Reporter's notebook

Overhaul or occupation? Smotrich trip dredges up Israeli-Diaspora rift at DC protest

Hundreds hold joint rally against far-right minister, but while US Jews use opportunity to highlight Palestinian plight, Israeli expats prefer to focus solely on judicial overhaul

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Jewish Americans and Israeli ex-pats protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Jewish Americans and Israeli ex-pats protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — On the face of it, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich managed to spark rare unity among Jews across large swaths of the political divide when hundreds gathered outside Washington’s Grand Hyatt hotel to protest his visit to the US and his speech at the Israel Bonds conference on Sunday evening.

Those braving the intermittent drizzling and near-freezing temperatures included nearly 100 anti-Zionists from the far-left Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now organizations, as well as a separate group over double in size made up of liberal American Jews and Israeli expats.

Then again, they were separate protests that rang around much of the hotel, as demonstrated by the Israeli flags on most of the west side and the Palestinian flags on the north side.

Even among the larger, pro-Israel demonstration, the liberal American Jews and the Israeli expats tended to bifurcate.

At one point, the former group found itself toward the front singing a song about world peace led by a yarmulke-wearing guitarist who had seemingly come straight from Sabbath services at her Reform or Conservative synagogue.

Meanwhile, many of the Israeli expats migrated to the back, repeating their own cheer of “De-mo-cra-cy,” which was ripped from the anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations back home.

Theirs was still a joint pro-Israel protest, with the sides sharing a bullhorn and cheering on each other’s speakers, even if they organized separately ahead of time.

But it wasn’t just the two subgroups’ differing accents that made them easy to differentiate.

Because while Smotrich’s visit was a hook for the Israeli expats to decry the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, the liberal Jewish Americans preferred to use the opportunity to also speak out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“When we talk about democracy, we also have to talk about occupation and Palestinian rights,” said Jill Jacobs, who heads the T’ruah rabbinic human rights group that co-sponsored the joint, pro-Israel protest.

It was not a message that would have played well at a parallel anti-judicial overhaul protest in Tel Aviv, let alone Jerusalem. Those who have sought to bring Palestinian flags to such demonstrations in Israel have been shunned by organizers, who have argued that they scare off more centrist and right-wing Israelis who otherwise might be prepared to join them.

But that minority of rebels in Israel who are determined to fold the Palestinian plight into the protests against the government’s effort to weaken the Supreme Court, makes up a much larger percentage of Jews in the US where roughly three-quarters vote Democrat and are more committed to a two-state solution.

T’ruah CEO Jill Jacobs addresses a protest against Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich outside the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Getting their priorities straight

That dissonance was demonstrated at a press conference several of the pro-Israel protest’s speakers held inside the Grand Hyatt shortly before the rally. That gathering featured business community leaders who warned of the economic risks posed by the judicial overhaul.

When speakers were asked whether the proposed legal shakeup should be allowed to piggyback onto protests on the Palestinian issue, Israeli expat Yonatan Striem-Amit, who serves as chief technology officer of the Cybereason cybersecurity firm, said, “it’s very important to separate the two issues.”

The protest against the overhaul “is not a political argument,” he maintained, contrasting it with the Palestinian issue. “This is about a regime coup that [the government is] trying to create.”

But Susie Gelman, who serves as chair of DC-based Israel Policy Forum and president of the Morningstar financial firm, disagreed.

“You can’t entirely separate the judicial overhaul from the question of what’s happening with Palestinians in the West Bank,” she said, arguing that Smotrich and other members of the hardline government are seeking to “neuter” the High Court of Justice so that it will no longer be able to protect Palestinian rights or rule against illegal annexations of West Bank land.

Offir Gutelzon, an Israeli expat and social entrepreneur, sought to strike the middle ground, arguing that the tent for protesters against the government was wide enough to include those on both sides of the political spectrum. However, preventing the implementation of the judicial overhaul still needed to be prioritized.

Israeli and American business leaders Ron Teicher, Yonatan Striem-Amit, Susie Gelman, Offir Gutelzon and Dany Bahar hold a press conference against the judicial overhaul at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“We have to save our Israeli democracy first, and only then we can move on and talk about [the Palestinian issue],” he argued

“Because if we don’t save Israeli democracy, it’s definitely going to [negatively] influence the discussion about the Palestinian problem,” explained Gutelzon, who helped found the UnXeptable group for Israelis protesting the overhaul abroad.

Divide and conquer

That difference in perspectives was acknowledged by participants at the rally later on, but some insisted that it actually made the protest stronger.

“Everyone has their issue that they care about and that brought them here. If, for the Reform Jews, what brought them are issues related to their religious practice, while for others it’s because of the Palestinians issue, that’s all completely fine. What unites us is a broad concern for human rights if the government’s plans are realized,” said Israeli expat Avner Cohen Zamir.

“I’m not protesting because of the occupation. I’m protesting for the future of Israeli democracy,” said another Israeli who asked to only be identified by his first name, Gilad. “However, the support of American Jews is welcome.”

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz took a similarly glass-half-full approach to the priority differences of the demonstrators. “The most important thing is that we’re all here together.”

“We’re here to talk about the variety of ways we’re grappling with an unprecedented moment in Israeli democracy,” she said. “I’m glad we’re able to do this alongside Israelis.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich poses with Israel Bonds members at their conference in Washington on March 12, 2023. (Bezalel Smotrich/Twitter)

Ironically, the demonstrators appeared to echo the message that was shared by an uncharacteristically unifying Smotrich on the other side of the Grand Hyatt walls.

“Despite all of the differences, despite the many colors that make up the Jewish mosaic, we are one,” Smotrich said. “We have common goals of tikkun olam [repairing the world], and each of us seeks to fulfill that goal from a different angle.”

“Together, I have no doubt that we will succeed,” the minister added in another line similar to what was heard from demonstrators outside.

“We will win!” the protesters chanted again and again before singing Hatikva and heading home.

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