A panel discussion featuring Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key architect of the government’s contentious planned judicial overhaul, descended into a shouting match involving panelists and protesters at a Tel Aviv conference on Monday.
The disruptions at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America began in earnest about 20 minutes into the session on the Law of Return when Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former lawmaker in Kadima, a now-defunct centrist party, accused Rothman of “crushing Israeli democracy and relations with the Diaspora,” earning a standing ovation by some in the room.
Rothman responded by accusing Plesner of “siding with a political group that exercises control through an undemocratic court.”
While that exchange was typical of the discussions between those in Israel in favor of the government’s planned overhaul and those against it, more unusual was the fact that on this occasion, American Jews in the audience were also involved.
At least five demonstrators were forcibly removed from the audience at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center, which is hosting the General Assembly, many of whose 2,000 participants came from the United States. At least one of those evicted came back in and continued protesting. One yelled, “Rothman is destroying Israel, destroying our future! My kids! My kids!”
“You are a criminal of the Jewish people! Shame on you! The Jewish people will never forget and never forgive,” shouted some of the protesters.
המחאה מול רוטמן בכנס הפדרציות היהודיות בגני התערוכה:
קריאות בוז כשהוצג על הבמה;
ופיצוץ הפאנל שבו השתתף ע"י חברים מ'אחים לנשק' ועוד נציגי קהילות יהודיות:
"אתה פושע של העם היהודי! תתבייש לך! העם היהודי לא ישכח לך ולא יסלח לך!" pic.twitter.com/uNSeLVjzbk
— Or-ly Barlev ~ אור-לי ברלב (@orlybarlev) April 24, 2023
Protest leaders had asked the JFNA to cancel appearances by Rothman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the event. With the prospect of being greeted by a massive protest, the premier decided not to attend to deliver a planned address on Sunday evening, citing scheduling difficulties.
Rothman opted to come and, before his panel session, met opposition in the conference’s halls almost immediately on Monday morning. While sitting with a reporter in the gathering’s breakfast area, a small gaggle of protesters arrived at his table and started chanting “shame” in Hebrew. One protester offered Rothman a bracelet bearing the word “democracy,” which has become the anti-government protests’ one-word slogan, and another yelled, “Rothman, go to hell.”
Rothman’s panel was holding a discussion on the Law of Return, which is currently the subject of a bill proposed by a far-right coalition lawmaker seeking to eliminate the right of grandchildren of people recognized as Jewish to immigrate to Israel under naturalization laws.
Every time Rothman spoke, a group of protesters standing in a kind of informal ring around the room shouted him down with chants of “shame” and “liar,” in both Hebrew and English. Protesters on one side of the room held Israeli flags — another mainstay of the street protests — as well as an LGBTQ rainbow pride flag.
Rothman repeatedly had to pause his remarks and shot back at the protesters throughout his comments.
“What we see here is exactly the problem we need to address, a person that shouts ‘democracy’ while trying to shut up other people,” Rothman said after a protester shouted, “You’re an enemy of the Jewish people!”
Rothman later said, “Some people are looking for consensus only when they’re in the opposition.”
While the legislation does not seem to have the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, the proposal may complicate Likud’s relationship with some of its hardline coalition partners, as well as have potential ramifications for Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jews.
Brothers and Sisters in Arms, at the Jewish Federation conference in Tel Aviv, earlier today at MK Simcha Rothman's table:
"You will not lead a Dictatorship here! We will NOT give up! There will NOT be a Dictatorship here!" pic.twitter.com/HbutGnOXNt
— Or-ly Barlev in English (@OrlyBarlevEng) April 24, 2023
Similar bills, including by Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Rothman’s Religious Zionism party, have failed to progress in the past due to Likud’s apparent lack of support.
The panel on Monday soldiered on for around 15 minutes, despite the disruptions, before stopping for an unscheduled break.
When the discussions resumed, Rothman, ignoring repeated interruptions, said the grandchild clause would “change nothing for American Jews,” claiming that they are not immigrating to Israel under that clause.
“There is a problem,” Rothman said, explaining that it centered on immigration to Israel by people who are not Jewish according to halacha, Jewish Orthodox law, “and have no interest in becoming Jewish.”
Rothman also said that he was not certain the law would change.
The panel also featured Alex Rif, cofounder of the One Million Lobby group of Russian-speaking Jews, who said that the potential change would pose a threat to the rights of non-Jewish Israelis.
“The biggest danger is for the ones in Israel, the 400,000 Israelis who are not Jewish according to halacha: For them, you close the door to the Jewish people here by saying that the very reason they are here was a mistake,” she said.
She called on Israel to ease immigration for Jews from Russia and Belarus. In an explicit allusion to last century’s American Jewish activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry, which employed the slogan “Let my people go,” she brandished a sign onstage reading “Let my people in.”
“When you change the Law of Return, you close the door for them forever for the Jewish people,” she said of Russian speakers already living in Israel. “You’re telling them, ‘We don’t want you here.’ Now, they’re living here for 30 years feeling second-class.”
While many in the audience supported the disruptions, others were saddened.
“We first lost the ability to agree, and now also the ability to debate,” said Michel Gourary, a France-born Holocaust commemoration activist living in Israel who works with the March of the Living.
“We wanted very much to include anyone who wanted to be here, to learn and to be part of the conversation. It’s unfortunate it was disrupted so we couldn’t engage in the kind of learning we had hoped for,” Jewish Federations of North America board chair Julie Platt told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the interrupted panel. “It was more than we expected.”
JTA contributed to this report.