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Judicial reform architect harassed at JFNA General Assembly

“People were shouting things that weren’t of any substance, just to disrupt,” says an audience member.

Anti-reform activists harass Knesset member Simcha Rothman at the JFNA General Assembly in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. Source: Twitter screenshot.
Anti-reform activists harass Knesset member Simcha Rothman at the JFNA General Assembly in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2023. Source: Twitter screenshot.

Member of Knesset Simcha Rothman, one of the key figures behind the government’s judicial reform initiative, was continuously interrupted by hecklers during a panel discussion at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv on Monday.

Although the panel discussion at the Expo Tel Aviv convention center was not on judicial reform but rather on issues related to the Law of Return, protesters, many identifying with Achim L’Neshek (“Brothers in Arms”), an extremist group made up of IDF reservists, chanted slogans as Rothman, who is chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, tried to speak.

“From the get-go, from the first word, people were standing up in the crowd, and it was an onslaught from beginning to end,” an audience member who preferred to remain anonymous told JNS.

“People were shouting things that weren’t of any substance, just to disrupt. They were shouting ‘Busha’—Shame. Liar—‘Shakran.’ To his credit, Avi Mayer, the moderator, editor of The Jerusalem Post, did try to quiet the crowd and tell them we’re trying to have a respectful discussion. That lasted merely a matter of seconds. It did not work.

“There was a real failure of security because they would take a protester out and then I’d see him return. The same protester would come back two or three times and continue disrupting,” said the audience member.

“It was terrible,” a second audience member concurred. “I wanted to hear what he had to say. It’s not about whether you agree with him or not. He should be allowed to speak.”

Rothman’s aide told JNS, “They shout ‘Democracy’ but they silence everyone who doesn’t think like them.”

Before the panel discussion, Achim L’Neshek activists interrupted an interview between Rothman and JNS. They surrounded Rothman and shouted at him. One placed a ballcap with the Achim L’Neshek logo on the Knesset member’s head. He kept his cool despite the provocations.

“Thou shall not speak”

Rothman told JNS, “The real motto of the left is ‘Thou shall not speak.’ ”

On the panel with Rothman were Professor Yohanan Plesner, president of the left-wing Israel Democracy Institute and a former member MK; and Alex Rif, CEO of the One Million Lobby, which advocates for Russian-speaking Israelis, discussing the definition of Jewish identity and the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return.

Rothman said that there are those who are trying to create a division between Israel and the Diaspora, and that eliminating the grandchild clause would in no way affect aliyah from the U.S. Unlike what some claim, the grandchild clause was never an integral part of the Law of Return and was added to it in the ’70s after a controversial court decision on the subject, he said.

In response to the effort to stop him from speaking, Rothman said: “Protests and demonstrations are the bedrock of democracy but their purpose is to express the voices of those who are not heard, not to silence the voices of the majority of Israeli voters, represented by 64 seats in the Knesset.

“Amending the Law of Return has a symbolic significance and might create tension with the Jewish Diaspora. However, this tension can be solved by way of dialogue, which is why I came to speak at the event today,” Rothman said.

Achim L’Neshek has carried out similar actions in the past. In March, the group barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire the offices of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based think tank that supports judicial reform. And in February, its activists attempted to block Rothman from leaving his home in Pnei Kedem.

The Prime Minister’s Office told Ynet that “scheduling issues and preparations for Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies” were the reason for the cancelation, and not the planned protests.

The JFNA last week issued a statement explaining why it had decided not to boycott the prime minister as demanded by obscure and unnamed groups.

It also expressed support for individuals to protest at the conference.

“We have also been awed by the powerful statement Israel’s citizens have made exercising their democratic right to protest. Given the immense importance of this debate and its implications for Jews all around the world, we understand that some will choose to exercise that right at the General Assembly. We will do everything we can to ensure that our attendees and security professionals respect these protesters, and expect that any protesters will respect our participants by demonstrating in a way that does not disrupt their ability to attend the event, participate, or listen to the speakers,” said the organization.

The JFNA has not issued a formal response to the harassment of Rothman at its event.

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