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Federations stands by decision to invite Netanyahu to GA

NEW YORK — The umbrella group of 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 disinvited.

Protests have continued in Israel, such as this one at the Azrieli junction in Tel Aviv, on April 15, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The conference, the “General Assembly,” beginning on Sunday night, April 23, has historically been the signature gathering of the American Jewish establishment. A contingent representing JEWISHcolorado will be in attendance.

Over the years, the GA has diminished in importance as federations face the power of private foundations, which are not committed to the primacy of communal decision-making in the disbursal of funds.

Last week, a group of expatriate Israelis who oppose Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul called on JFNA to disinvite Netanyahu.

The protest group, UneXeptable, organizes demonstrations against the judicial overhaul. The protest group is also calling on the federations to disinvite lawmaker Simcha Rothman, a primary architect of the judicial legislation, which has been suspended until early May.

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 had to justify the invitations is unprecedented. 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.

The Tel Aviv gathering, coming just six months after the federations’ last General Assembly and expected to draw 3,000 attendees, is intended to celebrate Israel’s milestone 75th birthday.

“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 and pseudo-shared values,” UnXeptable wrote in its letter last week.

“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. The statement opened by acknowledging that the protesters “care deeply and sincerely about the future of Israel.”

It noted that the federations came out against a central component of the judicial overhaul, and that the group’s leadership, including representatives from JEWISHcolorado, traveled to Israel to lobby the government on the issue.

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 protesters 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.

Others noted that disinvitation is the classic moral error that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the independent Israeli state in antiquity. The story is famously recounted in tractate Gitin and often cited as precisely what not to do in a period deep Jewish communal division.

The IJN contributed to this story

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