'We are standing for Israel, not against Israel'

Judicial overhaul protests go global with rallies to be held in US, Canadian cities

Expat group says ‘foundations of Israeli democracy are being challenged’; solidarity event criticized for Shabbat timing, but organization says it is to sync with Tel Aviv event

Thousands of people protest against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Thousands of people protest against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JTA —  Protests by Israelis against their country’s new hardline government are spilling beyond the country’s borders this week, with rallies planned by Israelis in New York City and elsewhere.

The rallies are being convened by a group called UnXeptable, a group formed by Israelis living abroad in 2020 amid protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was returned to power again late last year. Those protests focused on the criminal charges against Netanyahu.

Now, UnXeptable is launching rallies to augment those that have taken root across Israel over the last month against Netanyahu’s new government, which includes ministers who want to greatly expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank, curb minority rights and strengthen Orthodox control in matters of Jewish religious status as well as a controversial judicial overhaul.

“The foundations of Israeli democracy are being challenged,” said Offir Gutelzon, 48, a tech executive who is UnXeptable’s founder based out of San Francisco.

The first of the international protests is scheduled for Saturday at noon in Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

The timing on Shabbat drew criticism from some on social media, where the event was being promoted.

Gutelzon said the timing was chosen to sync with the Israeli protests, which take place there immediately after Shabbat and last week drew more than 160,000 people in several cities. Most were in Tel Aviv, but growing protests are also taking place in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“We call on Jewish Americans, and anyone who cares about Israeli democracy, to join us,” Gutelzon said. “We care about Israel. We care about Israeli Jewish democracy. We want it to survive and flourish.”

Other rallies in North America are planned for Boston, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver.

The protests have taken particular aim at proposed legislation to overhaul the country’s judiciary, a priority of a new government whose members insist that the Supreme Court wields too much power.

Those reforms have alarmed even moderates who strongly support Israel, including US Rep. Jerry Nadler and Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. Both wrote essays this week saying the moves could weaken Israel’s democracy by giving lawmakers veto power over the Supreme Court.

Gilad Paz, an Israeli expat who has lived in New York since 2005, said he is planning to attend the New York City rally to show solidarity with his family who have attended protests in Tel Aviv that have drawn over 160,000 people.

“Everyone here that wants to be part of these demonstrations, it’s us saying that we support our friends, our families and our neighbors who are still in Israel, who need to know that they are being heard outside of Israel,” said Paz, who served in the IDF in an entertainment unit and now performs in America as part of an Israeli music cover band.

Paz said he was particularly troubled by antipathy toward non-Orthodox Jews within the new government.

“We are back to a position where all American Reform, Conservative and progressive Judaism doesn’t even exist as far as that government is concerned,” he said. “I’ve always towed this line of being Israeli and loving my family and the people there, but… since I left Israel 17 years ago, I’ve only seen it get worse.”

Israelis protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government that his opponents say threaten democracy and freedoms, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 21, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israelis living abroad are presumed to be more left-leaning than those in Israel, although the community is diverse. The Israeli-American Council, the largest US affinity group for Israeli expats, was funded in large part by the late Republican megadonor and Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, although its leadership insists its membership is politically diverse. At IAC’s annual summit this week in Austin, Texas, public events surrounding Israel’s new government mostly involved Israeli leaders — including President Isaac Herzog and the new Diaspora affairs minister, Amichai Chikli — assuring conference-goers that Israeli democracy is strong and that the new government is heeding the concerns of Jews abroad.

Gutelzon, who previously served in the Israeli army and has founded two tech startups, also emphasized that the protests are not anti-Israel protests. They have “nothing to do with people who are saying that they want to annihilate the right of Israel to exist,” he said. “We are standing for Israel, not against Israel.”

Gutelzon emphasized that American Jews and Israelis abroad who observe Shabbat and cannot make this week’s protest will be able to attend ones scheduled for several cities February 5. Those will take place in the evening, after Shabbat has ended.

“There is no reason to exclude anyone,” he said. “This is supposed to be inclusive, with people from the left, the right, Hasidic, religious, secular, whoever — whoever supports Israeli democracy and wants to save it is welcome.”

The New York event page for the protest on Facebook currently has close to 200 people interested in the event.

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