Middle East Eye / July 19, 2023
Activists warn Israeli President Isaac Herzog is not apolitical and US should raise concerns over deteriorating conditions in Israel and occupied territories.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog may not be an ally to Benjamin Netanyahu or an official part of the Israeli government, but as a representative of the state, he is complicit in the occupation and discrimination of Palestinians.
This is the message from several progressive Jewish American groups to US politicians as Herzog visits Washington, in a trip analysts describe as US President Joe Biden’s attempt to showcase that the US-Israel relationship transcends the current disagreements with the far-right government led by Netanyahu.
Herzog’s role, widely considered a ceremonial one, has prompted activists to caution against allowing him to be seen as an outsider to the Israeli state and its apartheid policies towards Palestinians.
“His role in this moment is to prevent international accountability for Israel’s actions at a time when accountability is the only thing that can possibly stop not only Netanyahu’s current authoritarian takeover, but decades of illegal occupation and apartheid,” Eva Borgwardt, political director of IfNotNow, a movement of American Jews organizing their communities to end US support for Israel’s apartheid system, says.
“As he has done for years, Herzog is calling for endless negotiation and compromise with extremists while judicial overhaul and brutal and violent repression of Palestinians in the West Bank march ahead,” Borgwardt told Middle East Eye.
During Herzog’s address on Wednesday, he told Congress, “I’m not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this house. I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it.”
While IfnotNow and the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have fully endorsed the decision by some lawmakers – including llhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Cori Bush – to boycott his address in Congress on Wednesday, other progressive Jewish groups say that Herzog’s visit presents a rare opportunity for lawmakers to raise concerns over the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Israel and occupied Palestine.
According to a MEE tally, 192 Palestinians, including 33 children, have been killed by Israeli forces in 2023 alone.
“I think [lawmakers] should use the spotlight that his visit brings to raise the issues of settler violence, settler expansion, creeping annexation, discrimination both in occupied territories and Israel, and raises the issue of Israel’s own democratic struggles – the judicial coup – that is happening,” Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now (APN), told MEE.
Since January, Netanyahu’s coalition government has been pushing for judicial reforms Israelis say will give the government greater control over the appointment of judges and reduce the ability of the judiciary to veto government decisions.
“There’s a lot of people – including Democratic elected officials – who are very happy to talk about the judicial coup part because it is easy to cast – rightfully I think – Netanyahu and his coalition as the bad guys and Herzog as the good guy in that … so they can welcome him.
“I think Israel’s democracy is important and it is worth fighting for. But that cannot be the end of the discussion. You also have to talk about the occupation where there is no democracy. You still have to talk about the discrimination and violence,” Susskind said.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday, JVP described Israel as “a racist state”, adding that “representatives should not be honoring an apartheid politician in the Capitol”.
The group called on more lawmakers to boycott the Israeli president’s speech.
“Herzog presides over an extremist government bent on the total destruction of Palestinian homes and lives.
“Our elected officials should be standing for Palestinian rights, not honoring the president of an apartheid state,” JVP added.
IfnotNow also released a statement in which they lauded the lawmakers who chose to skip Herzog’s speech.
“Lawmakers measuring Herzog’s record against democratic values of freedom and equality are right to find him falling unacceptably short. And American Jews measuring him against our Jewish values of b’tselem elohim, equality of all human beings, should find the same,” Borgwadt from IfNotNow, told MEE.
On Tuesday, the New York-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) said they supported Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez’s – local representatives – decision to steer clear of Herzog’s address.
JFREJ described Herzog as a more “palatable representative to cover up the violent reality on the ground”.
“Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies predate this extremist government. Herzog is a representative of the state responsible for those policies as they continue to escalate,” Audrey Sasson, JFREJ’s executive director, told MEE.
“He does not deserve a warm welcome in Congress,” Sasson said, adding that it was their responsibility as Jews and constituents of Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez to “have their backs and make clear that this is an authentic and legitimate position inside our Jewish communities, as well as beyond it.”
Likewise, the outspoken Jewish writer Peter Beinart lauded the quintet who decided to boycott Herzog in Congress.
“It should be no surprise that progressives like Omar, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez – who are fighting desperately against ethno-nationalists who want to entrench white Christian supremacy in the United States – would boycott an Israeli president who has made Jewish supremacy the guiding principle of his political career,” Beinart wrote in The Guardian.
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City