'We're waiting to greet him. In the air, on land and at sea'

NY Israeli activists, a headache for visiting ministers, gear up for Netanyahu at UN

Demonstrators plan series of events to protest prime minister’s appearance at General Assembly and meetings with world leaders, as activist network in US continues to expand

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

Anti-overhaul protesters in New York City, April 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Anti-overhaul protesters in New York City, April 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — As Defense Minister Yoav Gallant walked to a meeting with the UN secretary-general last month, an anti-overhaul activist who had entered the UN on a guided tour confronted the minister, telling him he needed to “protect our democracy.”

Across the street, several dozen Israelis held a protest, chanting “We’ll never give up” to the beat of a snare drum.

The next day, a protester spotted Gallant taking a jog in Central Park, chanted “democracy” at him, and reported back to protest organizers. That afternoon, a group of demonstrators rallied outside Gallant’s hotel, compelling visiting US officials to enter through a side door. Two activists made their way into the hotel and confronted him in the lobby.

The expat activists have proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to hound the lawmakers wherever they appear, ensuring that they find no safe haven abroad from the political discord at home.

The still-expanding protest movement is now gearing up for demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government ministers who are visiting New York for the UN’s General Assembly next week.

“It’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime situation right now where Netanyahu, an indicted prime minister, is coming to speak at the UN while the country is falling apart, so everyone is coming,” said Offir Gutelzon, a co-founder of UnXeptable, the expat network leading the US protests.

Protesters rally outside the United Nations while Defense Minister Yoav Gallant holds a meeting inside, in New York City, August 28, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The protests in New York started soon after the government unveiled its divisive plan to curb the judiciary’s power at the start of the year, complementing the sustained mass protests taking place in Israel by demonstrators who say the legislative package will undermine democracy and human rights. The plan’s supporters argue it will rein in an overly activist court and restore the balance of power between the branches of government.

At first, small crowds of Israelis and American Jews gathered for weekly rallies in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, waving Israeli flags and listening to speakers decry the coalition’s plans. The numbers swelled, with some of the events drawing crowds in the hundreds. Protests have taken place in dozens of other cities across the US, and in other countries.

The protesters have broadened their network and diversified their tactics in recent months. The New York activists mainly organize via WhatsApp groups that connect around 5,000 Israelis and between 1,000 and 2,000 American Jews, said New York organizer Shany Granot-Lubaton.

The protesters’ high-water mark so far came in June, as a cadre of coalition lawmakers visited for New York City’s Celebrate Israel Parade. Demonstrators rallied outside their appearances across the five boroughs and in New Jersey, and marched in the parade.

Declaring a game of “hide and seek,” whenever one of the activists spotted a coalition member in public, they shared a photo and location in messaging groups, and other demonstrators were dispatched to the scene.

One Friday night, protesters followed MK Simcha Rothman down a street, shouting slogans at him. The frustrated far-right lawmaker abruptly turned and wrestled a megaphone away from one of the protesters, then scuffled with demonstrators who tried to grab the device back.

The incident, caught on video, led to a harsh criticism of Rothman, a police complaint and an inquiry by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, which were both dismissed. The megaphone later made its way to the main protest stage in Tel Aviv, stirring up the crowd of thousands.

New York protest organizer Shany Granot-Lubaton, center, in New York City, June 2, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Granot-Lubaton said the activists target visiting ministers to hold the line set by protest leaders in Israel where coalition lawmakers are consistently hassled in public.

“Wherever they go they have people protesting, so we’re trying to not disappoint our family and friends back home and to do the same here, and they won’t get this kind of free vacation from the protests,” she said.

The activists also aim to force the ministers into difficult conversations about the government’s policies.

“We want them to not feel comfortable to speak. We want their crowds to ask hard questions,” she said. “We don’t want to give them the stage.”

Anti-government protesters on the sidelines of the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Next week marks Netanyahu’s first visit to New York since his coalition took power. Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman are also expected to attend, and protesters have obtained information about the ministers’ hotels and itineraries.

