Thousands of Diaspora Jews – including 200 Atlantans attending a mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta – flocked to Israel to help celebrate the country’s 75th anniversary. Just weeks after the Union for Reform Judaism held its gathering in Israel, organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) held its annual General Assembly in Tel Aviv, and the World Zionist Organization (WZO) held its gathering in Jerusalem.
The 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence was the celebratory heart of all the programming. But this anniversary was unlike every other anniversary of Israel.
As the largest Diaspora Jewish community in the world, the WZO initially attracted attention within Israel. Israeli press had a field day reporting how several attendees cried out boosha, Hebrew for shame, as delegates attempted to vote on resolutions condemning the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for its attempts to overhaul the country’s judicial system. Videos of the cries flourished and spread on WhatsApp.
The voting had to be delayed a week to an online forum due to the contentious outbursts that also included cries of “democracy” – echoing the calls that have become popular during the weekly protests by hundreds of thousands of Israelis since the first of the year. The WZO resolutions weren’t just focused on the controversial laws about the judicial system proposed by the Netanyahu government, however. They also dealt with concerns that the current government would change laws dealing with non-Orthodox conversions, the Law of Return and LGBTQ+ rights.
In a statement, Vice Chairman of the WZO Yizhar Hess said, “Despite all the efforts of the right-wing bloc to block the adoption of the decisions intended to protect the liberal and democratic character of Israel, the representatives will have the opportunity to make their voices heard, and they will convey a clear message to the government in Israel: the strength of the relationship between Israel and Jews around the world is conditional on Israel remaining a liberal, Jewish and democratic state.”
The WZO resolution focused on the coalition government’s efforts to enable the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – to override Supreme Court rulings and give the coalition control over the selection of Israel’s judges “have been pursued in haste and without regard for the effect that these changes will have on the relationship between Israel and Jews around the world.” The resolution urged the Israeli government to obtain “broad public agreement” on any changes in the judicial system. And it warned that the Israel-Diaspora relationship “is at stake if the government pursues its plans to weaken the judiciary.”
Some Diaspora Jewish leaders contend – at least off the record – that the relationship between the two largest Jewish communities, Israel and North America, is already strained.
Prior to the JFNA’s General Assembly, the group was urged to withdraw its invitation to Netanyahu to speak at its opening event, April 23. The request was made by UnXeptable, a worldwide grassroots movement led by Israeli expats in support of a democratic and liberal Israel, which has been organizing weekly protests by Israelis and Jews around the world, including in Atlanta.
One of the Atlanta organizers, Dotan Zebrowitz Harpak, stated that JFNA “should not allow our community’s largest stage to be used for incitement, lies and the promotion of the anti-democratic Netanyahu judicial overhaul.” Harpak noted that the letter to JFNA also asked the group to revoke its invitation to Knesset member Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial overhaul which has been suspended until after Israel’s Independence Day celebrations.
While lauding the Israeli protests that started in January, JFNA declined to disinvite Israeli leaders to its programming. JFNA chairwoman Julie Platt and CEO Eric Fingerhut responded to the letter, saying, “First and foremost, the opportunity to hear from Israel’s duly elected president and prime minister is a symbol of Israel’s achievement as a modern democratic state.”
The JFNA statement also said, “We have 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 their right at the General Assembly.”
Recipient of the Jewish Federation of Atlanta’s 2023 Lifetime of Achievement Award this May, Lois Frank agreed with the JFNA’s decision to allow Netanyahu to speak at the General Assembly. “He is the prime minister and while I find what he is doing despicable, I don’t believe quarantining him from discussions is the best way to address the issues facing us. Protests are fine with me…as long as they are peaceful. I don’t believe hecklers should be allowed to interrupt the speakers.”
The former national chair for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs added that “the leadership of the GA has an opportunity to present the profound concerns of American Jewry to the prime minister and the government of Israel. I feel sure they will be doing that in a civil way.”
The letter writing to the JFNA, however, didn’t stop with UnXeptable’s letter and JFNA’s response. A group calling itself Israelis for Democracy, comprised of more than two dozen organizations from Hebrew Writers Protest to Musicians for Democracy to White Coats (Doctors and Health Professionals for Democracy), wrote a letter citing its “disappointment” in the JFNA’s decision to host Netanyahu and Rothman.
“Our country is in the midst of its most profound civic crisis since its founding. As you know, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have taken to the streets in recent months in the most sustained, massive civic mobilization ever in Israeli history shouting ‘De-mo-cra-tia!’ We demanded nothing but a commitment to the democratic principles expressed in our Declaration of Independence, signed this week, 75 years ago.”
As it turned out, at the last minute, Netanyahu canceled his GA appearance – for the first time — although Rothman appeared on a panel with the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Yohanan Plesner.
The letter from the Israelis for Democracy group also urged the GA attendees, as they return to the U.S. and Canada after the GA, “to stay in this fight…we ask you not to give up on us. Upon your return, please speak with your communities about what you saw here and support the work of our allies in North America.”
Certainly, the Diaspora attendees of the recent conferences won’t forget this Israeli Independence Day.
- Israel news
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Diaspora Jews
- jewish federation of greater atlanta
- Union for Reform Judaism
- Jewish Federations of North America
- World Zionist Organization
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- Law of Return
- LGBTQ Rights
- Yizhar Hess
- Dotan Zebrowitz Harpak
- Simcha Rothman
- Julie Platt
- Eric Fingerhut
- Lois Frank
- Jewish Council for Public Affairs
- Hebrew Writers Protest
- Musicians for Democracy
- Doctors and Health Professionals for Democracy