About 2,000 North American Jews made their way to northern Tel Aviv on Sunday evening for the opening of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, where, yet again, they encountered political protests against the government’s judicial shakeup.
While the protest din outside penetrated into the halls of Expo Tel Aviv, conference organizers were careful to support the freedom of expression without explicitly backing a specific position.
“To the protesters exercising their democratic rights, we see you, we hear you, and we are inspired by your love of Israel,” said Julie Platt, chairwoman of JFNA, in her comments opening the four-day conference.
Several conference attendees rose to give a standing ovation, after Platt referenced anti-overhaul protests.
“We have all been involved in a very important and public debate about Israel’s structure that has brought us back to the Declaration of Independence, 75 years ago,” said Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Doron Almog, standing alongside Platt. “This debate exposed how fragile our unity can be and how hard we must work to maintain it.”
Several conference participants said they backed the protests, now in their 16th week. Others, however, were confused or put off by the protesters’ tactics.
“The main message coming out of the Diaspora community is that we need compromise,” said participant Deborah Isaacs.
Mindy Stein, from Teaneck, New Jersey, said that her attempt to raise this with protesters gathered at the gates fell on deaf ears.
“We need to compromise — and what do they say? We need rights. There’s not a lot of compromise,” she said, as ongoing negotiations between the coalition and opposition have yet to make any reported breakthroughs. Teams met as recently as Sunday afternoon in the President’s Residence for talks.
Several protesters outside the gates were handing out flowers “for democracy.” One man politely declined to take a stem, to which a protester taunted: “What, are you against democracy?”
“No, I don’t want a flower,” he said, before making his way through the security checkpoint.
Four months into a fight that has consumed Israel’s collective consciousness, many locals are intimately familiar with various camps’ positions and slogans. Used to a hometown crowd, many of the protesters found their efforts were lost in translation.
Several of the protesters were holding signs emblazoned with the single word, “Shame.” Several conference participants mistook the word as being directed toward them, rather than toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
“It’s their right to protest, but I don’t have to support their message. I don’t even know what their message is,” said Isaacs.
In contrast, Rabbi Oshrat Morag was “excited” to receive a flower. An Israeli conference participant, she helps lead a Jewish pluralism and coexistence organization in Haifa.
Sharing that she herself takes part in anti-overhaul protests, Morag said that she is “absolutely” concerned for Israel-Diaspora relations, should the government’s proposals to weaken judicial checks on political power pass.
Conference organizers say several hundred Israelis are among the 2,000 conference participants.
A minority of these Israelis are protesters, a number of whom have purchased tickets to the gathering and plan to disrupt politicians backing the overhaul if they address the crowd.
In an apparent nod to planned protest efforts, large screens flashed a warning that the conference will eject people causing disturbances, shortly before Platt, Almog, and fellow senior Jewish leaders took the stage to open the gathering.
“Proper behavior must be maintained and the instructions of the organizers must be obeyed. Anyone who violates these rules will not be permitted to participate in the event,” the message read.
Netanyahu canceled his planned keynote address earlier on Sunday, citing scheduling issues. Protesters against Netanyahu’s government’s move to curtail judicial independence planned a large demonstration parallel to the speech this evening, a smaller version of which went ahead anyway.
President Isaac Herzog, whose office hosted negotiations between coalition and opposition representatives as recently as Sunday afternoon, was uninterrupted while speaking about the need for Jewish unity from the conference stage.
“There is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within,” Herzog cautioned.
On Monday, anti-overhaul protest leaders will have their own stage, through a morning breakout session formally placed on the General Assembly’s schedule.
Judicial shakeup champion MK Simcha Rothman will also be speaking on Monday morning, and protesters are expected to be disruptive. Rothman was interrupted while he spoke at a Jewish Agency conference earlier on Sunday.