Hundreds protest overhaul in New York as Netanyahu meets with world leaders

Israelis from an array of protest groups gather in Times Square and outside PM’s hotel after he arrives for UN General Assembly, meeting with Biden

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

Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City's Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN's General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City's Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN's General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Several hundred protesters rallied in New York City’s Times Square on Tuesday to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US for the UN General Assembly and meetings with President Joe Biden and other world leaders.

The demonstrators, mostly Israelis, carried Israeli flags that said, “Free in our land,” a line from the national anthem, and chanted, “Democracy or rebellion” and “shame” to the beat of a snare drum.

“If there won’t be equality, we’ll take down the government, you came down on the wrong generation,” they chanted, in a refrain from the protest movement in Israel.

Some of the demonstrators were expats living in the US, others adjusted existing travel plans for the events, and some came specifically to attend the protests. They represented an array of activist groups based in Israel who oppose the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, which aims to diminish the independence and power of the courts.

Opponents say the legislative package will undermine Israel’s democracy and rights, and threatens the country’s security, economy and international standing. Its supporters say it will rein in an activist court system and restore power to elected officials.

An activist with the Brothers in Arms veterans group, Lior Hadary, said the New York rallies were meant to send a message to world leaders that they should support democratic rights in Israel. He and other demonstrators said the movement was part of a global struggle in support of democracy.

“The fight against Bibi is one of the biggest fights for democracy in the world,” Hadary said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “It’s similar to the fight of Ukraine against Putin, it’s similar to the fight against Donald Trump here.”

“I believe this is one frontier in the same battle, the battle of democracy against populism, against dictatorship,” said Hadary, who finished his service in an elite IDF combat unit shortly before the coalition took power. “Since then I’m fighting for Israel again, but this time in the protests, in a civil way, not against enemies from outside, but enemies within.”

Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City’s Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN’s General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Netanyahu met Tuesday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, ahead of sit-downs with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other heads of state.

The New York demonstrators have made a practice of hounding coalition lawmakers during visits to the region. They aim to hold the line set by the protest movement in Israel, where government figures are hassled at public appearances, and force visiting ministers to discuss opposition to the judicial overhaul, ensuring they find no safe haven abroad from the political discord at home.

“It’s clear that it affects them, so we should push harder and hope that it cracks,” said Nir Ben-Tal, a protester with the Pink Front activist group.

The Israeli demonstrators, led by the expat activist group UnXeptable, have also been reaching out to non-Israeli Jews in the US.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and reform Zionism, said American Jews were increasingly getting involved.

“Very few congregations around North America did not speak about Israel this holiday season,” Weinberg said. “That hasn’t always been the case.”

Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City’s Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN’s General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“We are here not to protest Israel but to support democracy and to support and be in solidarity with the movements in Israel, because Israelis are asking us to do that,” Weinberg said after addressing the crowd. “We love Israel and we want Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state where all Jews can be welcome.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will speak at a rally outside Netanyahu’s hotel on Thursday.

Erel Margalit, the head of the Jerusalem Venture Partners venture capital firm, said he had met with investors concerned about the judicial overhaul’s economic impact during his trip to New York. Business leaders have warned that fears about instability will dissuade investment in Israel. The shekel has weakened in recent months and foreign investment has plummeted.

“When we have sovereign funds, when we have insurance companies, when we have international companies that want to continue to invest in Israel, we have to show a face that Israel’s democracy will continue,” Margalit said.

Protest organizers in New York have scheduled events throughout the week, starting with a rally at Netanyahu’s hotel at 3 a.m. as the prime minister arrived. Later in the morning, a crowd of demonstrators marched outside the hotel, accompanied by a truck with a billboard accusing Netanyahu of “destroying democracy.”

Israelis protest the judicial overhaul in New York City’s Times Square as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the city to meet with world leaders at the UN’s General Assembly, September 19, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

After the Times Square rally, another protest will take place Tuesday evening outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art as Netanyahu attends an event at the cultural center.

Rallies are also scheduled around the city throughout the week until Saturday, including events taking place during Netanyahu’s meeting with Biden and the premier’s speech at the UN. Other activist events are being kept under wraps, with organizers promising “surprises throughout the city.”

The main protest events in New York are organized by the expat activist group UnXeptable, which holds rallies and other events in dozens of cities around the US and other countries. A grassroots fundraiser for the week’s protests has raised over $30,000.

The Israeli Anti-Occupation Bloc and the dovish US rabbinic human rights group T’ruah are also planning demonstrations outside the UN and Netanyahu’s hotel.

The visit is Netanyahu’s first to the US since his hardline coalition took power late last year. He is accompanied by Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, as well as his wife Sara.

As he set off on the trip, Netanyahu drew harsh criticism from his opponents and fired up the protest movement by accusing demonstrators of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran.” A later statement from the Prime Minister’s Office claimed that Netanyahu meant that the protesters would be rallying alongside pro-PLO and pro-BDS activists, without mentioning Iran.

Ahead of his arrival in New York, Netanyahu met with Elon Musk in California. Israeli expats and local Jews demonstrated against Netanyahu throughout his visit, with dozens of demonstrators waiting for his convoy as it exited San Jose’s airport. Other protesters gathered outside his hotel and at the Tesla factory where he met with Musk.

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