'Only dialogue can turn crisis into growth'

Israel’s greatest existential threat is from within, Herzog tells Jewish Federations

Unlike other speakers at Tel Aviv confab, president does not acknowledge hundreds of protesters demonstrating against the judicial overhaul outside JFNA General Assembly

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

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly at Expo Tel Aviv on April 23, 2023. (Courtesy, Jewish Federations of North America)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly at Expo Tel Aviv on April 23, 2023. (Courtesy, Jewish Federations of North America)

Speaking in Tel Aviv before about 2,000 delegates of the Jewish Federations of North America, President Isaac Herzog advocated dialogue, but stopped short of acknowledging protests outside the venue over Israel’s controversial judicial overhaul by hundreds of demonstrators.

Herzog, who did say in his speech that “there is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within,” followed remarks by several dignitaries, including Doron Almog, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Julie Platt, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, who did address the overhaul and protests.

“To the protesters outside: We see you, we hear you and we are inspired by your love for Israel,” Platt said in her opening comments at the JFNA General Assembly at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, adding that the debate about the overhaul is proof of “how central Israel is to all of our lives.”

Almog also referenced the protests directly, saying they have shown “how fragile unity is, but also showed how robust Israeli democracy is.”

The hundreds of protesters outside shouted “democracy” and other slogans against the overhaul — which seeks to strictly limit the checks the judiciary has over the legislative and executive branches — through bullhorns and using vuvuzelas.

Amid mobilization by the protesters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday canceled his scheduled speech at the General Assembly. His office said that was due to scheduling conflicts but many observers, including at the GA, believed it was due to the protests.

Israelis protest outside the JFNA Conference in Tel Aviv, April 23, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The GA was moved to April from its usual fall schedule to coincide with Israel’s 75th anniversary. Several major conventions of Jewish organizations, including the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel, were also moved or convened especially to take place in Israel this month. Those events coincided with the culmination of a political crisis rooted in the dispute over the judicial overhaul, which is dividing Israeli society along ideological, socio-ecnomic, and ethnic lines.

Herzog made a direct reference to the overhaul, which he called “judicial reform,” adopting the government’s term for it, only to note that his office is mediating talks between its supporters and opponents.

The president — who has previously urged the coalition to “abandon” its legislative package, and issued an alternate framework that was rejected by Netanyahu — also made indirect references to the dispute over the judicial overhaul, saying that: “Within the abundance of our gifts, we can also acknowledge that there are some concerning trends in our peoplehood. Trends that cast a shadow on our joint future.”

He listed several general trends, including “gaps” between Jews and “shallow, superficial discourse.” Herzog then moved closer to naming the protests, saying: “The fierce debate over Israel’s direction in recent months is a striking example of the ways that alienation between different groups, and polarization that festers for years, becomes corrosive.”

Despite external threats, “I am convinced that there is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within: Our own polarization and alienation from one another,” he added.

“I believe that it is only through dialogue between us that we can possibly allow our moments of crisis to turn into moments of growth,” Herzog said.

Herzog announced that his office has developed “a brand new initiative called ‘Kol Ha’am — Voice of the People: The President’s Initiative for Worldwide Jewish Dialogue,’ which he described as a newly-launched global council for Jewish dialogue.

“You might call it a Jewish Davos: nonpartisan and apolitical, Voice of the People will be a collaborative forum. One that can hold and reflect the full and diverse range of Jewish voices. It will be a place where we can engage in serious, sensitive and strategic discussions on the most complex and pressing issues facing our people,” Herzog said. He did not specify the place, time and scope of the initiative.

The president’s speech celebrated Israel’s achievements despite dangers that were at times existential, and the contribution by Diaspora Jews, “and especially from North America,” ending his speech by wishing his listeners happy Independence Day in Hebrew: “Good luck to you. Good luck to us! Am Yisrael Chai! Happy 75th, our beloved State of Israel! Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach!”

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