(JTA) — The umbrella group for Jewish federations defended its decision to invite Benjamin Netanyahu to its conference in Tel Aviv next week, while praising the protesters who want the Israeli prime minister to be snubbed.
The conference, called the General Assembly and beginning on Sunday night, has historically been the signature gathering of the American Jewish establishment. Last week, a group of expatriate Israelis who oppose Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul called on the Jewish Federations of North America to withdraw his invitation to address the conference.
The protest group, UneXeptable, organizes demonstrations against the overhaul, which would sap the country’s Supreme Court of much of its power and independence. The protest group is also calling on the federations to uninvite lawmaker Simcha Rothman, one of the architects of the judicial legislation, which has been suspended until early May in the face of massive street protests.
But the federations stood by their decision. In addition to Netanyahu and Rothman, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid will address the conference. So will Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has criticized the judicial overhaul push and is now leading negotiations to formulate a compromise on the legislation.
“Some have even called for the Jewish Federations of North America to withdraw their invitation. We respectfully disagree,” read the statement by Julie Platt, the federations’ chairwoman, and Eric Fingerhut, the CEO. “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. We look forward to welcoming these officials on this historic occasion.”
The fact that the federations justified the invitations at all is itself remarkable. Israel’s leaders have historically been guests of honor at federation conferences, and reserving speaking slots for them has been a matter of course. A protest against Netanyahu at the federations’ General Assembly in 2010, by the pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace, was shut down and ridiculed by federation leadership.
And the Tel Aviv gathering, coming just six months after the federations’ last General Assembly and expected to draw 3,000 attendees, is specifically intended to celebrate Israel’s milestone 75th birthday.
In its appeal to disinvite Netanyahu and Rothman, sent last week, UnXeptable noted the breadth of the proposed changes to the judiciary and warned that both officials would use the conference stage as a platform to defend the overhaul. Street protests have continued despite the negotiations.
“PM Netanyahu and MK Rothman should not be allowed to use the 2023 JFNA General Assembly as a platform to incite against those who defend democracy or in order to parade false unity and pseudo-shared values,” the UnXeptable letter said. “Our communal stage should not be used to legitimize or further advance the attacks on Israel’s democracy or on those fighting to defend it.”
Even as the federations’ statement defended the invitations — an earlier published draft vowed that “any individuals holding these positions” would be welcome at the event — it also praised the protesters’ aims and methods. The statement opened by acknowledging that the protesters “care deeply and sincerely about the future of Israel.”
The statement noted that the federations came out against a central component of the judicial overhaul, and that the group’s leadership traveled to Israel to lobby the government on the issue. And it assured protesters that, if they do show up to the event, the federations “will do everything we can to ensure that our attendees and security professionals respect these protesters, and expect that any protestors 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.”
“We have also been awed by the powerful statement Israel’s citizens have made exercising their democratic right to protest,” the statement said. “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.”
UnXeptable founder Offir Gutelzon, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, said he sympathized with the federations’ sense that it must welcome Israeli leaders, whatever their views, but he pleaded with the organization not to let Netanyahu speak unchallenged.
“I’m happy that the JFNA was responsive to our letter,” he said in an interview. “We are still asking the JFNA to consider, even if not disinviting — consider about making it a panel, making it with questions and answers, making sure that this is not just a one-way announcement by the prime minister.”