Protest leaders take the stage at JFNA, say overhaul is ‘tearing up social contract’

Anti-judicial overhaul activists reach out to participants at the North American Jewish confab: ‘We are fighting our most critical crisis since 1948’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Israeli anti-judicial overhaul protesters participate in a panel at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly conference. L to R: Eric Fingerhut (JFNA president), Yiftach Golov, Ronit Harpaz, Asaf Agmon, Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. (Jewish Federations of North America/AG)
Israeli anti-judicial overhaul protesters participate in a panel at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly conference. L to R: Eric Fingerhut (JFNA president), Yiftach Golov, Ronit Harpaz, Asaf Agmon, Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. (Jewish Federations of North America/AG)

Given an English-language platform in front of American Jewish community officials, protest leaders said Monday they believed that the fundamental social contract between the state and its defenders was being destroyed by the government’s attempt to remove judicial checks on its own power.

Israel’s political and social battle over the limits of government power have colored the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) conference, which opened Sunday night with some 2,000 participants ahead of Israel’s 75th independence celebrations.

“This coup is tearing apart the sacred contract between the Jewish state and its defenders,” said Yiftach Golov, one of the leaders of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a reservist organization allied with the national anti-overhaul protest movement. “These are not ordinary times. As the people’s army, we believe it is our responsibility to protect Israel from any threat,” but “this time, it’s not because of any external threat.”

Ronit Harpaz, CEO of Endoron Medical and a leader of the tech industry’s protest movement, said that the uncertainty that judicial overhaul injected into the market “is enough to crush our startup ecosystem.”

With protests outside the GA’s gates and erupting within its walls, and several speakers’ remarks touching on the national disunity, the judicial shakeup is front and center in the minds of those attending the confab, an annual event that is held in Israel once every five years.

The din from the protests outside the venue spilled into the session room itself, where emotions were similarly running high.

Several participants applauded the protesters, while others said they were ignoring real gripes raised by Israelis who feel that public power is not equitably distributed.

Endoron CEO Ronit Harpaz speaks at a demonstration in Ramat Hasharon, February 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

“What has begun as a debate about legislative policy has unfortunately revealed a much broader set of social concerns,” said Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of JFNA, told the session.

But others said they were most concerned that the debate over the overhaul was having a destabilizing effect on Israeli unity.

“This is going to become the most divisive and most dangerous time in this country, not because of what our government is doing,” but because of “what we are doing to each other,” said Ariella, an Israeli conference participant. Her comments echoed President Isaac Herzog’s warning to the GA on Sunday night, in which he said Jewish disunity is an existential threat.

Yet Harpaz, who is part of an independently organized team that attended public Knesset committee hearings on legislation that would put the appointment of judges under political control, said that the damage is already being done to the economy.

“Investors are willing to bet on you when they feel the rules of the game are clear and can be enforced,” said the startup co-founder. “What we have now is uncertainty.”

“Fast forward to 2024: The concept of startup nation is dead and with it, everything that is good in this country,” she continued.

Harpaz said that in the first quarter of 2023, almost no new startups were registered in Israel.

“It is not an exaggeration. I can tell you it’s already happening,” she said.

Israelis holding the US and Israeli flag protest outside the Jewish Federation of North America conference, in Tel Aviv, on April 23, 2023 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Asaf Agmon, a retired brigadier general who is part of the security leadership-linked protest organization Ein Matzav, similarly said Israel is at a potentially pivotal moment, and implored Diaspora Jewry to “get involved.”

“We are fighting our most critical crisis since 1948. You, the Diaspora, have a role. This time we are not fighting our enemy beyond our borders. We’re fighting from within,” he said.

On Monday night, Israelis will begin to observe the national memorial day, remembering fallen soldiers and victims of terror. The somber event has long been a day for national unity, but Agmon echoed politicians when he said that the current strife may shatter the “sacred” nature of the event.

In past days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been joined by opposition leaders in counseling against politicizing remembrance ceremonies, and several politicians have bowed out of events after their presence was deemed controversial to bereaved families. Firebrand National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir still plans to attend a ceremony on Tuesday, though, despite criticism that he has supported Jewish terror, never served in the military, and is often a catalyst for political unrest.

Tying tears in the social fabric to the upcoming memorial holiday, Agmon recalled an incident in which he heard someone tell a bereaved mother that “I hope you bury your second child,” because the mother had an anti-Netanyahu placard.

Parallel to the protest leaders’ appearance on their own stage, a panel featuring Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the overhaul, was disrupted by activists.

Thousands of Israelis protest against the planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on April 22, 2023. “The rotten one,” reads the banner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s picture. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Between Friday and Sunday, protesters also organized efforts to greet attendees at the airport and hotels in order to open conversations about the current judicial debate.

On Thursday, right-wing activists are planning a large rally in support of the judicial shakeup at the gates of Jerusalem’s Knesset. However, there was no organized effort for overhaul proponents to rally at the GA.

“It is important for us to remember, of course, that the same passions that are being exhibited out on the street below us, the same depth of feeling that the speakers have, are also held by people having opposing views,” said Fingerhut. “There are people in Israeli society who have felt left out by previous systems of governance, and are also trying to make their voices known.”

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