The protests in Israel offer valuable lessons for Americans
This editorial was published in the Charlotte Observer and in Raleigh and Durham on Monday, April 3, 2023.
Israel just showed us how a nation can preserve democracy when citizens are committed to preserving it. Protecting democracy is crucial to me, whether in the Holy Land or here. It forms the foundation of civil rights, human rights and religious freedoms, not only for me but for my neighbors. When these rights are threatened, I feel compelled to protest. Whether in Raleigh, Charlotte or Jerusalem, I know that using my voice or presence can make a difference.
Israel saw the positive impact of protest last week, when the number of protesters multiplied to 600,000. To put it into perspective, a protest of relative size in the United States would involve around 21.5 million people.
On March 27, Israel’s largest trade union group launched a general strike, closing airports, malls, medical services, even McDonald’s closed its restaurants. Many of my Israeli colleagues and friends were among the protesters.
The protests worked, and hope emerged as, for now, the Prime Minister paused the plans for a judicial overhaul that threatened democracy. My Israeli and American colleagues fervently hope that this is the beginning of a better path, but we recognize that hope is not enough. Protecting civil and human rights is not a sprint but a marathon that requires vigilance.
The global trend of moving away from democracy is alarming. We see it in Russia, Hungary, India, Nicaragua, even in our own country. As a Jewish American, the developments in Israel hit close to home. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and values and cherish the land and the State of Israel. Israel was founded on the principles of democracy as a refuge for Jews who had been persecuted under authoritarianism. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, which can give Israel’s parliament the ability to invalidate Supreme Court decisions, are cause of great concern. Checks and balances and an independent judiciary are essential for a healthy democracy and protecting minorities. In 2012, Netanyahu himself said that “in places with no strong and independent court system, rights cannot be protected.”
The former Israeli government, sworn in during the summer of 2021 and sadly short-lived, was the most diverse coalition ever. For the first time, an Arab party joined the government, marking a watershed moment. However, with its dissolution, the pendulum swung far the other way, bringing in the most nationalistic and extremist government in Israel’s history.
Some reading this may think I am speaking out against Israel. I am not. I am speaking for Israel, a country which I love and for which I have the highest expectations.
I agree with the scholar and rabbi Daniel Gordis who notes that what we just witnessed “was one of the greatest weeks in Israel’s history.” Despite the profound division, the protests were peaceful. There was no looting. There were no images of leaders hung in effigy. There was lawbreaking with the halting of traffic on highways, yet even so, the sea of Israeli protesters promptly parted for an ambulance coming through.
Gordis notes, “100% law abiding protests get absolutely nothing done — even Martin Luther King understood that when he crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge. The trick was to break the law to build something better, not as a way of breaking the state.”
The Israeli protests offer valuable lessons for America. Israelis demonstrated their commitment to a better Israel and showed that change is possible. While the protests achieved a hopeful pause, threats to democracy persist. Vigilance is necessary to ensure that Israel’s founding principles are sustained and thrive. As sovereign citizens, Israelis played the key role in upholding democracy. Israel’s democracy was upheld in the streets. As a supporter of American and Israeli democracy that brings me hope. Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, means “the hope.” I join with my Israeli brothers and sisters in the fervent hope that Israel is rediscovering its North Star and will be a light to us all.
Image by Yoav Aziz