The demonstration, which yielded a turnout of two hundred people, was held in solidarity with Israeli protesters against right-wing legal reforms and settlement policies
Members of progressive Jewish organizations gathered outside the Israeli embassy on Friday afternoon to protest policies advanced by Israel’s new right-wing government, which came to power in late December after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a ruling coalition.
Organized by the umbrella group Progressive Israel Network, the protest’s main focus was Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposed reforms to the Israeli justice system. Levin aims to strip the High Court of its ability to repeal legislation which contradicts Israel’s Basic Laws.
The speakers also called on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and stressed the urgency of peace with the Palestinians.
The organizations represented at the protests included Americans for Peace Now (APN), JStreet, T’ruah, Partners for Progressive Israel and Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal — all member groups of the Progressive Israel Network.
Although Israel’s government is new, many of the protesters felt that its agenda is a more radical extension of policies enacted by Netanyahu’s past governments. Rabbi Rachel Gartner, former co-chair of the rabbinical organization T’ruah, described the government’s actions as an “extreme acceleration of trends that we’ve seen before, leading [Israel] to an inflection point.”
APN President Hadar Susskind kicked off the demonstration, thanking attendees for showing up despite near-freezing weather. Alluding to a similar demonstration he helped organize at the start of January, Susskind noted that APN normally doesn’t do protests.
“We go to meetings here inside all the time,” he said, pointing to the embassy building. “But it [the protest a month ago] was the first time for us standing outside and saying: ‘Yes, we are protesting the government of Israel.’”
Susskind mentioned that the demonstration was in solidarity with Israeli protesters who have been marching each Saturday night in urban centers.
“We’re standing here in the shadow of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who come out here every week, we’re standing here echoing their voices. Israelis are making it loud and clear that they too are opposed to what this government is doing,” he said.
The protest had a strong religious element to it, with a number of rabbis and cantors in attendance.
Rabbi Esther Lederman spoke on behalf of T’ruah. She invoked a midrash (rabbinical exegesis) about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds from last week’s Torah portion to implore others to speak against the Netanyahu government.
“The sea didn’t part until the Israelites set foot in the water, freedom could not come until the people believed in it, had faith in it, and realized that they have some agency in making it come to be,” she said.
Similarly, Rabbi David Shneyer, the spiritual leader of Am Kolel, a community affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, held up a shofar as a “warning to the people.”
“We have a lot to worry about, and this sound is a sound of warning,” Shneyer said before blowing the shofar. Afterwards, he led the group in singing a song long associated with the Israeli peace movement, “Shir LaShalom.”
The protest had an older skew, however there were a couple of young speakers.
Avraham Spraragen, a graduate student at Georgetown University representing Partners for Progressive Israel, described in detail his experiences as a fellow for the New Israel Fund
“In Masafer Yatta, my group visited with Palestinians on the verge of expulsion, in Hebron we visited Meir Kahane Park, where Baruch Goldstein is memorialized,” he said, referring to the perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre.
Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at this university, also attended the protest as president of Partners for Progressive Israel. He attributed the lack of young people to awkward timing, inferring that most students were either in school or at work.
After the speeches ended, Lederman led the group in a blessing over wine and bread. The group dispersed soon afterwards.
Despite a limited turnout, APN spokesman Ori Nir believes it’s important that American Jews make their voice heard.
“Obviously our numbers are much smaller and our impact is much more limited, but still we thought it’s important that there is some kind of an echo here in the United States,” said APN spokesman Ori Nir.
Nir believes the threat to Israel’s judiciary has only grown since the organization’s last protest a month ago. Although the Biden Administration has become more vocal in its concern about Israeli government actions, he is skeptical that this alone will have meaningful influence.
“We definitely think that the US needs to increase its pressure both publicly and privately,” he said. “We’re hoping that this administration will come up with a set of red lines for the Israeli government, both when it comes to democracy and that includes the proposed legal reform, and when it comes to matters that have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Many of those at the protest have been longtime advocates for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and feel that Israel is moving further and further from that ideal.
“It’s a difficult and depressing time,” Scham said. “I and others have been working on this issue since before the Oslo Accords… I hope other people will be taking up the struggle and younger American Jews won’t be abandoning Israel.”