Interview'We had no idea there’d be so much political tension'

JFNA Chairwoman Julie Platt ‘inspired’ by protesters despite Israel confab disruption

Anti-overhaul demonstrators likely chased away Netanyahu and crashed a key panel, but to the US Jewish leader, they’re also a testament to democracy

Canaan Lidor

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

Illustrative: Julie Platt speaks to participants in the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2023. (Courtesy of JFNA)
Illustrative: Julie Platt speaks to participants in the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2023. (Courtesy of JFNA)

It was Julie Platt’s first major event in Israel as the head of the Jewish Federations of North America — and it did not go according to plan.

Platt, a banker who last year replaced businessman Mark Wilf at the helm of the umbrella body representing hundreds of Jewish communities, was in charge of moving the organization’s General Assembly, which takes place in Israel every five years, from its scheduled date in the fall this year to coincide with the celebrations of Israel’s 75th independence day this month.

“We obviously had no idea that there’d be so much political tension when the date was moved,” Platt said, referencing the political and societal crises around the judicial overhaul being led by the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned as prime minister following the elections in November.

The tensions spilled over into, and at times even polarized and overshadowed, the GA, which brings about 2,000 American Jews to Israel. One of the largest Diaspora events held in the Jewish state, it was supposed to be a show of unity with Israel and between all Jews. But the protests overshadowed those aspects in media reports about the event, and also on the ground at times.

Platt has no regrets, she told The Times of Israel. “I’m feeling the diametric opposite of regret because not only did we experience the full spectrum of the emotion of Memorial Day in Israel and immediately thereafter celebrate Israel’s 75th, but we also witnessed a huge testament to the vitality of Israel’s democracy,” she said.

Protests outside the GA’s main venue, the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, likely led to the cancellation of Netanyahu’s planned speech at the GA, whose opening traditionally features an address by Israel’s prime minister. But even after the speech’s cancellation on Sunday, which Platt called “very disappointing,” protest by hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators persisted, invading at least one session of the GA, which descended into a shouting match with multiple forcible removals of hecklers by security.

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 disappointed by the fact that we were unable to learn and be educated in that session in the way that we had planned,” Platt said about that session on Monday. Repeated, loud and passionate disruptions made it very difficult to follow that Q&A featuring Simcha Rothman, a lawmaker from the far-right Religious Zionism party who chairs the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and is a key promoter of the judicial overhaul.

Protesters accused Rothman of being an “enemy of the Jewish People” and “fascist” among other allegations, for promoting the transfer of some powers from the judiciary to the legislative and executive branches. He defended the plan, whose opponents say risks turning Israel into a dictatorship, as an attempt to balance what he said was a disproportionately powerful justice system. But the shouting and sloganeering prevented the speakers from developing their ideas.

The headline-grabbing, and unprecedented protests at the event “weren’t an accurate representation of the predominant emotions felt and learning gained, by the attendees at the General Assembly,” Platt said. Happening at the same time as the disrupted Q&A with Rothman was another session, “a conversation led by our CEO, Eric Fingerhut, with the leaders of the protest movement so that we could understand and learn from them,” Platt said.

The session with Rothman “was just one moment in one session that predominated the news, but was not at all the predominant emotion of those who were here,” she said.

Still, the protest was an inescapable presence during the GA’s two days of sessions. For one, the noise that the protesters tirelessly made with drums and vuvuzelas immediately outside the convention center was an always-audible hum at best, and a cacophony nearer to its source. For another, multiple sessions headlined with subjects outside the judicial overhaul – including the one with Rothman, whose official topic was Israel’s Law of Return – veered right into the overhaul in their actual content.

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)

Platt was the only speaker during the GA’s main event who addressed the protesters in her speech during the opening event, which featured an address by President Isaac Herzog and had been scheduled to feature Netanyahu.

“To the protesters exercising their democratic rights, we see you, we hear you and we are inspired by your love of Israel,” Platt said in her speech, prompting thunderous applause.

This reference reflected the conflicted attitude of many GA participants who were sympathetic to the protester’s cause yet at the same time disapproved of some of their aggressive tactics, which included infiltrating the event as participants, only to stage disruptive protests. At the Rothman Q&A, multiple participants asked the protesters to stop disrupting the event. Some later said they were disappointed and saddened by the spectacle.

The disruptions came not from North American delegates but from “members of the broader Israeli community who had registered to be part of the GA and not from the North American GA participants,” Platt noted. Ultimately, though, “the protests were a sign of devotion to democracy,” Platt said. “I acknowledged the protesters because that devotion is something to be embraced and admired.”

The overhaul dispute is exposing profound socioeconomic and ethnic divisions that are deeply worrisome to many Israelis, who fear they are indicative of an intrinsic incongruence in a society that has relied on unity among Jews, at least, to deliver successful responses to grave external threats.

Yet the acrimoniousness of the debate in Israel is neither unique nor surprising, Platt said. “Honestly, we’re living in polarizing times, both in the United States and in Israel. So there are disruptions, protests, marches — all the things that we see here, we’re seeing also there.”

Drivers stand still in Tel Aviv on April 18, 2023 as sirens blare for two minutes marking Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in memory of the six million Jews killed during World War II. (Jack Guez / AFP)

Platt, who has visited Israel dozens of times, does not share fears that these phenomena portend any major breakdown. Asked whether she believes that Israeli society will make it out intact of its current crisis, she answered with a confident: “Of course I do.”

After speaking with Herzog, who has been trying to mediate between the pro and anti-overhaul parties to work out a compromise, “I think that almost everyone here, on both sides, is operating out of ahavat Israel,” Hebrew for “love of Israel.” Platt added: “I do pray and feel that the majority of the citizens of Israel want to find a way to compromise. And I pray to God we will.”

Ultimately, though, none of what Platt had experienced as the big moments of the GA were about the judicial overhaul, she said.

“I’d never before experienced a [memorial] siren in Israel,” said Platt, referencing three annual minutes of silence for Memorial Day (one on the eve, and two the next morning) – during which the whole country grinds to an impressive halt, including in traffic, on turnpikes, in trains, at construction sites and even in hospitals. Israel also marks Holocaust Remembrance Day (a week before Memorial Day) with a one-minute siren.

“Being a part of this collective and powerful act of remembrance was a profound experience,” Platt said.

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