Marching for Israel: Lessons Learned

By | Jun 12, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Forged Together by Protest

Last week’s Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City had all the trappings of the annual pro-Israel festival, complete with marching bands, floats, enthusiastic Jewish day school students and thousands of New Yorkers standing along Fifth Avenue cheering.

But it was also very different. The annual show of solidarity with Israel provided a brutal reflection of Israel’s current state of affairs: a divided nation, where dissent and mistrust of government rule the day.

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition—cabinet ministers such as Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and members of the Knesset, including Ofir Sofer of the Religious Zionist Partybore most of the brunt. As they tried to put on a happy face and wave to the crowd, they were confronted by protesters, most of them Israeli expats, shouting: “Shame! Shame!”—the unofficial rallying call of the protest movement against Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul.

Behind the cabinet members marched a peaceful and cheerful group of Israeli and American supporters of the protest movements. Clad in light blue shirts and carrying Israeli flags, the marchers chanted, “Demokratya,” Hebrew for, well, democracy.

When the numbers were in, it turned out that this group was one of the largest in the entire parade, with more than 1,000 registered marchers. 

Perhaps more important is the fact that this was a joint effort, driven by Ameinu, a relatively small but established progressive Jewish American group, and joined by Israeli American pro-democracy activists, many of whom were loosely affiliated with UnXeptable, an umbrella organization mobilizing Israelis in the United States to take part in protests against the proposed judicial overhaul in Israel.

Efforts to engage American Jews in the protests have been occurring ever since Israelis began to take to the streets in Israel in January. Now, for the first time, the collaboration seems real. Throughout the parade and surrounding events, Israeli Americans were still more visible (and yes, noisier), but liberal American Jews were there in large numbers. Many members of left-leaning organizations also showed up at protests outside other gatherings, seeking to make their voices heard to visiting Israeli government officials.

I’ve noted in the past that the goals of the Jewish American community and of Israeli Americans overlap but are not identical. Israelis living in the United States seek primarily to replicate the protests going on back home, focusing solely on judicial reform and the future of Israeli democracy, while liberal Jewish Americans are also concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the unilateral actions taken by Israel that undermine a future two-state solution.

These differences still exist, but for a couple of days in New York last week, they were put aside in favor of a show of unity tying together the left-of-center wing of the American Jewish community and their Israeli peers who have made America their home.

2. A Dividing Force

Netanyahu understood by early Sunday morning that the presence of his cabinet ministers and top coalition members in New York was drawing negative attention and not helping his government’s image internationally.

This understanding came after a few tense days, highlighted by MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s Judiciary Committee and the politician most involved in advancing the overhaul legislation, who was caught on camera forcefully grabbing a megaphone from a protester on Friday evening. Several other Israeli ministers were forced to cancel public events due to protests.

Netanyahu made a private plea to his eight cabinet ministers who flew out to New York, asking them to sit out the parade in hopes that a less visible Israeli government presence would draw less attention to the protesters. His request was also driven by domestic political calculations, as Netanyahu was facing criticism at home for the overblown size of the Israeli delegation.

But only two ministers, Nir Barkat and Ofir Akunis, adhered to his call. Most chose to march, and, as expected, faced protesters all along the route.

Was it worth it? Probably not.

The thousands of New Yorkers who simply wanted to show their love for the Jewish state couldn’t care less if Israel’s minister of information or minister of immigration showed up and marched. These are unknown figures for most American Jews, and if anything, their presence only served as a distraction.

3. Ruining the Party

As I was walking up and down the 20-block parade stretch along Fifth Avenue, several people reached out to me with a word of complaint (it was a Jewish event, after all). But they had a valid point: Why is the media focusing its coverage on a handful of protesters instead of on the vast majority of attendees who came out on a sunny day to celebrate Israel, regardless of whatever infighting is going on there between supporters of the judicial overhaul and those who oppose it?

The response, as always, was that this is what we dowe report on the new, the novel, the exciting.

But it also drove home a bigger issue.

Protests and dissent have always existed in the Jewish community, especially when it comes to Israel. But for most they’ve been contained to the left and right margins of the community. If the current wave of protests continues to pick up speed, it could very well be the case that middle-of-the-road members of the Jewish community will no longer feel comfortable engaging in the discussion about Israel. The ordinary, almost obvious, decades-old support for Israel may be a thing of the past, and those mainstream community members who adhere to it could find themselves ignored, just like those supporters lined up along Fifth Avenue last week.

4. Could It Have Been Done Differently?

For sure. The government of Israel clearly bears responsibility for last week’s debacle.

Its insistence on allowing as many ministers as interested to attend the New York parade, and not coordinating their mission with Jewish communal organizations on the ground, put organizers in an unnecessarily difficult situation and allowed the festivities to get hijacked by protesters. 

Sure, Jewish leaders were out there praising the diversity of the community and its ability to host a vigorous debate, but speaking off the record, several communal figures expressed their unease with the massive presence of Israeli officials at the event, one of them noting that the Israeli government demonstrated a lack of sensitivity and consideration toward the Jewish American community.

5. On the Other Hand

All this may give the impression that the entire Jewish American community is either strongly opposed to the Netanyahu government and its proposed reforms, or is uninterested in weighing in on domestic Israeli issues.

But that’s hardly the case.

Just as the Celebrate Israel Parade ended, another gathering kicked off in a midtown Manhattan hotel. It was organized by Besheva, a right-wing Orthodox Israeli publication affiliated with the television channel Arutz Sheva, and it featured Israeli cabinet ministers and members of Knesset, alongside settler leaders and activists. Here, right-wing politicians from Israel could feel at home. The audience of mostly Orthodox American Jews offered them a warm welcome and listened attentively as they promoted the judicial reform, promised expansion of settlements, ranted about the protesters outside and criticized the Biden administration. Even MK Rothman, after being chased all over town by protesters, got a brief respite on stage with Alan Dershowitz. 

The next day, The Jerusalem Post held its conference, also in New York but with a more diverse array of speakers, with coalition and opposition members sharing the stage, as well as U.S. senators and other officials from both parties. Organizers went to great lengths to make sure activists opposed to the reform didn’t disrupt the event. They preemptively withdrew tickets of participants who were suspected of supporting the protest movements and hired burly Israeli and American security guards, who aggressively shoved a handful of activists who had made it into the event out of the hall.

The conservative wing of the American Jewish community isn’t always heard, but during the past week, when tensions reached a boiling point, it managed to provide embattled representatives of the Israeli government with the feeling that at least some in the Jewish community are on their side.

Image credit: @CelebrateIsrael/Shmuel Schneider (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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