Flag-waving protesters lash coalition lawmakers as NY holds annual Israel parade

Slimmed-down contingent of government representatives heckled over plans to reorganize judiciary as tens of thousands march through Manhattan in yearly display of solidarity

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

Marchers including Israeli activists in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Marchers including Israeli activists in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Protesters denounced coalition lawmakers who were visiting New York on Sunday for the US city’s Celebrate Israel Parade, a major annual event for the area’s Jewish community that was shadowed this year by discord over the Netanyahu government’s efforts to diminish the judiciary.

Despite the friction, the event was a significant display of American pride and solidarity with Israel, with Israeli flag-waving crowds streaming down Manhattan’s 5th Avenue for several hours Sunday, including Jewish community representatives, local and state leaders, Jewish day schools, activists and Israeli officials. Ahead of the parade, organizers said they expected 40,000 participants.

Also attending were at least five members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition: MK Simcha Rothman, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli, Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu and Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer.

Anti-government activists have hounded the lawmakers in and around New York throughout the week, focusing on Rothman, a key player in the judicial overhaul. Rothman also enraged the government’s opponents when he forcibly seized a megaphone from a protester in New York on Friday night.

Several dozen demonstrators heckled Rothman from the sidelines of the parade as he marched through Midtown, shouting “shame” in Hebrew and carrying signs reading “democracy for all” and “oppose Israel’s authoritarian government.”

After the march, hundreds gathered outside a nearby conference featuring the lawmakers, chanting “shame” and “democracy” and brandishing Israeli flags.

Distel Atbaryan applauded the parade and dismissed the demonstrators, saying, “It’s a huge, huge pride for me to be a representative of the Israeli government. It’s a marvelous day.”

She called the protesters “a joke.”

“They’re so lame,” she told The Times of Israel. “It’s bad for the left, not the Israeli government.”

Protests on the sidelines of the Celebrate Israel Parade are an annual occurrence but are usually led by anti-Zionist groups opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or the existence of the Jewish state. In contrast, activists on Sunday took part in the parade while also waving Israeli flags, saying they were marching in defense of Israeli democracy.

Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan at the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The protesters are led by a network of Israeli activists based outside Israel called UnXeptable that has been demonstrating against the government for months. Protest leaders from Israel bolstered their ranks this week for the demonstrations surrounding the parade.

The UnXeptable activists marched in the parade as members of the progressive group Ameinu. The contingent of hundreds wore shirts that said “Zionism = democracy” and “Marching for democracy.” Keeping in line with the rules of the parade, they did not denounce the government or the visiting ministers, only chanting in favor of democracy and civil rights during the march.

US Congressman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat who is Jewish, joined the group, saying he was “proud to march and fight for Israel’s democracy.”

The head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Gideon Taylor, defended the activists’ right to protest following the incident with Rothman on Friday. UnXeptable had demanded that the parade organizers disinvite Rothman and condemn him over the incident.

“We believe the protesters have a right to protest. That’s an important part of democracy,” Taylor told The Times of Israel. “As to who’s here, the Knesset designates what Knesset members come to participate in the parade. What’s most important for us is that there are voices here from across the spectrum of Jewish life, people with different perspectives and that those voices are here and heard at this parade and I believe today we have that.”

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

Which ministers would attend remained an open question until the start of the parade. The Israeli consulate in New York and the organizers said they did not know which lawmakers planned to show up as the march began.

Estimates for how many lawmakers would attend this week put the figure as high as 18, but Netanyahu’s office reportedly requested there be fewer due to criticism over the expense of sending so many politicians abroad. Ministers Nir Barkat and Ofir Akunis did not appear to be with the Israeli government delegation at the parade, despite visiting the US.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and the state’s attorney general, Tish James, all marched in the parade alongside US Jewish leadership. They did not appear to have associated with the coalition lawmakers in attendance.

The parade maintained its celebratory atmosphere despite the political friction. The marchers included schoolchildren doing choreographed dances, floats with musical performers led by Matisyahu, entertainers on stilts and marching bands.

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

The crowds on the sidelines were overwhelmingly supportive. A handful argued with the activist marchers, and several dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators rallied in one location but were largely ignored.

After the march, the anti-government protesters converged for a large rally outside a midtown hotel that was hosting government members for a conference. With the constraints of the parade lifted, they denounced the lawmakers and expressed fears over Israel’s direction.

“Light arrives just before the darkest hour,” Yiftach Golov, a visiting protest leader from Israel, told the crowd. “We will not be divided, we will not be defeated, failure is not an option.”

In a Hebrew rhyme, the crowd mocked Rothman for snatching the protester’s megaphone on Friday.

“Poor, poor Rothman, even in New York he’s freaking out. Rothman, Rothman calm down, the megaphone is not so bad,” they sang.

Rothman defended himself on Saturday, saying the protesters were “blocking our path, stomping on my wife Hannah’s foot and cursing, in particular death wishes.” There was no video of those alleged incidents.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, center, at the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Inside the conference, organized by the Besheva group, Rothman continued to defend himself, telling the crowd that “to follow a couple for twenty blocks is not democracy but an attack. A personal attack on me,” according to a transcript released by the organizers.

A group of protesters dressed as characters from “The Handmaids Tale,” a motif from the rallies in Israel representing fears of a dystopian future. Others had signs calling for “freedom, democracy, equality.” A few in the crowd carried pro-Palestinian messages.

Protesters have been hounding the lawmakers throughout the week, declaring a “game of hide and seek” to disrupt their visits to New York. Members of the network of over 1,500 activists in the area announced a lawmaker’s location whenever they were spotted around the city, and protesters were dispatched to the scene. There have been a series of rallies held throughout the week at appearances featuring the coalition members.

Ahead of the parade, the dovish US rabbinic rights group T’ruah said it would boycott the parade “to protest extremist ministers” and show solidarity with demonstrators in Israel. The group criticized JCRC-NY, saying this year’s parade does not achieve the organization’s stated goal of fostering Jewish unity.

Marchers chanting in support of democracy in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City, June 4, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“This is the wrong year for a simplistic call to ‘Celebrate Israel,’ as extremists in a government push forward a judicial coup, and as Israelis continue to take to the streets protesting the anti-democratic ideologies of the far-right government,” said T’ruah’s CEO, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who attended the protest after the march.

Rothman decried the US demonstrations on Thursday.

“To the leaders of the protest against Israel’s democratically elected government, I say today: Is it not enough that you worked to damage critical unity among our fighting forces, and have both incited to and committed violence in Israel?” Rothman said.

He called on President Isaac Herzog “to condemn the organizations who stand ready to destroy the State of Israel’s most important relationship with world Jewry just to gain points in a domestic political struggle.”

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