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Tuesday (technically Wednesday) News Bulletin 05/03/23

Welcome to the Tuesday (this week, Wednesday) News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

This article is by contributing writer Elisheva Goldberg.

Delegates from the World Zionist Congress march to the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem to protest the country’s judicial overhaul.

Gili Getz

May 3rd, 2023

As the World Zionist Congress (WZC)—a major gathering of world Jewry—met at the Jerusalem Convention Center on April 20th, hundreds of the congress’s delegates gathered outside the venue instead. Draped in blue and white flags and wearing black t-shirts that read “Saving Israeli Democracy” in Hebrew or English, the group, which included Jews from 12 countries, marched to Israel’s Supreme Court, where they held a demonstration in solidarity with Israel’s anti-judicial overhaul demonstrators.

Ken Bob, president of the progressive Zionist organization Ameinu, said that he had never seen WZC delegates walk out of a congress before. Nomi Colton-Max, a delegation leader from Ameinu and a vice president of the US-based American Zionist Movement (AZM), told Jewish Currents she organized the action with the help of Brothers-in-Arms and UnXeptable—Israeli groups that have been active in the country’s months-long protests against the planned judicial overhaul. Colton-Max said liberal and progressive WZC delegates like herself “wanted to say that diaspora Jews are also against this government. We wanted to say to the Zionist Congress, ‘You can’t ignore [the judicial overhaul] in your agenda.’”

The protest revived the longstanding question of how much power diaspora Jewish voices have in Israel—an issue that has been central to the WZC since its inception. Established by Zionist founding father Theodor Herzl in 1897, the congress brings 2,000 Jews from around the world to Jerusalem every five years to vote on policy and budgets for the three major para-state bodies that form a “parliament of the Jewish people”—the World Zionist Organization (WZO), Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (KKL), and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Together, these institutions spend upwards of $1 billion annually on cultural and religious programs promoting Zionist activity both in Israel and beyond the Green Line, as well as around the world.

More than almost any other body, the WZC serves as a bridge between diaspora and Israeli Zionist Jews. Professor Mira Sucharov, a scholar of Jewish politics at Carleton University, said WZC delegates could be said to possess a “quasi-citizenship status . . . in Israel,” although the extent of their power “​is very difficult to assess.” Sucharov suggested that while diaspora Jews do exercise some power through the congress, their impact on the judicial overhaul is likely to be marginal, especially when it isn’t clear “whether Bibi is swayed by the hundreds of thousands of protestors from his own electorate.”

Even as diaspora Jews in the WZC have struggled to impact Israeli politics, liberal WZC delegates have struggled to move the WZC itself. The constituent bodies of the congress actively support status quo or pro-settler Israeli policies. The WZO, which partnered with an anti-religious pluralism group as late as last year, contains a “settlement division” which illegally appropriates Palestinian land and finances settlements and outposts in the West Bank. KKL, another body in the WZC’s purview, also bankrolls settlements.

Bob said that over the years, liberal delegates have advanced WZC resolutions that are more accepting of religious pluralism and gay rights. And, he said, even on “the bigger issues that have to do with money to settlements,” pressure has sometimes worked. Because KKL’s committees must reflect the political makeup of the WZC, they include liberal voices even as the organization’s current chair is from the Likud party. “When the chair tried to push for a whole new budget to buy land in the West Bank,” Bob recalled, “we managed to lobby more central voices on the committee and block it.”

Still, critics argue that this kind of incrementalism is not useful. “It’s like putting a gay flag on apartheid,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, the co-founder of the rabbinical council for Jewish Voice for Peace. Wise said she was “frustrated” by the strategy of “reinvesting in this backwards institution that we should be trying to supplant.”

This year, progressives like Colton-Max worked to put the ongoing Israeli protests on the WZC’s agenda, passing a committee resolution opposing the judicial overhaul and later protesting at the Supreme Court. In response, the WZC’s top elected leadership—a coalition of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and far-right delegates—tried to undercut the already minimal power of their quasi-citizenship in Israel. On Friday afternoon, right-wing parties petitioned to replace the usual electronic vote with a roll call; with close to 2,000 delegates present, the move guaranteed that voting on 16 different resolutions—including the one condemning the judicial overhaul—would never be finished.

“It was a full-on filibuster,” said Gili Getz, a photojournalist and activist who was present at the WZC. In response, angry delegates began a chant of “Shame! Shame!”; video footage of the session shows an unruly hall with most delegates out of their seats. No votes were cast on the judicial overhaul or on other resolutions supporting LGBTQ, Reform, and Conservative Jews.

