As Netanyahu arrives in New York, anti-overhaul activists launch week of protests

Protesters to head to PM’s hotel in first of series of planned rallies as premier meets Biden and other world leaders at UN’s General Assembly

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

An anti-overhaul protest in New York City, July 27, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
An anti-overhaul protest in New York City, July 27, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul rallied outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s New York hotel and were set to hold demonstrations around the city on Tuesday, as the prime minister arrived to meet with US President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the UN General Assembly.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara landed in New York from California in the early hours of Tuesday, and were greeted on the runway by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog and Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan.

The expat activists and Jewish community members in New York held their first demonstration before dawn, gathering outside Netanyahu’s hotel in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Another protest was scheduled at the hotel later in the morning, when Netanyahu is expected to set out for the UN, followed by a larger rally in Times Square at noon.

A fourth protest will take place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the evening, as the prime minister attends an event at the iconic 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 expat demonstrators work with the protest movement in Israel, and they intend to complement the sustained mass rallies in Israel that have taken place since the coalition announced its divisive judicial overhaul package at the start of the year.

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by Israeli Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog (C) and Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan (R) in New York on September 19, 2023 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

On Sunday and Monday, leaders from prominent Israel-based protest groups, who are in New York to join the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, held speaking events in the city.

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.

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)

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.

A plane flies a banner protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he visits Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory on Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The New York protesters have made a practice of hounding coalition lawmakers while they visit the city, coordinating their efforts with a network of thousands in chat messaging groups.

The Israeli activists are also seeking to bring more non-Israeli US Jews on board with the protest activities by doing outreach to some local synagogues and online.

The Israeli activists are learning to navigate among US Jewish organizations, while Zionist non-Israeli Jews grapple with supporting Israel but not its government, without harming the country’s standing or stoking antisemitism.

Some US Jews, including leadership figures, have publicly opposed the Netanyahu government and joined protests since soon after the coalition took power.

In a break from tradition, American rabbis have spoken out against the Israeli government and Jewish institutions have supported activist events.

A June survey of US Jews by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that most were informed about the judicial overhaul, and that 61% said it would weaken Israel’s democracy. The majority of Orthodox Jews, however, believed it would strengthen democracy.

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