'He should spend time uniting the nation, not dividing it'

‘Netanyahu tears Israel apart’: Anti-overhaul protesters hound PM as US visit begins

Rallies greet PM at San Jose airport, hotel, meeting with Elon Musk at Tesla offices; local Jewish figures pan ‘outrageous’ likening of protesters to PLO and Iran

David Ginsborg (L) protests outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hotel in San Jose, September 18, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
David Ginsborg (L) protests outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hotel in San Jose, September 18, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

SAN JOSE, California — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his US tour Monday in the shadow of relentless, noisy protests against him staged by Israeli expats and local Jews opposed to his government and its judicial overhaul plan.

The premier is making a long-awaited visit to the US — first to California where he met Elon Musk, and then to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where he will meet with US President Joe Biden.

The premier landed in San Jose amid a growing outcry over comments he made ahead of his departure, in which he said demonstrators against him were “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their protests of his trip.

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).

Over a hundred protesters awaited Netanyahu’s convoy as he exited San Jose’s airport. The demonstrators waved Israeli flags, blew horns, chanted “Shame!” and held signs that read “Save our Start-Up Nation” and “Netanyahu tears Israel apart.”

Dozens of protesters also greeted the premier outside the Signia by Hilton San Jose hotel, where he was staying, sounding horns and sirens.

A similar display was held outside the Tesla Fremont Factory as the premier was meeting Musk inside for a live-streamed talk that touched on artificial intelligence, antisemitism, Iran, and the judicial overhaul.

David Ginsborg, executive director of Temple Beth El near San Jose, lambasted Netanyahu’s earlier verbal attack on the protesters.

“It’s outrageous, it’s simply outrageous,” he told The Times of Israel. “The man has no basis for saying this. We are supposed to be the light unto the nations, and instead we’re becoming like the rest of the Middle East.

“I fight for Israel, an Israel that’s a democracy, religious pluralism. Netanyahu does not represent that,” he continued, arguing that the protests were pressuring Netanyahu to search for consensus.

“I want him to sit down and meet with the other side,” Ginsborg said. “Meet and build consensus.”

Protesters rally outside Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits with businessman Elon Musk on September 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“Every Israeli and American citizen has the right to demonstrate for a country that is both democratic and Jewish,” said Nathalie Landesman, director at Stanford University Hillel. Netanyahu “should spend his time uniting the nation and not dividing it.

“I don’t think the protests help Israel’s standing in the world, but what harms Israel’s standing are actions of the Netanyahu government and the evil people he has gathered around him,” she added.

An anti-overhaul protest group representing tech employees announced Monday that it had acquired the online domain netanyahu.org and made it into a website with “vital information about the government of incitement and the judicial overhaul.”

“Instead of the false propaganda Netanyahu is trying to market to the world and to Israelis, the site will have facts about his racist government,” the group said.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, prepare to board a plane for the US early Monday, September 18, 2023. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Bay Area protesters, led by the Israeli activist group UnXeptable, had earlier announced that Israeli-American and Jewish communities would be demonstrating together, wherever Netanyahu went.

“UnXeptable, together with the Israeli-American and Jewish communities of the Bay Area, are ready to show Netanyahu that he is not welcome here as long as he strives to turn Israel into a dictatorship and ruin the unique US-Israel alliance,” the statement read.

“Wherever he goes, we’ll be there to show him our support for a just, equal, and democratic Israel,” the activists said.

Ahead of Netanyahu’s arrival in California, activists from UnXeptable projected “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi” and “Netanyahu is a dictator on the run” onto the side of the infamous California jail on Sunday evening.

In addition, “Save our Start-Up Nation” was projected onto a number of key buildings in San Francisco.

Netanyahu met Musk amid accusations the tech billionaire is amplifying antisemitism on his X social media platform, formerly Twitter.

After his trip to California, Netanyahu will fly to New York, where he is set to meet Biden, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and other world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, despite pressure on Biden and Guterres to cancel the meetings.

A US official told the Axios news site that Netanyahu was relegated to meeting Biden at the UN, and not the White House, partially due to concerns among Biden aides that thousands of Israelis and US Jews would protest in Washington.

Rallies are planned around New York throughout the week, including at the UN, the Israeli consulate, in Times Square, and outside Netanyahu’s hotel.

Other protest events are being kept under wraps, with organizers promising “surprises throughout the city.”

A grassroots fundraiser for the activists’ events has raised over $30,000.

A protest vigil with a rotating group of demonstrators will be staged outside Netanyahu’s hotel for around 80 hours in total, said New York organizer Shany Granot-Lubaton.

In addition, protest leaders from the Israel-based activist groups Brothers and Sisters in Arms and Kaplan Force hosted events in New York City and New Jersey on Sunday. The protests were also featured in a segment on CBS’s flagship “60 Minutes” on Sunday evening.

In an image provided by activists on September 11, 2023, a message protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the UN is projected onto UN Headquarters in New York City. (Courtesy)

Last week, activists projected a giant message onto the UN Headquarters building in New York, saying: “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli democracy.”

Luke Tress contributed to this report.

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