Activists protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Luke Tress/Flash90.
Activists protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Luke Tress/Flash90.
featureU.S.-Israel Relations

Reform opponents cross red line by bringing dispute to US, critics charge

"Protesters undermine Israel's legitimacy and give ammunition to its enemies when they air their dirty laundry abroad."

As the months pass, protests against judicial reform have become more extreme, raising concerns even from sympathizers, who wonder whether calls for “paralyzing the economy” or “an uncompromising struggle” will do their cause more harm than good.

Now, as the problem spills outside the state’s borders with protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his U.S. trip, critics say opponents of reform have crossed a red line, one that sabotages Israel on the international stage.

“We are seeing protests against Israel being carried out by people who are joining with the PLO, with Iran and others,” Netanyahu told the press on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport before his departure to the U.S.

His office issued a clarification shortly afterward, saying that when Netanyahu used the word “joining,” he meant that Israeli citizens would be protesting separately, but simultaneously as PLO and BDS supporters, which “has never happened before.”

Two incidents on Monday fanned the flames of debate about the limits of protest. First was a remark by Shira Eting, a member of the protest group Achim L’Neshek (“Brothers in Arms”), on “60 Minutes” suggesting that the Israel Air Force bombs Palestinian children.

The second was a letter signed by more than 80 senior Israeli security personnel to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accusing Netanyahu of tearing apart the Jewish state and jeopardizing the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Ahead of Netanyahu’s Monday arrival to the U.S., protesters projected digital billboards on the side of the United Nations headquarters in New York and Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco. The first read: “Don’t believe Crime Minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli Democracy,” and the second, “Welcome to Alcatraz Bibi! Netanyahu Dictator on the Run.” The latter included an image of Netanyahu behind bars.

In New York, anti-reform organizers scheduled a full week of protests, starting on Tuesday at Times Square, followed by one Wednesday to coincide with Netanyahu’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Another is set for Thursday outside Netanyahu’s hotel.

The main protest will take place on Friday during Netanyahu’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly, followed by an all-day “Farewell to Bibi” festival and “Final Goodbye Protest” on Saturday.

“When Israeli protesters, who absolutely have the democratic right to protest in their own domestic milieu, export those protests against the Israeli government outside of Israel to the U.N. and San Francisco, they are actually undermining not only the government, but in international eyes, the very legitimacy of the country they claim to be saving,” Dan Diker, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS.

“They are unwittingly converging with Israel’s worst enemies,” he said, noting that when protesters say Israel is an “undemocratic,” “fascist” and “apartheid” state, they are providing ammunition to Israel’s adversaries. “The U.N. itself has labeled Israel as an apartheid entity; one of the worst slanders in the 21st century.”

“In a world in which cellphones and selfies determine policy, the pyrotechnics of this are very dangerous,” Diker noted.

A protest on Tuesday by about 30 people at 61st Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan appeared to bear out Diker’s warnings. More an “anti-occupation” protest, and likely not officially connected to the anti-reform demonstrations, it nonetheless borrowed heavily from anti-reform messaging.

A large sign read: “Oppose Israel’s Authoritarian Government—Demand Democracy for All.” Protesters chanted, “Shame, Shame,” in Hebrew, a typical cry at anti-reform rallies. Several signs accused Israel of apartheid. Others read: “USA: Stop Funding Bibi and his fascist friends.”

Offir Gutelzon, founder of UnXeptable, the chief group behind U.S. protests against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reforms, defended himself against critics, telling JNS, “The only one who went too far is the indicted Prime Minister Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing government, which is tearing Israel apart by promoting the judicial overhaul that undermines Israel’s democracy.

“The Israeli and Jewish communities in the U.S. are part of this historical protest movement of people who love and care about a free, just and equal Israel,” Gutelzon said. “The days of Netanyahu speaking uncontradicted on the world stage are over. It is our responsibility and mission to expose his real goals and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel, fighting for Israel’s democracy.”

Lauri Regan, a board member of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) and one of the chief organizers of a counter-demonstration set for Thursday outside the Loews Regency New York where Netanyahu is staying, characterized Gutelzon’s remarks as “disingenuous.”

“My response is: I’m sorry you lost the last election [in November 2022]. Elections have consequences. We have to live with them. That’s democracy,” she said. “Next, you go to the voting booth. You don’t block the Knesset from functioning. You don’t block hospitals. You don’t threaten to shirk your responsibility in the military.”

Regan noted that Israelis from across the political spectrum have called for judicial reform for years, including former Prime Ministers Yair Lapid, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, who are among the leaders of the anti-reform protests. “Yet, now that Bibi’s doing it, it’s a threat to democracy. Their message is anti-Bibi, under the guise of ‘democracy.’”  

Protesters have imported an Israeli domestic issue to the U.S., she said.

“Americans for the most part are not deeply engaged in Israeli politics. They only know what they’re reading in The New York Times, or mainstream media, which is not covering this passionately. So they’re being dragged into a conflict that they hear nothing about for the sake of an ideology which lost the last election in Israel.”

For Regan, “the saddest thing” is that at a time of growing antisemitism and anti-Israel animus globally, the protesters have chosen to target their “democratically elected prime minister.” This was the impetus that moved her and others to organize a counter-rally.

“The protest is going to be very positive. While their message is very negative—’Bibi is destroying democracy’—we’re going to have videos showing Israel intervening in tragedies across the world,” she told JNS.

“Israel is a beautiful, powerful force for democracy and peace in the world. And Israel has contributed unbelievably to the world. It needs to be recognized in the face of what I think these really ugly people are doing in the streets of New York,” Regan said.

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