Audio Posts and Shared Links Audio Sources - Full Text Articles

What American Jews should do about the assault on Israeli democracy

Listen to this article

This is our editor-in-chief’s weekly newsletter. Click here to get it delivered to your inbox on Friday afternoons.

Purim has passed, which means Passover is nigh, and I find myself rewriting Dayenu:


When 80,000 Israelis stood in a downpour for hours to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assault on their democracy, it should have been enough to make him reconsider.


When American rabbis stopped reciting the Prayer for Israel and began speaking bravely from the bimah against Netanyahu’s racist and right-wing government, it should have been enough to send thousands of their congregants into the streets.


When settlers torched the Palestinian town of Huwara in what can only be described as a pogrom, and when Netanyahu’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said Huwara should be “wiped from the map,” and when Israel Bonds refused to cancel Smotrich’s speech at its upcoming Washington conference, it should have been far more than enough.


When IDF reservists from elite units say they would refuse call-up orders if Netanyahu goes through with legislation undermining the independence of the country’s Supreme Court … when Jewish Democrats in Congress pen a public letter to Netanyahu pleading for compromise … when Israeli tech entrepreneurs consider abandoning Start-Up Nationwhen Israel’s president describes Thursday’s ‘Day of Disruption’ as “a nation’s nightmare” … when terror attacks in Israel and deadly violence in the occupied West Bank spiral up along with antisemitism here and everywhere … enough, enough, enough.


So what are we, American Jews who want to see Israel make it to its 75th birthday this spring as a healthy and safe Jewish democracy, to do and to think about it all? I called up my friend Yossi Klein Halevi for a consult.


“We need American Jews in this conversation,” he told me. “When someone you love is in trouble, you don’t pull away, you draw closer.”

Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of what I think is the single-best book about modern Israel, Like Dreamers, which tells the story of the state through the lives of seven paratroopers who helped recapture the Old City during the 1967 War. He made aliyah in 1982, after a childhood in Orthodox Brooklyn — including a regretful stint in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s extremist Jewish Defense League.


He is religiously Orthodox, he is politically centrist, and he is among the most insightful people I know about all things Israel. He was there that Saturday night in Tel Aviv during the downpour, as he has been every week, the first street protests he’s joined since his bad old days as a right-wing radical.


“I have never been so drenched in my life — and I have never felt so moved. It was one of the most powerful Israeli experiences, spiritual Israeli experiences, that I’ve ever had,” Yossi told me via Zoom yesterday. “Everyone was drenched to our underwear. And there was this sense of ‘We’re not moving.’ Suddenly, you looked around and you felt this sense of uplift.”


Yossi pointed out that the summer he moved to Israel, during the Second Lebanon War, was one of the lowest points in its history, saying the country was “never more divided.” But this is a lower point still, he said, with a “morally illegitimate government” that itself comprises “an existential threat, no less than a military threat,” to the state’s survival. 


“It’s taken a while, for understandable reasons, for American Jews to catch on, that what’s happening in Israel is not just another internal policy debate, but that this is a life-and-death issue for Israel,” Yossi told me. 


“It is a complicated issue. But what’s not complicated is that a government headed by a prime minister who’s on trial for corruption has no right to touch the judicial system,” Yossi added, noting that the heads of several other parties in the coalition are convicted felons. “This is a coalition of the thoroughly corrupt and the ideologically corrupt. They have no right to be doing this.”


I pointed out that he and his fellow political centrists had not one but five chances over the last three years to prevent this from happening, using the democratic tool of voting, and failed to keep Netanyahu from returning to the premiership and from creating a coalition empowering racists and right-wingers.


“We are screwing up in multiple ways,” he acknowledged. “There’s something that many of us in Israel did not want to fully face, and now we have no choice.”


“There’s a convergence of deep distortions in Israeli society that we can no longer ignore,” he continued, mentioning settler violence and the Haredi stranglehold on religious expression, marriage and conversion as well as the integrity of the legal system.


Liberal Israel is finally awakening. And nothing is ever going to be the same in Israel. We’re not going to take these distortions in our government and in our society as a given any more.” 

“We need American Jews in this conversation. When someone you love is in trouble, you don’t push them away, you draw closer.”

– Yossi Klein Halevi, American-Israeli author

A month ago, Halevi joined with two other brand-name centrist and right-leaning North American-Israeli writers, Matti Friedman and Daniel Gordis, to pen an open letter calling for help from us in the Diaspora. He said the triumvirate had been pleased to see establishment Jewish leaders and organizations, like the Jewish Federations of North America, speak critically about Netanyahu’s proposals in ways they have not before. 


But a friend I spoke to this week dismissed the Jewish organizational response as weak tea, and she has a point: Why aren’t Federations organizing protests that pro-Israel Jews like her can proudly attend in defense of democracy, protests where they hand out huge Israeli flags, rather than leaving the opposition in the hands of the pro-Palestinian left?


“Yes! I would love to see big solidarity demonstrations with the Israel that American Jews love,” Yossi said. “I want to see thousands of Israeli flags in the streets of New York and Boston and LA. Just as you see it in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and Haifa. To entrust the American streets to the left, or the Jewish left or the Jewish far left, is to completely miss the point of what’s happening here. This is the moment for mainstream American Jews who love Israel to go to the Israeli consulate in your city, waving a giant Israeli flag, and say, ‘We’re with you.’”


