herzog hangout

U.S.-Israel bond ‘transcends governments,’ Herzog tells New York Jewish community

Israeli president says focusing on disagreements, ‘does not reflect the enormous depth of the relationship.’

Shahar Azran/Israeli President's Office

CNN reporter Bianna Golodryga moderates discussion with Israeli President Isaac Herzog on July 20, 2023

The U.S.-Israel bond “transcends governments,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Thursday during an address to the New York Jewish community at an Upper East Side event space hosted by UJA-Federation of New York and co-sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel in New York and a number of Jewish groups.

The discussion, moderated by CNN reporter Bianna Golodryga, concluded the third day of Herzog’s diplomatic visit to the U.S., which earlier on Thursday included a jaunt through New York City, where he met state and local leaders.

Herzog addressed the protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s proposed judicial overhaul that are roiling Israel, and discussed the current state of the U.S.-Israel relationship and his meetings earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

The Israeli president, who has urged compromise in the debate over the judicial overhaul, called on proponents and opponents of the plan to “sit down and figure this out.” 

“If one side wins, everyone loses,” Herzog said.

Herzog said the U.S. government was closely monitoring the developments in the government’s overhaul efforts and was unsure what additional judicial bills the coalition planned to push through beyond its current legislative effort to scale back judges’ ability to apply a “reasonableness” test to government decisions. “Many people in Israel do not have a clear picture as to how the process will end. That’s something I also heard in Washington. Meaning what is the end result?” the president said.

Herzog’s visit to the U.S. comes as turmoil continues in Israel as the government’s proposed plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system has sparked months of social unrest across the Jewish state. On Thursday night, protestors once again took to the streets in an angry reaction to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s primetime speech in which he defended the “reasonableness standard” bill which is set to pass into law next week, and slammed judicial reform opponents who have threatened to refuse to carry out army reserve duty.

In his onstage interview, Herzog said that protestors of the planned judicial overhaul are a “tribute to Israel’s democracy.” He added, “Our enemies should know: If necessary, our people unite immediately.” 

In addition to disagreements over the judicial issue, coalition members’ rhetoric and legislation regarding Arabs, the LGBTQ community and other groups, as well as the expansion of settlements, have tested the relationship between the current Israeli government and U.S. administration, which could be seen in the roughly seven months that it took for Biden to invite Netanyahu for an in-person meeting.

Herzog said focusing on this issue, however, “does not reflect the enormous depth of the [U.S.-Israel] relationship.”

Asked whether world leaders, including Biden, should be concerned over Netanyahu and his coalition’s actions, Herzog declined to answer the question. “I was told you were going to be a friendly interviewer,” he said to Golodryga amid a roar of laughter from the crowd. “There are certain questions that you don’t expect the president to answer.” 

Golodryga also pressed Herzog on why Israel has delivered less military aid than its allies to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. Herzog assured the crowd that Israel had “ironclad” support for Ukraine. “It’s an oversimplified discussion,” he said, stating that Israel has a policy of being cautious with lethal weapons and “there are a million Jews in Russia.” Herzog said that an Israeli air defense alert system – similar to the ones Israel uses to warn of rocket and drone attacks – that Jerusalem provided to Ukraine is slated to be up and running in Kyiv next month.

He added that he and his wife, Michal, last month hosted Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelensky, calling it “an incredible visit.” 

Notable attendees among the audience of roughly 500 people included Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, Acting Consul General to New York Israel Nitzan and Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog. 

Herzog made reference to Kol Ha’am, a dialogue initiative he launched in April at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Tel Aviv to address growing tensions between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The president noted that in the same room the crowd had gathered in, “we’ve convened one of 18 labs under my initiative, the voice of the people — Kol Ha’am — to discuss the challenges that are facing world Jewry all over the world, 18 labs all over the world. It’s only the beginning of my entire initiative, which is to form a platform of dialogue.”

Outside the venue, roughly two dozen protestors gathered outside to demonstrate against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul and what they saw as Herzog whitewashing it. 

“We are here to tell President Herzog without sugarcoating it, we were disappointed in his speech to Congress pretending Israel is a vibrant democracy when we are days from destroying it,” a protestor named Boaz told Jewish Insider. “I think we should say it like it is. We’re in a critical moment. We are days from the beginning of the end of democracy in Israel.”

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, president of Eitan-The American Israeli Jewish Network, traveled from Stamford, Conn., with his 2-year-old daughter to rally outside of Herzog’s address. “We’re here to keep Israel and not destroy it,” Poupko told JI. “There’s a new generation in Israel, it’s a beautiful gift and it seems like everyone is burning it down. So we’re here to stand with democracy in solidarity with people marching in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. President Herzog is not in charge of the whole process, but what I would say to him is don’t ruin it.” 

Earlier on Thursday in separate meetings with Herzog, both New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams mentioned that New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. 

“I always always say over and over again, New York City is the Tel Aviv of America,” Adams said on Thursday at the headquarters of the New York Police Department, where he met with Herzog and discussed security matters with him. Their meeting included a discussion of emergency preparedness, assisting other countries in natural disasters and countering antisemitic hate crimes, a city official told JI.

During a tour of the department’s Joint Operations Center, which serves as a command center during major public events, Herzog paused to ask questions about the large digital screens lining the walls — and he was impressed to learn that the department has 60,000 cameras across the city it can tap into and pull up on those screens.

“We’re not silent partners,” Adams said of New York City’s relationship with Israel. “We fight together against terrorism and against assault, and we’re going to continue to lift each other up. So it’s good to have the president here, and we’re going to continue to develop a relationship with the diversity of this city.” 

Asked why he held his meeting with Herzog at police headquarters, Adams told reporters: “Once a cop, always a cop.” During the visit, Herzog also met with Rabbi Alvin Kass, NYPD’s 87-year-old chief chaplain, and the Shomrim Society, a group of Jewish NYPD officers.

Earlier in the day, Herzog visited the United Nations and met with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Accompanying him was Leah Goldin, whose son, Hadar Goldin, was killed by the Hamas terror group. His body is still being held captive by Hamas.

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