'The unheard are finally making their voice heard'

At Jewish Agency summit, visitors from Diaspora sound alarm on judicial overhaul

In an unprecedented fashion, protesters partially disrupt Board of Governors session with right-wing coalition MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the overhaul legislation

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Protesters demonstrate against Israel's judicial overhaul, in front of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Board of Governors meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Protesters demonstrate against Israel's judicial overhaul, in front of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Board of Governors meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Noticing an unmanned entrance to a conference room at the Tel Aviv Hilton, Ofra Kaplan strode confidently toward her goal: disrupting the meeting between Jewish Agency bigwigs and Simcha Rothman, a Knesset lawmaker and architect of the country’s judicial overhaul.

Kaplan, a lawyer from Karmiel who describes herself as a Haredi activist for the left-wing Meretz party, was among at least three protesters who, after protesting with other demonstrators armed with bullhorns and drums atop a nearby overpass, infiltrated the hotel lobby on Sunday to “trigger a protest inside the room” where Rothman was speaking, as Kaplan described her mission.

Kaplan never made it in the room: The door she breezed past led to another door, which opened only from the inside. Walking out of the first door, she feigned concern over a nonexistent, lost cellphone so that staff would not suspect her of trying to gatecrash.

Security intercepted several of her fellow would-be protesters. Visitors to the Hilton, including accredited journalists, were briefly denied entrance unless they could prove they were welcome at the Hilton by the organizers or members of the Board of Governors meeting.

Kaplan, 51, did not have to worry about instigating protest. Multiple delegates of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel were way ahead of her, blowing whistles, clapping, booing, and using Purim noisemakers to prevent Rothman from speaking.

This protest, which is unprecedented at a Board of Governors meeting, is part of a broader response in recent days by individuals serving in bodies of several major Zionist Diaspora organizations — which are holding summit meetings in Israel this month — to the controversial policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday, Netanyahu canceled his scheduled speech before the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America due to what his office said were schedule constraints connected to Israel’s 75th Independence Day this week, but which many observers believe was over the planned protests against him.

The protesters were mostly liberal-leaning members of the World Zionist Organization, JFNA, and the Keren Hayesod philanthropic group, which make up the majority of the Jewish Agency’s 300-odd Board of Governors members, whose meetings Sunday were closed to the media. At least some of those in the room who did not participate in the protest supported it.

“For the past three days, since I landed in Israel, I’ve been walking around with a sick feeling,” said Talia Lidar, a JFNA delegate to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “Hearing those protests inside the room helped manage that feeling.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Rothman said that those “who wish to undermine the sacred connection between the Jewish Diaspora and the State of Israel and the Israeli people, by spreading disinformation against the Israeli government and its various policies… will not succeed. Disagreement is of course legitimate. But we won’t let anyone divide us.” Amichai Chikli, the Diaspora affairs minister, also spoke at the event.

Lidar is one of about 3,000 Jews, many of them American, who arrived in Israel for extraordinary events planned years in advance by Jewish groups to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary. Because of the political realities here, those celebratory events coincided with a culmination of a political crisis over the judicial overhaul, which goes much deeper than a dispute over the balance of power.

The protests inside the room died down eventually, although some delegates remained standing in silent protest while others left the session, the topic of which was the judicial overhaul that Netanyahu’s government is promoting, despite waves of protest at mass demonstrations since January. “Unfortunately, Rothman got to speak,” Lidar said.

Opponents of the plan, which seeks to transfer some of the judiciary’s powers to the legislative and executive branches, say it risks eroding democracy because it would result in a subservient judiciary. The plan’s advocates say it enhances democracy and accountability by correcting what they say is a creeping overreach by the judicial powers.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman attends the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The protests at the Board of Governors’ meeting are the opening shot in a new level of involvement by Diaspora Jews in the debate, said Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who attended the meeting, even though he is not a Board of Governors member.

“What we witnessed here was the unheard, Diaspora Jews, finally making their voice heard,” said Bergman, a Reform rabbi and a former cabinet minister in his native Argentina. “I think it is the beginning of a new willingness to make that voice heard because we deserve it here in Israel, even though we are not citizens or residents.”

An affluent country with a plurality of voices on every conceivable subject, “Israel at 75 is old enough to acknowledge, if it seeks to really be the center of Jewish peoplehood, that Diaspora voices also need to be heard here — not only as observers, but in its governing bodies,” Bergman said. “I think it’s time for a Diaspora constituency in Knesset.”

Another part of protests against Rothman specifically is his style, which critics say is authoritarian, when it comes to running the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, which he heads, Bergman said.

“If Diaspora Jews had representation, and if they were able to express themselves through that representation, then we wouldn’t see situations like today,” Bergman said, as hundreds of delegates of Jewish organizations left the Hilton for the Expo Tel Aviv – International Convention Center for the opening of the JFNA General Assembly.

Kept at bay by police and security, about 20 protesters holding bullhorns and chanting about democracy added to the usual cacophony of hundreds of American Jews trying to find their buses to the conventions center. “It’s messy, it’s painful, but it could be the beginning of a new and improved reality for the Jewish people,” Bergman said.

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