Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets each Saturday night over the last 22 weeks to protest the judicial reform and the current government in an impressive display – whether one agrees with the protests or not – of the country’s vibrant democracy.
Proportionally, 150,000 protesting in Israel is equivalent to about 5.3 million protesting in America. Imagine getting 5.3 million Americans to protest week after week for five and a half months about anything, let alone the makeup of the committee to appoint Supreme Court justices.
And the protesters’ message is getting across.
That Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s judicial reform plan has, for all intents and purposes, been mothballed, and talks are ongoing under President Isaac Herzog’s auspices to come to a consensus on changes in the judiciary, are a testament to the effectiveness of the protests. Israel has known many protests over many issues; few of them, however, have been as sustained and large as this one.
This being the case, the question arises whether these protests need now be exported and transplanted to cities abroad. What benefit is to be gained by Jews – Israelis and Americans – on the streets of New York protesting against the reform there?
It is not as if no one is listening to the voices being raised in Israel. Why raise them overseas? Why harass and harangue government ministers abroad when it can be done – and is done – with such ease on Israeli soil?
The answer given is that the judicial upheaval and this government are so egregious, the long-term stakes for Israel are so high, that all means – short of violence – are legitimate in stopping it. And these means include shouting juicy epithets at government representatives when they appear in New York or elsewhere, for that matter.
What is the matter, these people ask, in making the representatives of this government – a government they maintain wants to upend Israel’s democracy – feel uncomfortable and not wanted wherever they walk on the globe?The problem is one of perception.
The US public is accustomed to seeing protests against Israel and Israeli officials – be it when the prime minister visits Washington, when AIPAC holds a large gathering or at college campuses. But these protests are usually organized and carried out by Palestinians or their supporters. The US public is unaccustomed to seeing US Jews and Israelis protesting against or harassing Israeli government officials on American soil.
While the Palestinians and their supporters are often protesting against the state itself, the Jews now demonstrating are only protesting against the current government of that state. However, that nuance – a mighty important one – may very well be lost on the average ABC or NBC viewer catching a glimpse of the Jews protesting against government officials at a Salute for Israeli parade or hounding them as they walk down Fifth Avenue.
The late US senator John McCain fiercely criticized the Obama administration. Yet when he was on one of his many trips abroad, he made it a point not to voice his criticism. The reason: an understanding of the importance of maintaining a positive international image for the United States.
Israel, even more than the US, needs a positive international image abroad. But when protesters – Jewish protesters – chant about the end of Israeli democracy, the threat of dictatorship and the dawn of Israeli fascism – not on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv but in the streets of Manhattan – that adds to a negative perception of the country.
Protests in New York give mixed signals
This is problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, because those who want to do Israel harm – not because of one government or one reform or the other, but because the very idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East is anathema to them – just get a strong backwind from these displays of anti-government manifestations by Jews abroad.
These opponents will not distinguish between opposition to the government and opposition to the state, and they will use the protests of Jews abroad against Israeli officials to strengthen their case against Israel’s legitimacy.
Secondly, protests of American Jews shouting dictatorship and fascism at Israeli leaders will provide additional excuses to cut off all ties with Israel for those American Jews who for years have been backpedaling from the Jewish state.
Last week, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City addressed the phenomenon of liberal American Jews growing distant from Israel at a conference he initiated, entitled “re-CHARGING Reform Judaism.”
Hirsch cannot be accused of having sympathy with the current government or the judicial reform, as he made clear in his significant keynote speech at the conference. But he also made clear that giving no quarter to those seeking to harm Israel was important. The question is whether these types of protests abroad inadvertently give such quarter.
“I am troubled by weakening attachments to Israel, the most eloquent expression of Jewish peoplehood in our times,” Hirsch said. “For the record, like so many of us, I am appalled by elements of the current Israeli government. We will never sanitize ultra-nationalist extremists and religious fundamentalists. They are out of the mainstream and beyond the pale of normative Jewish and Zionist values.
“But the process of distancing from Israel was gathering strength for many years before this government came into existence. If anything, the crisis imposes upon us a greater urgency. I worry – deeply – that increasing numbers of liberal young adults, including those entering Reform leadership, express indifference to Israel, or worse, opposition not to the policies of Israeli governments, but to the very legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and the Jewish state.”
“To critique decision-makers is what Jews do,” Hirsch said, adding: “To turn against Israel; to join our ideological opponents and political enemies in castigating Zionism is a sign of Jewish illness, an atrophying of our intellectual and emotional commitment to our people.”
Some of what is being chanted at these protests abroad – about a fascist Israel sliding into dictatorship – will make it easier for those already distant to – as Hirsch said – “join our ideological opponents and political enemies in castigating Zionism.
“We cannot march arm-in-arm with Israel-haters, lending them our moral authority and confusing our own followers,” he said. “We must oppose them, and we must let everyone know why we cannot join them.”Jews and Israelis protesting against the government and judicial reform in New York are not in any way Israel haters. Yet their actions may inadvertently confuse people who may erroneously interpret their demonstrations as being not against the government but against the state itself.
When hundreds of thousands of people – many of them proudly waving Israeli flags – take to the streets in Israel to protest against the government and the judicial reform, there can be little confusion that they are opposed to the government and its policies and not against the state itself. When Jews protest against Israeli officials abroad, this may be less clear to the uninitiated, and it may be interpreted by those not familiar with the nuances of Israel as opposing the state itself.
It’s one thing to demonstrate against the government and its officials in Israel. It’s another thing – with substantial risks of misinterpretation by the general public – when those protests and their rhetoric are repeated abroad.