Israel at 75'Zionism and Israel stir people up, and that's a good thing'

How Israel’s political crisis took center stage at a major US Jewish conference

With much at stake for Diaspora Jews in the proposed judicial overhaul, Jewish Federations of North America leaders welcome protests, and a pluralism of opinions, at their confab

Protesters against the government's judicial overhaul greet participants of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv, April 23, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
Protesters against the government's judicial overhaul greet participants of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv, April 23, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ MAAGAN MICHAEL, Israel (JTA) — About a dozen Jewish leaders from North America and beyond clustered at the edges of a courtyard on this kibbutz by Israel’s northern coastline, standing silent as the two-minute siren rang out in memory of the country’s fallen.

Afterward, young Jews from around the world, some of whom will soon enter the Israeli military, read memorial passages and led the crowd in the singing of Israel’s national anthem. The scene, emblematic of Diaspora support for Israel, delivered the kind of feeling that the Jewish Federations of North America hoped to evoke when it held its marquee conference in Israel this week and timed it for the country’s Memorial Day and 75th birthday.

It was also a stark contrast from the atmosphere at the conference a day earlier where — even as Jewish leaders emphasized unity in the face of adversity — it was hard to avoid the political strife over the Israeli government’s effort to significantly limit the Supreme Court’s power. A raucous session in the morning was filled with screaming, and other panels touched on hot-button issues such as Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews as well as human rights groups.

“We’re also living at a time of so many crises and so much painful brokenness,” Rabbi Marc Baker, CEO of the Boston area’s Jewish federation, said in a short address on Monday afternoon to the conference’s 2,000 attendees, while discussing the importance of Jewish learning. “It can feel like things are falling apart, like at best, as leaders, we’re just trying to hold things together.”

The drama did not exactly surprise organizers of the gathering, called the General Assembly, or GA, who had expected protesters to show up and even encouraged their cause. But it pointed to the challenge facing the Jewish Federations, which had hoped to put on a traditionally exuberant celebration of Israel despite the conflict rocking its streets.

Those traditional commemorations and festivities did happen, and sessions covered a range of issues, from racial diversity to philanthropy in Israel. But they were mixed in with anguish over the state of Israeli society, which some attendees and panelists portrayed in urgent terms.

Anti-overhaul protesters outside the opening of the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv, April 23, 2023 (Courtesy)

“For the first time, at Israel’s 75th birthday, a government is trying to fundamentally alter the definition of a Jewish state,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, said at the tumultuous Monday morning panel, referring to efforts to restrict immigration to Israel and other proposals.

He added, “If this cluster of changes, the coalition agreements, would be implemented, I’m not sure that in the 80th year of our national birthday, the GA will decide again to conduct its event here.”

The departure from business-as-usual was evident from the get-go, when hundreds of protesters came to the gates of the conference to protest a planned speech on Sunday night by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who canceled in the face of the demonstrations. Israeli President Isaac Herzog did speak that night.

Julie Platt, the Jewish Federations’ board president, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she found out about the cancellation earlier on Sunday. Netanyahu’s office told the staff of the Jewish Federations that day of the cancellation, and the news became public shortly afterward. Netanyahu did not reach out personally to Platt or to Eric Fingerhut, the Jewish Federations’ CEO, to let them know he would not be coming.

Julie and Marc Platt listen at a session of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on April 24, 2023. (Courtesy of JFNA)

“We were preparing for weeks and months for the opportunity to have here the duly elected prime minister,” Platt said on Monday. “We were disappointed that he wasn’t part of our celebration.”

Tensions peaked on Monday morning during a session where anti-government protesters repeatedly interrupted far-right lawmaker Simcha Rothman with shouts and chants, and in which Rothman and Plesner verbally sparred onstage. Multiple protesters were removed by security personnel, and the panel took an unplanned five-minute break to cool tempers.

“They’re our brothers, they support us,” said Erez Elach, who protested Rothman at the event, regarding Diaspora Jews. Elach is a member of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a group made up of military reservists opposed to the judicial overhaul.

Elach said he was protesting in order to honor Diaspora Jews who were killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. “We lost friends who served with us, who came from those same places,” he said.

Fingerhut told JTA that the protests against Rothman were “a taste of what’s happening in Israel today,” though he added, “I don’t think anyone benefits from that kind of disruption.”

