Thousands in New York City protest Israel’s judicial overhaul as Netanyahu addresses UN

<span>Photograph: Diane Desobeau/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Diane Desobeau/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of Israelis and American Jews protested outside the United Nations in New York City, as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke before the UN general assembly in an address railing against Iran and making a case for Israeli-Saudi peace.

About 3,000 people attended the protest against the Netanyahu government’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary, a plan that critics say will decimate Israel’s democratic institutions. Organizers say it was the largest anti-government action held outside Israel since the start of the wave of protests that have rocked the country since Netanyahu’s government took office at the start of this year.

Demonstrators chanted amid a sea of Israeli flags and anti-Netanyahu signs, banging on drums and shouting “shame!” in Hebrew when speakers mentioned the prime minister’s name. “It is a coup!” said speaker Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli Nobel prize-winning psychologist, of the government’s plan. “And it will fail!”

Related: What is Israel’s judicial overhaul about and what happens next?

The makeup of the crowd largely mirrored the weekly protests that have taken place around Israel every Saturday for 38 consecutive weeks. Alongside Israelis living in New York, dozens of activists flew in, to represent the most visible groups in the movement – the “Pink Front” of performers clad in fluorescent pink and banging on drums; military veterans calling themselves “brothers and sisters in arms”; and expatriate Israelis organizing under a group called UnXeptable, which has held solidarity protests around the world.

As in Israel itself, conspicuously missing from Friday’s crowd was a Palestinian presence, even though Palestinians make up roughly half the population under the state’s control and are uniquely vulnerable to the ultra-nationalist agenda of a government dominated by extremist settlers.

Many Palestinians view the protests as a campaign for democracy for Jews alone, seeking a return to a status quo that took hold long before the current government.

One group trying to represent their views is the so-called anti-occupation bloc of the protests, which has had a small but vocal presence within the Israeli demonstrations and a growing contingent in New York. Roughly 200 joined the bloc on Friday with a smattering of Palestinian flags, wearing black T-shirts reading, “There is no democracy with occupation.”

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“Our goal is to keep reminding ourselves, the protesters, the public, the media, anyone thinking about this judicial coup – that there’s a population under occupation in Israel-Palestine,” said Ben Weinberg, an Israeli activist based in Brooklyn and organizing with the anti-occupation group. “The struggle against the judicial coup doesn’t end by going back to the way things were, where there’s democracy for Jews in Israel and a military regime for Palestinians in the territories.”

Progressive Jewish groups have long been mainstays of anti-government and anti-occupation protests in the US, despite a longstanding taboo in more mainstream circles against criticizing Israel in moments of crisis. But in a sign of how deeply the American Jewish community has broken with the current government, establishment Jewish leaders also took the stage on the side of the protest on Friday.

“My brothers and sisters fighting for democracy in Israel, you are not alone. We stand with you,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, who leads the largest Conservative congregation in Manhattan, told the crowd in a speech that did not mention Netanyahu by name.

A June poll of US Jews conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 61% believe the judicial overhaul will weaken Israeli democracy. The Netanyahu government has so far succeeded in passing one element of that overhaul, a law that strips the country’s supreme court of some of its oversight powers.

In Israel, the anti-occupation bloc’s relationship with the mainstream protest has ranged from uneasy to accommodating, and it has occasionally faced hostility and violence for the Palestinian flags waved by its supporters. “The Palestinian flag undermines the cause,” one American protester could be heard muttering as he passed the bloc. Israel’s national security minister, the far-right settler Itamar Ben Gvir, has banned Palestinian flags from public spaces.

Friday’s protest came two days after Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the general assembly with Joe Biden for a discussion centering on the prospects of Israeli-Saudi normalization, which supporters of Palestinian rights fear would undermine their cause. Biden invited the Israeli premier to visit the White House later this year, in effect ending a months-long cold shoulder from the US president.

“In the US, there’s no such thing as democracy for just some of the people,” said Weinberg.

“Especially while Netanyahu is trying to appease the US government, we want to remind American voters and American Jews that the demand needs to be for a real democracy in Israel – democracy for Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs – a full democracy from the river to the sea.”