I asked if he thought Americans should cancel planned trips to Israel in protest — on the contrary, Yossi said, “there should be missions to democratic Israel, come and be part of what’s going on, come to a demonstration. They’re extraordinary experiences. It will enhance your love of Israel.”


I asked if Congress should consider conditioning military aid on Israel keeping its judicial system independent and strong. “Absolutely not,” Yossi said, the military “has to be beyond reach” so long as Israel faces threats from Iran and elsewhere. But, he added, perhaps it’s time to stop buying Israel bonds.


He also pleaded for American Jews to redirect charitable donations from leftist Israeli groups like Breaking the Silence and B’tselem focused on the occupation and human rights violations against Palestinians toward centrist political parties or universities or civil-society groups focused on democracy. 


“To strengthen the far left is to undermine democracy, because it alienates Israelis on the soft right, and the hope for making a change in Israel is to bring soft-right voters to the center,” he said. 


“At the first couple of demonstrations, you had far leftists coming with big Palestinian flags, and  that was a gift to Netanyahu. He would retweet those photographs and say, ‘This is my opposition,’” Yossi explained. “And the response, the pushback of the Israeli center, was to show up the next week with thousands of giant Israeli flags. That was a signal to soft-right-wing voters: We are we are no different, we are no less patriotic, than you. The far left is a gift to Netanyahu.”


It would certainly be easier for American Jews to look away. Israel increasingly feels like the shameful uncle you’d rather not talk about with anyone outside the family. But walking away from a relative in trouble with the law or a neighbor who won’t leave their abusive partner or a colleague being canceled is cowardly. 


“What, you’re only going to be with us when we give you nachas? You’re only with us when we  pull an Entebbe. That’s the measure of the relationship?” Yossi said, challenging me, challenging all of us. “The measure of the relationship is: Are you with us when we disgrace the Jewish people? And that’s when you stand up and say: ‘No, Israel is too precious. And we’re not going to allow you to disgrace 4,000 years of the Jewish story.’”


Dayenu. It’s not enough to wring our hands and criticize from the sidelines. It’s time to put up your flag and tell people what it means to you. Before it doesn’t mean anything at all.

Thanks to Matthew Litman for contributing to this newsletter,

and Adam Langer for editing it.  


Shabbat Shalom! Questions/feedback:



With Israel’s 75th approaching, I’ve been thinking about my first visit, on USY’s Poland-Israel Pilgrimage in 1987. There were a lot of life-changing moments on that trip, and silly ones, like how we used to go to “Don’t Pass Me By Tea & Pie” on Saturday nights and say it was someone’s birthday because they’d then make our slice a la mode for no extra charge. 


I’ll also never forget my parents’ first trip, in 1993, where one of the highlights was our dinner at a restaurant in East Jerusalem called Philadelphia— my first real encounter with Palestinians, during the tragically brief optimistic era around Oslo.  


When did you first visit the holy land, and what are your strongest memories? Please use the button below to send us a photograph and a brief description. We may publish a selection. 



Your Weekend Reads: Download the PDF

Cross-dressing on Purim could become dangerous in Tennessee. Swastikas are being laser-beamed in Florida. Four teenage girls from around the country open up about their experiences playing Anne Frank on stage. American JCCs are failing to foster connections among Jews. Muhammad Ali’s beloved Jewish cornerman. The strange dance between the ADL and Fox News.


And: The Haredi cat rescuer of Brooklyn. 


Download the printable (PDF) ➤

Jewish News Quiz
The Yiddish Wordle


In which Benyamin and Laura talk to Jacob and Beth about the Israel crisis, among other things.




‘Playing Anne Frank’ | March 13, March 23 and April 2 | Chicago, NYC and online

That’s right. Our Adam Langer will be talking about his brilliant podcast diving deep into the cultural history of The Diary of Anne Frank in not one but three upcoming events.


Register here for the virtual conversation this Monday at 4:30 p.m. ET with Holocaust educator Shana Stein about how The Diary helped shape millions of Americans’ understanding of the Shoah.


And click here to buy a ticket for the 6:30 p.m. CT talk at the Holocaust museum in Skokie, Illinois, where Adam will be in conversation with Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune about why he put The Diary at the center of his novel about an abusive high school drama teacher in the 1980s — and then did a podcast about it.


Or sign up here join us April 2 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, where Adam will be joined by several actors from the original 1955 Broadway production of the play and the touring company that followed it, actors who have not seen each other in decades.


Remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail at my New Jersey synagogue? Well, the outpouring from our community has been incredible. A group called AAPI Montclair made us these 1,236 colorful paper cranes, which Rabbi Marc Katz had hung in the lobby (below). Turns out the term for this is “tsurus,” which is just too poetic, coming as a response to our “tsuris.”  


“The Japanese legend is that one who folds 1,000 paper cranes will have their wish come true,” the group wrote. “Our shared wish and commitment,” it continued, is to “realizing a community that is bound together by our shared humanity.” Amen. 




The post What American Jews should do about the assault on Israeli democracy appeared first on The Forward.

WP Radio
WP Radio