But delegates found other ways of making their opposition felt. A few hours after the filibuster, MK Simcha Rothman, one of the leading architects of Israel’s judicial overhaul plan, arrived at the convention center for a private meeting with delegates from the extreme-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). But just minutes after he entered the meeting room, delegates swarmed the door, trapping Rothman, the ZOA and other right-wing delegates inside. “We locked them in the room,” said Nancy Kaufman, the former CEO of the US-based National Council for Jewish Women. “We poured out with our flags . . . We were screaming ‘demokratia’ [‘democracy’] and ‘busha’ [‘shame’]. They were stuck.” Rothman was extracted 45 minutes later by a police contingent in full riot gear, and left via a service exit.

The following Sunday, protests erupted at another flagship diaspora gathering in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to attend the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America, but canceled his appearance in light of the previous week’s WZC protests, a public letter from expatriate Israelis asking the GA to disinvite him, and the threat that Israeli protestors would block the roads leading to the event. Colton-Max, who attended the GA, walked out to join the hundreds of Israelis who were protesting outside.

Getz, the photojournalist, said that these diaspora protests, while likely not moving the needle, were still noteworthy: “It’s not very radical, but it’s new.” Bob stressed the importance of diaspora Jews continuing to exercise their quasi-citizenship rights. “If we don’t play [in the WZC], the right wing is going to totally dominate,” he said. “We owe it to our people to try and block and get small wins.” But for Wise, small wins are simply not enough—and might even be damaging. “It’s a problem to invest energy into the idea of Zionism particularly when it’s coming under such scrutiny,” she said. “If your end goal is freedom and liberation for everyone, this is not the avenue.”

Palestinians take part in the annual March of Return on April 26th, on the site of what was the village of Al-Lajjun before Israeli forces forced residents to flee in 1948. The march marks 75 years since the creation of the State of Israel, whose forces destroyed at least 530 Palestinian villages and neighborhoods. Israel bans the return of Palestinian refugees while allowing Jews from all over the world to move to the country and gain full citizenship.

Oren Ziv/Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Khader Adnan, a 45-year-old Palestinian prisoner whose multiple hunger strikes over the past decade made him a national hero, died in Israeli jail yesterday. Adnan—a member of the political wing of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad—is the first Palestinian hunger striker to die in Israeli custody. In February, Israeli authorities arrested Adnan and charged him with inciting violence and membership in a terrorist organization; he began his 87-day hunger strike shortly afterwards. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said in a statement that it holds Israeli authorities responsible for Adnan’s death. Israeli officials were “well aware” that Adnan’s health was failing, the group wrote. “However, after almost three months of being on an open hunger strike, he was still being held in a cell without healthcare.” Following his death, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel, injuring three people; soon afterwards, Israeli tanks and fighter jets responded by firing into Gaza. Israeli airstrikes killed a 58-year-old Palestinian man and wounded five others. Israel and Palestinian militant groups agreed to a ceasefire earlier today.
  • Israel’s Finance and Transportation Ministries have committed an additional $8 million dollars—on top of a previous budget of $68 million—towards building a separate road for Palestinians in the West Bank, according to a Haaretz report published yesterday. The road would connect the northern and southern parts of the West Bank. The change would likely be accompanied by a policy banning Palestinians from driving through what is known as the E1 area, where Israel hopes to build a new neighborhood of the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, in order to connect the settlement to Jerusalem. “It is an apartheid road designed to cut off Palestinian access to a vast area at the heart of the West Bank, thereby actually annexing it to Israel,” the anti-occupation group Peace Now told Haaretz.
  • Israeli forces are using facial recognition technology to entrench the country’s system of apartheid, according to an Amnesty International report published yesterday. The report focuses on a system named “Red Wolf” that non-consensually scans the faces of Palestinian residents who cross checkpoints in the Palestinian city of Hebron. The information from the facial scan is then “compared with biometric entries in databases which exclusively contain information about Palestinians,” Amnesty found. “Red Wolf uses this data to determine whether an individual can pass a checkpoint . . . If no entry exists for an individual, they will be denied passage.” The report also shows how Israeli facial recognition technology is supporting an already-vast system of surveillance in occupied East Jerusalem. In one four-mile stretch of the city, Amnesty documented up to two surveillance cameras every five yards. One Palestinian journalist told Amnesty that Palestinians who protest in the city “know that, even if they don’t get detained on the spot, their faces will be captured by the cameras and they can be arrested later.”
  • In a special address to the Israeli Knesset on Monday, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, the leader of a bipartisan delegation to the country, affirmed US support for Israel. In later comments to reporters, McCarthy, a Republican, said he would invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress if President Biden doesn’t invite him to the White House. McCarthy also weighed in on the Israeli government’s contentious plan to curb the power of the judiciary, saying that while democracies need checks and balances, Israel “can decide what it wants to do.” McCarthy is not the only Republican who has recently visited Israel: Six days ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a conference co-hosted by The Jerusalem Post and held at the Museum of Tolerance, which is built on a Muslim cemetery. DeSantis touted his own support for Israel by taking credit for former President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. During the trip, the Florida governor, who is widely expected to announce a bid for president, also met with Netanyahu as well as major Republican donors.