Israelis Rally for Democracy

On Sunday, Feb. 12th, I went out to a demonstration at Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.  It was organized by a new organization of Israelis living in the United States to protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new government, and especially against its effort to subvert the judicial system by upending its power of judicial review — its ability to block laws passed by the Knesset that are deemed “unconstitutional.”  Israel doesn’t actually have a written constitution, but it has a set of “Basic Laws,” its Declaration of Independence and other documents and precedents that inform the principles of an unwritten constitution.   Among the “reforms” the new government is pushing is to nullify Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority vote of the 120 member parliament. 

This is how this group, “UnXeptable,” defines itself at its website:  

UnXeptable is a grassroots movement launched by a group of Israelis residing in the San Francisco – Bay Area in support of a democratic Israel. The foundations of Israeli democracy are being challenged by an ultra-right-wing government led by a Prime Minister indicted for criminal bribery who decided to pass an overhaul judicial reform that will turn Israel from a vibrant liberal democracy into a dictatorship. American Israelis and Israeli ex-pats will not stand idle.

These Israeli ex-pats have rallied across the US in solidarity with hundreds of thousands of Israelis thronging the streets and squares of Israel in protest.  Their numbers here may not be very large (there were fewer than 50 in Washington Square Park), but they were loud and spirited, engaging in heated debate with each other as to what exactly they supported.  My Hebrew is not good enough to understand most of what they said, but I knew they were arguing about whether to include the issue of the occupation and of inequality within Israel in their messaging.   

A vocal minority faction argued with their words, signs and banners that Israel cannot be truly democratic without addressing the Palestinian question.  The organizers, and probably most in the crowd, were not pro-occupation, but felt that the issue at hand was the immediate crisis brought by this new governing coalition, and that the protest movement weakened itself if it included the Palestinian issue in its agenda; they saw this as alienating rightists who were alarmed by the efforts of an indicted Prime Minister and two ex-convict ministers (Deri and Ben-Gvir)  to eliminate the court as a check & balance to unbridled executive and legislative power.  (During the rally, it turned out that an Israeli came by exclaiming in an anguished tone that he was concerned about what’s going on in Israel, but couldn’t join with people who displayed banners and posters featuring the Palestinian flag.)  

At the end, we listened to President Herzog’s impassioned address to the nation, imploring the government to compromise with the opposition and the Supreme Court to avert a “constitutional and social collapse.”  Gili Getz, an Israeli-American actor and activist who has worked with local liberal Zionist organizations for years, served as informal master of ceremonies.  He summarized Herzog’s speech in English for those of us less than fluent in Hebrew.  

The following are images of the New York rally, courtesy of my journalist friend, Doug Chandler: