Taking it to the streets of Teaneck

Taking it to the streets of Teaneck

Protesters oppose synagogue speech by Knesset member trying to limit judiciary

Protesters start to gather across the street from Congregation Bnai Yeshurun; they’re objecting to MK Simcha Rothman’s talk at the shul.
Protesters start to gather across the street from Congregation Bnai Yeshurun; they’re objecting to MK Simcha Rothman’s talk at the shul.

The raucous sounds of Israel’s democracy came to Teaneck’s Jefferson Street last Thursday.

That’s where 125 protesters stood behind police barricades, awaiting the arrival of Simcha Rothman.

Mr. Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was speaking at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun to defend his proposed changes to Israel’s longstanding balance of powers between the branches of government.

The protesters shouted and sang, in Hebrew and English. They waved Israeli flags and every few minutes they took a break from singing and shouting to blast noisemakers.

They sang variations of the well-known Hebrew nursery school song “Hashafan Hakatan” (“The Little Bunny”) with the words changed to “Rothman HaPachdan” (“Rothman the Coward”) when they learned that he had entered the synagogue through its parking lot, rather than the front entrance where they were protesting.

And they also sang a couple of songs that have been popular in the Israeli protests that have brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets for more than five months — and that many Bnai Yeshurun members had sung at Soviet Jewish protests and in NCSY youth groups when they were younger: “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Gesher Tzar Me’od.”

The protest was organized by Shany Granot, who has led weekly demonstrations at Manhattan’s Washington Square Park under the umbrella of “UnXeptable.” That’s an organization of Israelis living in America who want to mirror the massive Israeli protest movement with an additional call to “world Jewry to come together and preserve the democratic identity of Israel as the home of all Jewish people,” according to the group’s web page.

As night fell, the crowd outside the shul grew. (Ilya Magnes)

Ms. Granot said the Teaneck protest came in response to a request from synagogue members.

“They reached out to me and said, ‘We’re so ashamed. Can you please help us?’”

She said her contacts in the synagogue did not want to speak with the press.

In March, Ms. Granot organized a similar protest in Englewood, when Moshe Koppel, who chairs the Kohelet Policy Forum, a group that has helped Mr. Rothman draft the proposed restrictions on the independence of Israel’s High Court, spoke at the East Hill Synagogue.

Ms. Granot disputed the description of Mr. Rothman’s talk in Bnai Yeshurun’s press release; it said that he would offer a “A View from the Knesset” on “Judicial Reform in Israel.”

“It’s not a reform,” she said. “They’re trying to take down Israel’s democracy, each one for his own reason. Many ministers are corrupt and want to choose their own judges. Others want to take down women’s rights, LGBT rights, and minority rights, because of their extremist ideology — and the Supreme Court stands in their way. We don’t have a constitution, so our Supreme Court is literally the last defense line that we have on our human rights, minority rights, and women’s rights. The Supreme Court has been our defender, and they’re trying to take it down.”

Supporters of the proposed changes, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Brooklyn’s Jewish Press, have denounced the protesters as “anarchists.”

Protesters of all ages, many of them Israeli, held signs and sang together. (Ilya Magnes)

Ms. Granot laughed at this description.

“It’s very funny to call me an anarchist, because I’m a 33-year-old mother married to a student who is doing his master’s at Columbia University,” she said. “We both worked in the Knesset; we both served in the army. My father retired from the army at the age of 55. He was a very high officer. It’s so funny to call ourselves anarchists. We’re nerds. If they want to insult us, they can call us nerds.

“You can see hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets for 21 weeks now,” she said. “There are not millions of anarchists in Israel.”

Mr. Rothman was the first of two Knesset members to visit the synagogue last week; on Saturday night, the congregation heard from Orit Farkash-Hacohen, a Knesset member with the opposition National Unity party who served as a minister under both Mr. Netanyahu and then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Ms. Farkash-Hacohen is taking part in the negotiations between the Netanyahu coalition and the opposition, being held under the auspices of Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

In an email sent to the congregation the night before Mr. Rothman’s speech and the accompanying demonstration, the synagogue’s Rabbi Elliot Schrier explained that the two presentations were designed “to enable our community to attain a fuller understanding of the different sides of this debate,” which he described as “perhaps the most significant, and contentious, issue to face Israeli society in the last several decades.”

He encouraged congregants to attend “both presentations, wherever your personal leanings may lie. Listening to a multiplicity of viewpoints is a central feature of any functioning and thriving democracy.”

At the same time, he asked congregants coming to hear Mr. Rothman to “please keep your distance from any protesters and do not engage them in discussion or debate.”

As to what Mr. Rothman actually said that night in Teaneck — it turns out the event was open only to people who signed up through Bnai Yeshurun or other neighboring Orthodox synagogues. It was closed to the press.

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