‘Sounding the alarm’: Progressive Jews decry Netanyahu government at New York rally

Jewish groups protest outside Israeli consulate in Manhattan against judicial overhaul, West Bank policies, and to show solidarity with demonstrations in Israel

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

Progressive protesters rally against the Israeli government in New York City, February 21, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Progressive protesters rally against the Israeli government in New York City, February 21, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Around 200 protesters opposed to the government’s judicial overhaul rallied outside the Israeli consulate in New York City on Tuesday in a display of solidarity with demonstrators in Israel and a statement to the Israeli government and US Jewish groups.

The crowd, which also spoke out against plans to expand West Bank settlements, gathered in light rain in midtown Manhattan bearing Israeli flags and signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic with slogans including, “No democracy with occupation,” “Democracy for all” and “Resisting tyrants since the pharaoh.” Organizers led the protesters in religious songs and attendees conversed in both English and Hebrew.

The rally was organized by the Progressive Israel Network, an alliance of twelve organizations that advocate for human rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The group includes leading leftist Jewish organizations T’ruah, J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and New York Jewish Agenda.

“We’re doing this in solidarity with the Israelis who have been out on the streets at this point for almost two months,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of T’ruah.

“We’re seeing right now there’s an extremist government in Israel that is taking really unprecedented steps that will have a very long-term and dangerous impact on Israeli democracy,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel.

The demonstration came on the heels of a rare statement by the Jewish Federations of North America calling to scrap part of the judicial overhaul being pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, underlining consternation among Diaspora Jews over the right-wing legislative push. Critics say the moves will hollow out checks and balances underpinning Israel’s democratic system of governance, though supporters counter that it will place needed curbs on untrammeled judicial powers.

Jacobs said demonstrators sought to show the Israeli government the extent of opposition to the moves among American Jews, and also show legacy US Jewish groups that have been reluctant to speak out that there are American Jews who want more action against the coalition’s plans.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs at a protest against the Israeli government in New York City, February 21, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Speakers at the rally repeatedly referred to the harm they believe the new government will do to Israel’s democracy, to the Palestinians and to the US-Israel relationship, and decried Netanyahu and his far-right partners Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

“We’re sounding the alarm because we care so deeply about the state and the people of Israel, who are our family, our friends,” Jonathan Kopp of J Street told the crowd. “But of course this anti-democratic wave has its most harmful impact on our Palestinian family, friends and allies.”

“To be pro-Israel in 2023 means standing with the hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in Israel to defend democracy,” he said. “To be pro-Israel means working to prevent the nightmare for both Palestinians and Israelis of outright annexation and permanent conflict.”

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, the city government’s highest elected Jewish official, called on the Democratic party, including US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to take a harder stance against the new government.

“They are sabotaging the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that has inspired Jews like us for over a century,” Lander said. “Democrats who care about Israel like me, but from President Joe Biden on down have to hold the Netanyahu government to account.”

“President Biden and Secretary Blinken have to recognize that times have changed. The Democratic party cannot continue to toe the AIPAC line, we cannot continue to write a blank check to an increasingly authoritarian regime,” Lander said. “That support has to be tied to respecting the rules, honoring democracy, acting democratically and respecting rights, and there have to be consequences for not doing so.”

New York City Comptroller Brad Lander at a protest against the Israeli government in New York City, February 21, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Jacobs said the new government will strain ties between Israel and the Diaspora, but that the main concern is “the actual human beings on the ground who are now going to be living in a state that is increasingly a theocracy that’s moving toward fascism.”

“The biggest losers are going to be the Palestinians who are living under occupation who are now going to have to deal with more and more settlement expansion” and other hard-right policies, Jacobs said.

She added that while progressive US Jewish groups speaking out often draw negative attention for wading into domestic Israeli affairs, there should be more awareness of the activities of organizations pushing Israeli policy toward the right, including the Hebron Fund, Friends of Ir David, the Kohelet Policy Forum and Ateret Cohanim.

“We must stand with those who are working to protect and strengthen the rights of the non-Orthodox in Israel, of Israeli and Palestinian workers, of women in Israel, of the Israeli LGBTQ community, and indeed of all in that country,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee. “We must stand with those who speak out against violence and provocation, on both sides, and with those who seek to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with fairness, justice, dignity and security.”

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, near the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 20, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

In Israel, tens of thousands have taken to the streets weekly to protest the government’s judicial overhaul, making up some of the largest demonstrations seen in the country in years. In New York, a protest group led by Israeli ex-pats and temporary residents has been holding weekly rallies against the government in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. The group’s next event is on Sunday at noon.

Hours before the protest, the Jewish Federations of North America released a letter warning Netanyahu against his government’s plan to legislate an “override clause” that would allow a bare 61-seat Knesset majority to overrule Supreme Court decisions, in a major break from the US Jewish group’s usual policy of keeping out of internal Israeli politics.

Last week, the mostly right-wing religious Zionist World Mizrachi movement called on Israeli political parties to meet and negotiate judicial reform, saying it is “deeply alarmed and concerned by the divisiveness and vitriolic tone” surrounding the current proposals to overhaul the judicial system. Also last week, the US-based Anti-Defamation League called for negotiations on the judicial changes.

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