'Wherever he goes, we’ll be there'

Overhaul protesters in US gear up for unprecedented action as Netanyahu visits

Israeli expats join up with American Jewish communities to demonstrate during PM’s trip to California, New York; Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: ‘The Jews of Israel are crying out in pain’

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)
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)

Protesters against the judicial overhaul are gearing up for unprecedented action in the United States, featuring cooperation between Israeli expats and the local Jewish community, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his ministers arrive in the country Monday.

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

The premier will land 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 protesting his trip to the US.

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.

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.

Protest groups said in a statement on Monday that they will hold rallies in California at the San Jose airport, at Netanyahu’s hotel, and at the Tesla Fremont Factory where the premier is due to meet Musk.

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

Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has gutted the platform’s moderation teams and has allowed antisemitic and hateful content to spike, and is feuding with the Anti-Defamation League.

On Sunday, Musk posted about the ADL that “the Soros organization appears to want nothing less than the destruction of Western civilization.”

Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros has long been a target of conservatives for backing progressive causes and politicians in the United States and worldwide, with many of the attacks echoing antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Musk’s comment is likely to further highlight the contrast between the growing concerns of American Jewry over his rhetoric and Netanyahu’s embrace of the tech billionaire and willingness to fly to California to meet with him.

Elon Musk departs the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Court House in San Francisco, Jan. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Benjamin Fanjoy, File)

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 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.

Earlier this week, activists projected a giant message onto the UN Headquarters building in New York, saying: “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 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.

Israelis in New York have started outreach to synagogue congregations, and top Jewish elected officials in the city have joined the local protests.

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

In her Rosh Hashanah sermon at Central Synagogue in New York, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl told her congregants that “the Jews of Israel are crying out in pain,” and said that the anti-overhaul demonstrators “protest in the name of their patriotism and their Zionism.”

Buchdahl called on American Jews to “really listen to Israelis,” saying they were “pleading for American Jews to get involved before it’s too late.”

While Buchdahl highlighted the legitimate concerns of those Israelis who support the overhaul, she urged congregants: “If you care about democratic rights, help preserve the only functional democracy in the Middle East.”

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl gives a sermon at the Central Synagogue in New York, September 15, 2023 (Screen grab/YouTube)

Activists have proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during previous visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to hound the lawmakers wherever they appear.

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

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.

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

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’ 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.

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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