(New York Jewish Week) — Steven Lax awoke at 3 a.m. on Tuesday to greet Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrived in New York City — enough time for Lax to brew coffee and await the Israeli prime minister at the Loews Regency Hotel in East Midtown with about 100 others.
Lax is the board chair and owner of Naot Worldwide, the Israeli sandal company that has become a recognizable brand across Israel and among American tourists. But before sunrise on Tuesday, Lax wasn’t waiting to talk business or branding with Netanyahu. He and his fellow protesters were there to jeer the prime minister and his ongoing effort to weaken the Israeli judiciary — a legislative package Lax likened to the darkest chapters of Jewish history.
“I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor,” Lax told the New York Jewish Week. “And during the Holocaust, American Jews knew what was going on and stayed silent. We can’t anymore.”
Netanyahu arrived at the hotel a bit before 5 a.m., escorted by a caravan of nearly 30 vehicles, as the crowd of protesters chanted “busha” — the Hebrew word for “shame” that has become a mainstay of the anti-judicial overhaul protests in Israel and abroad.
Those protests have occurred weekly in Israel, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to oppose the legislative package, which in its original form would have stripped the Israeli Supreme Court of much of its power and independence — and, in the view of many protesters, would pave the way for entrenching the polices of the current government, which includes far-right partners. Protests in solidarity with the Israeli demonstrations have occurred in New York City and elsewhere for months as well.
During Netanyahu’s visit this week, the demonstrations have occurred daily in locations ranging from Times Square to the United Nations to his hotel. Netanyahu met with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the U.N. on Wednesday, and will address the U.N. General Assembly on Friday before meeting with American Jewish leaders.
But while the demonstrations have been happening week after week, and have dogged government officials as they’ve come to town, Lax and others say that they’re not experiencing protest fatigue.
Rather, they view this week as the culmination of months of organizing and as a way to unite an expanding coalition of Israeli expatriates and American Jews in opposition to Netanyahu and his policies. Lax said that the first protests he attended drew about 50 people. Now, he said, they’re attracting hundreds to oppose Netanyahu.
“We are determined to constantly be in his face,” said Smadar Harush, an Israeli psychoanalyst who has lived in Brooklyn for 24 years, and who has been attending the New York protests since February despite being diagnosed with cancer in March. “We will never stop reminding him that we are not going to give up. We are not going to back off until he backs off.”
The protest movement suffered a blow in July when Netanyahu’s coalition passed the first piece of overhaul legislation, limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions. But far from deflating the overhaul’s critics, protest organizers say, that moment was a turning point that led to American Jewish leaders taking a more active role in the demonstrations.
“This was a moment of change and people started to reach out to me from the American Jewish community, and not just from me to them,” said Shany Granot-Lubaton, a leader of UnXeptable, an Israeli expatriate group organizing many of the protests. “And I feel like there is a new step in this bridge that we are building towards each other, both communities, because they have been really amazing allies for the fight for Israeli democracy in the past month since the law passed.”
Granot-Lubaton noted that American rabbis in particular have gotten more involved in the protests. Rabbis from across the city have been or are scheduled to be at different events throughout the week, including Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, the liberal rabbinic human rights group; Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue, a Conservative congregation; Rabbi Michelle Dardashti of Kane Street Synagogue, a Reform congregation; Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism; and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ’s president.
“I feel like I got to know a whole new side of my people that I’ve never known,” Granot-Lubaton said. “I never had rabbis on my side. I never quoted from the Bible when I talked about democracy, or women’s rights, or LGBTQ rights, and now I have these amazing partners in this fight…”
Weinberg spoke on Tuesday during a rally in Times Square, and alluded to a famous passage from Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic ethics text: “On three things the world stands: on judgment, on truth and on peace,” he said.
“I couldn’t be more proud of those who have neither slept or slumbered in showing up for 37 weeks to fight for our values — the same values laid out by Israel’s founders and enshrined in its Declaration of Independence… the values of freedom, justice, and peace,” he said.
Jill Jacobs, who is slated to speak at a rally on Thursday evening, also plans to allude to Jewish text — and particularly to the fact that Netanyahu’s visit is occurring during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period associated with repentance. In her prepared remarks, Jacobs calls it “a time when Jews reflect on our past wrongs and resolve to do better.”
“This moment reminds us that all is possible, that the past need not determine the future,” Jacobs plans to say. “It is not too late for Israel to recommit to the principles in its declaration of independence, and to commit to democracy and human rights for all.”
Jacobs is one of a contingent of protesters who are demonstrating against both the judicial overhaul and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, issues she sees as linked. Harush, the psychoanalyst, agrees.
“How can we be democratic while occupying another people? We can’t. It’s a contradiction,” said Harush, who attended a rally on Tuesday outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was dubbed an “Artistic Protest,” hosted by UnXeptable and Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a protest group made up of Israeli combat veterans. She carried a poster depicting Netanyahu as the subject of a painting that looked similar to Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
Decades ago, Harush worked for the International Center for Peace in the Middle East in Israel, but feels that hope for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely faded after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. She sees the current protest movement as a potential way to raise the subject again in mainstream Jewish Israeli society.
“It’s a topic that now, finally, in the last eight months, moved from the left margin to a little bit in the center,” she said. “A lot of my friends didn’t even want to talk about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and now more and more understand.”
Before the protest at the Met, a group of about 50 anti-occupation activists held their own protest outside Netanyahu’s hotel, denouncing what they describe as his government’s “Jewish supremacist” policies.
Emily Miller, an MFA student who attended the protest, and who immigrated to Israel in 2018, said she didn’t “feel aligned” with the anti-overhaul protest movement, but added, “I am very proud of the liberal Zionist people coming to the streets, and they are close to realizing the obvious elephant in the room, which is that the root cause of all these issues is the occupation.”
Anti-overhaul protesters are now gearing up to rally ahead of Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations on Thursday night and Friday morning.
Thursday will also see right-wing groups, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and Zionist Organization of America, gather to rally in support of Netanyahu and Israel. Although some right-wing American Jewish leaders, such as ZOA President Mort Klein, have vocally supported the overhaul, a flier for the rally says the legislation will not come up in speeches.
“Thousands will attend this rally as we support Israel and its right to defend itself against Palestinian terror,” said the flier, which also banned Palestinian flags from the rally. “Speakers will not speak in favor or against judicial reform.”
Netanyahu is not expected to focus on the judicial overhaul in his U.N. address, but his coalition may return it to the agenda when Israeli lawmakers come back from a recess this fall. Batell Blaish-Sultanik, a leader in Brothers and Sisters in Arms and one of the first female cadets to graduate from the Israeli Naval Academy, wants to make sure that her fellow demonstrators don’t lose focus while the fate of their cause remains uncertain.
“Speaking as a naval officer, we’re taught that the most dangerous moment is when land comes into sight,” said Blaish-Sultanik. “At that moment when land comes into sight you can relax, you can take a step back, you can become indifferent. But this is exactly the moment when we must redouble our efforts and go the extra mile to stay vigilant.”