restore a balance of power skewed by out-of-control activist jurists. Many critics of the overhaul agree that reforms are needed, but argue that that the government’s plan goes too far.

Despite the extensive coverage of the issue and ensuing protests in Israeli and international media, several protest organizers said they feared that Jews abroad do not understand the full sweep of changes, their potential to transform Israel’s system of governance away from democracy, and the way they can tangibly affect Diaspora communities.

“I don’t think people are really aware of what’s going on in Israel,” said activist Louise Geva, a resident of Kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud who stood outside of Tel Aviv’s David InterContinental hotel. “People who have arrived for the convention have landed in the middle of a country that’s going through open heart surgery,” she said.

Dror said he was surprised to find in personal conversations with Jewish leaders that many did not fully understand the extent of the changes pursued by Netanyahu’s coalition of moderate and extreme right politicians along with two ultra-Orthodox parties. He claimed the policies being weighed would curtail Diaspora Jews’ access to Israel, as well as how they would be treated within the state.

“Jewish communities around the world will be affected, anyone who isn’t ultra-Orthodox will be a second-class Jewish person,” he said.

Far-right and religious coalition parties have put forward proposals to tighten definitions of Judaism for the purposes of immigration to Israel, as well as to allow for gender-segregated public events and for private businesses to discriminate against customers, on the basis of religious belief.

Ultra-Orthodox Shas has also already rolled back planned liberalizations of the kosher food certification market and to the municipal rabbi appointments process.

The parties say the moves are in line with what they claim is the agreed-upon status quo regarding issues of religion and state.

Shas party member Michael Malkieli at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We need the Diaspora Jews, we need their help. It’s a crucial point in time, right before Netanyahu and his extremist partners change the Israeli regime from a democracy to a dictatorship,” said political activist Yigal Rambam, who is involved in organizing demonstrations alongside the General Assembly.

In response to requests to rescind Netanyahu’s invitation to speak at the conference, the JFNA released a statement in which it reaffirmed its calls for political parties “to negotiate and to compromise under the auspices of President Herzog.”

“As we arrive in Israel for the General Assembly, we note that the Prime Minister’s negotiating team has been meeting in good faith with the opposition under President Herzog’s guidance for several weeks. While we cannot foresee the outcome of the negotiations, we commend all the political leaders who are participating directly and through their representatives,” the statement read.

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