Protest leaders from the Israel-based activist groups Brothers in Arms and Kaplan Force are hosting events in New York City and New Jersey on Sunday. Rallies are planned around the city throughout the week, including at the UN, the Israeli consulate, in Times Square, and outside Netanyahu’s hotel. Other events are being kept under wraps, with organizers promising “surprises throughout the city.” A fundraiser for the activists’ events has raised $25,000.

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

The activists got started earlier this week by projecting a message against Netanyahu onto the UN Headquarters building.

The video, which was not coordinated with the UN, said, “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli democracy.”

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)

“The slogan projected on the UN building wall is just a small taste of what is awaiting the indicted defendant Netanyahu on his visit to NYC. The fight for Israeli democracy is global,” the protesters said in a statement. “We will be waiting to greet him. In the air, on land and at sea. The whole world will know that Netanyahu is a liar. We will not allow him to disgrace Israel and deceive world leaders with his speeches.”

Netanyahu is set to meet UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, US President Joe Biden and other world leaders at the General Assembly, despite pressure on Biden and Guterres to eschew 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.

Ahead of his UN visit, Netanyahu will meet Elon Musk in San Francisco, as the tech entrepreneur feuds with the Anti-Defamation League amid accusations he is amplifying antisemitism on his X social media platform. Israeli protesters in San Francisco have planned a series of events to harry Netanyahu during the visit, said Gutelzon, a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

“Any pretense of business-as-usual is a deliberate cover-up of the attempted transformation of our nation into a messianic autocracy,” Gutelzon said of Netanyahu’s visit, comparing the protest plans to the “days of disruption” staged by demonstrators in Israel over recent months.

A banner reading “NYC loves Israeli democracy” at the annual Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The UnXeptable protests are mainly focused on the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul, while other events tie in Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. The Israeli Anti-Occupation Bloc is planning a rally next week outside Netanyahu’s hotel focused on settler violence and the occupation, as well as democratic rights. The dovish US rabbinic human rights group T’ruah announced protests of its own outside the UN and Netanyahu’s hotel.

Dr. Eric Caplan, an expert in Jewish social activism and the chair of the department of Jewish studies at Montreal’s McGill University, said he had been mainly tracking the protests in Eastern Canada, where UnXeptable has made recent inroads as the protest movement continues to expand.

Caplan said targeting Israeli ministers “is effective in telegraphing to them the level of distress that the current government has triggered among Jews abroad.”

“Historically, Israeli ministers could expect to be met with open arms when they traveled abroad,” Caplan said.

Protesters in Montreal joined with UnXeptable ahead of a rally earlier this month, after initial reluctance to sign on because the group was viewed as too confrontational. Many Canadian Jews, like the US protesters, have been concerned about fueling anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment, said Caplan and Montreal protest organizer Natalie Amar.

“It’s a feeling that we’re part of a larger global Jewish movement,” Amar said of the decision to join. “Our country’s democracy is at stake and we’re showing love for Israel by standing up.”

Anti-overhaul protesters in New York City, March 8, 2023. The activists are dressed as characters from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to symbolize a dystopian future, borrowing a motif from the protest movement in Israel. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Gutelzon said groups affiliated with UnXeptable have held rallies in around 40 cities in North America, with American Jews increasingly taking part, as both Israelis and non-Israeli Jews in the US adapt to the fraught political landscape. The Israelis 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.

The Israelis in New York have started outreach to some congregations, and in a break from tradition, some American rabbis have spoken out publicly against the Israeli government and Jewish institutions have supported activist events. Top Jewish elected officials in New York have also joined the rallies.

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.

Gutzelon said rabbis the group has been in touch with are expected to discuss the political crisis over the High Holidays.

“This fight is their own fight as well as ours,” Granot-Lubaton said of US Jews. She argued that the Netanyahu government could end Israel’s status as a safe refuge for world Jewry by harming the military, and that its religious elements will make the country unwelcoming for many US Jews. The government is also stoking anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment abroad with its hardline policies and inflammatory rhetoric, she said.

“We want them to join us and they are starting to more and more,” she said. “We want them to know they have a place in this conversation, an important one.”

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