Anti-overhaul protesters disrupt Economy Minister Barkat’s speech at NY conference

Activists shout ‘shame’ at Likud lawmaker as he delves into economic development plans at JPost event, the latest in a series of protests against visiting coalition members in US

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Anti-overhaul activists disrupt Economy Minister Nir Barkat at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York, June 5, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Anti-overhaul activists disrupt Economy Minister Nir Barkat at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York, June 5, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Israeli activists opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul plans disrupted a speech by Economy Minister Nir Barkat with cries of “shame” during a conference in New York City on Monday, the latest in a series of protests against coalition lawmakers in the city in recent days.

The protesters had been sitting as members of the audience at a Jerusalem Post conference in Manhattan.

As Barkat discussed his plans to develop the Negev region, the activists stood up and began to berate the minister from the crowd.

They chanted “shame” in Hebrew as Barkat continued to speak over them. Security then hustled around 10 activists out of the building.

“I was screaming and protesting Nir Barkat’s speech to tell him he’s destroying Israeli democracy,” protester Matti Shalev said. “A guy came out and told me to leave.”

“I turned around and started to leave and he was pushing me,” Shalev said.

Barkat and a number of other coalition lawmakers were in New York for the city’s annual Celebrate Israel Parade, held on Sunday. The activists have hounded the government members across the city and into New Jersey since they arrived in the US.

A handful of protests rallied at Barkat’s hotel at 6 a.m. as he arrived in New York several days ago.

The demonstrators are led by a network of Israeli anti-government protesters based in the US and other countries called UnXeptable.

Although Barkat had traveled to New York, he did not appear with Israel’s delegation in the parade on Sunday. Likud’s Ofir Akunis, the minister of science and technology, was also at the Monday Jerusalem Post conference but was not seen in the parade.

The activists have put pressure on the government ministers in the US, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told some of his party members to not march in the parade after coming under criticism for the cost of sending so many lawmakers abroad. Initial reports said up to 18 government members would attend, but only five were seen in the march.

The protesters have been holding weekly rallies for the past several months and have built out a network of hundreds in and around the city. Declaring a game of “hide and seek,” whenever one of the activists spotted a coalition member in public, they shared a photo and location in messaging groups, and other demonstrators were dispatched to the scene.

Some activists had been prevented from getting into Monday’s conference, including Shany Granot-Lubaton, a leading protest organizer for ex-pat Israelis in New York. Granot-Lubaton’s husband, Omer, was allowed into the entryway of the building, but was then dragged out by security.

Granot-Lubaton said she and other protesters had registered for the conference, but were disinvited shortly before it began.

Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer, Jerusalem Minister Meir Porush and Akunis also appeared at the conference, along with US officials, Jewish community leaders, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan and visiting Israeli groups, including a Jewish-Muslim emergency services team from the first responder group Hatzalah.

The protesters targeted Barkat because he was seen as a more mainstream member of the coalition, and because they fear for the legislation’s effects on Israel’s economy, under the purview of Barkat’s ministry.

“Barkat is actually a more moderate voice usually in the Likud party and this is why we’re all very much disappointed with him, because we all expected him to stop this madness of the judicial coup,” Granot-Lubaton said. “He keeps silent and he’s letting this craziness happen in our country.”

“We hope he will get to his senses,” she said.

The activists work together with the protest leaders in Israel and aim to support the Israeli rallies and express opposition to the Netanyahu government in the US. Some of the Israeli protest leaders traveled to New York for Sunday’s parade.

Protesters demonstrate against Israeli government ministers outside the Jerusalem Post conference in New York on June 5, 2023 (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

At the start of the conference on Monday, several dozen protesters denounced the coalition at a rally outside the building, holding Israeli flags and signs with the crossed-out faces of Israeli ministers.

“US Jews want a democratic Israel,” the signs said. Other placards read “No democracy with occupation,” and “Without the Supreme Court there is no equality” and participants chanted “shame” and “democracy” in Hebrew and English.

The crowd outside the event was led by progressive US Jewish groups and included some Israeli activists. Most rallies throughout the week against coalition lawmakers were led by Israelis.

In line with the US groups’ agenda, there was more of a focus on Palestinian rights than at the Israeli-led protests.

The head of the rabbinic rights group T’ruah, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, told the crowd that at the conference “there will be speeches by a number of ministers who support the destruction of Israeli democracy.”

“We’re here today, American Jews and Israelis, protesting for democracy because we care about the future of Israel, we care about everyone in that piece of land, both Jews and Palestinian,” Jacobs said.

Other speakers included leaders of New York Jewish groups.

They lashed MK Simcha Rothman for seizing a protester’s megaphone in New York on Friday, an incident that enraged the government’s opponents in the US and Israel, and Chikli for mocking US Jews at the Celebrate Israel Parade. The activists said Chikli was giving them the finger; he has said he was telling them to smile.

Hundreds of anti-government activists protested outside a conference staged by the Arutz 7 news outlet in New York on Sunday. They were also barred from entering that event.

With the series of protests winding down after the parade, Granot-Lubaton said the demonstrators had accomplished their goal of expanding the anti-government battle beyond Israel’s borders.

“I think the ministers, the entire government, they know now that we are, as we say, here and everywhere in the world. There is no place the ministers will come to in the entire world and they will have a peaceful, quiet vacation,” she said. “As long as this judicial coup is on the table, Israeli and Jewish communities around the world will fight against it wherever they go.”

Some protesters also planned to demonstrate against a second appearance by Barkat later on Monday at New York’s Yeshiva University.

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