“As the GA grew closer, we knew that the judicial reform issues and the divisions it’s creating in Israel would necessarily be a significant topic,” he said. “By the time we were finalizing our plans, we expected it to be a major issue, and it was.”

Protesters disrupt a discussion panel featuring MK Simcha Rothman at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 24, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

But he said that he still felt the conference conveyed the importance of celebrating Israel and its ties to global Jewry. “On Sunday night and Monday, we focused on Israel’s history and our contribution to that history. That was not overshadowed,” he said. The battle over the judicial overhaul, he said, “added an agenda item, but it didn’t detract in any way.”

Yizhar Hess, the vice chair of the World Zionist Organization, also said on Monday that things were going well — because of the arguments, not despite them. Hess pointed to the three large gatherings of establishment Jewish groups — the General Assembly, the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors’ meeting and the World Zionist Congress — each of which saw fierce debates or disruption stemming from the judicial overhaul fight.

“This week has been dramatically successful particularly because it’s been so turbulent,” Hess said directly after the session with Rothman. “Zionism and the state of Israel are a subject that stirs up the Jewish people and is at the heart of the argument. That’s a good thing. … Zionism is more relevant than ever, particularly because Jews are fighting over its character.”

Bucking its usual practice of not commenting on internal Israeli politics, the Jewish Federations has made its position on the overhaul relatively clear. The group issued a statement objecting to one of the overhaul’s provisions, praised a decision to pause the legislation, said it was “awed” by the anti-overhaul protesters and organized a “fly-in” earlier this year, in which federation leaders traveled to Israel to share their concerns about the effort with Israeli officials.

Israelis holding the US and Israeli flag protest outside the Jewish Federation of North America conference, in Tel Aviv, on April 23, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Deborah Minkoff, an executive board member at the Madison, Wisconsin, Jewish Federation, participated in the fly-in and said she had lobbied to exclude all politicians from the General Assembly stage. She attended sessions where anti-overhaul activists spoke and felt that being in Israel for the conference gave her an opportunity to stand with the protesters.

“I think it’s going to be easier to sell Israel to our community because of this fight for democracy,” she said. “As we articulate what it means to be a free, equitable, democratic society, I think it resonates with the community who has been critical of Israel in the past.”

Attendees gave a warm reception to Yair Lapid, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, whose easy manner suggested that he felt the crowd would be receptive to his words. “I’m happy to be here, unlike some others,” he said to laughter from the audience.

“Don’t give up on us,” Lapid told the crowd. “I know how many people here feel about this current government. I know it doesn’t represent your values. It doesn’t represent mine either. But this government isn’t all of Israel… Today, maybe more than ever, we need you to rally around us.”

Illustrative: Opposition leader Yair Lapid holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on April 9, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But not everyone at the conference was keen to protest. Beto Guzman, a Jewish professional who came to the conference from Helsinki, said the Finnish Jewish community tends not to protest Israeli policies because, given its small size, its involved members value having a positive relationship with Israeli emissaries in the country and do not want to blame them for the government’s policies. He also objected to protesters disrupting conferences, though he said the issues at the heart of the debate should be discussed.

“In Helsinki, we don’t really have any protests or anything like this, because the community is very small and everybody has their own relationship with Israel,” he said. “For us, that connection is very different. We really like the people from the Jewish Agency, their emissaries, and the embassy, they are very nice to us. So for us to put what is going on in the government on them would be unfair.”

Sandi Seigel, the president of Naamat Canada, a branch of a global Jewish women’s rights organization, said she was troubled by the raucous debate she saw at the World Zionist Congress, which had taken place at the end of the previous week. She particularly worries that young delegates to the congress, one of whom she recalled seeing crying, would leave disheartened by the fighting.

“It’s almost like people feel it’s an existential threat for Israel, and so you’re passionate,” she said. “But there used to be an ability to have healthy debate and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to agree on this, OK, but I respect your right to have your opinion. And I think some of that is gone.”

At the same time, Seigel does not feel that the General Assembly was too focused on the debate over the judicial overhaul, which she framed in existential terms.

“If you have something, and you don’t know, if this doesn’t get resolved, [whether] Israel will be Israel anymore, or it won’t be the Israel that I can live in — there are a lot of things to talk about, but if you don’t deal with that, you can’t talk about anything else,” she said. “Because there’s nothing left to talk about.”

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