I can’t sit at home in comfortable Palo Alto while my country, the one and only Jewish state, is burning. And neither should you. President Herzog’s historic visit to Congress is precisely the occasion to speak up for Israeli democracy.
l am an Israeli-American, an Israeli-born Jew, and a newly minted Jewish American. I wish it was otherwise, but I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for six months. Every ounce of energy has been devoted to UnXeptable, a protest movement with a single-minded goal: saving Israeli democracy.
Together with an ever-widening network of hundreds of volunteers, UnXeptable has responded to the grave challenge posed by the current ultra right-wing Israeli government. We have galvanized thousands of Jewish Americans to join in dozens of public protests and advocacy meetings. We have lobbied mainstream community organizations, often pleading with established leaders not to turn over their stages and give open microphones to extremists and to Israeli leaders who forsake the values of Jewish peoplehood. We have garnered support from American public figures, including a letter signed by nearly 50 members of Congress. We are united by a common commitment to reinstate the values on which the State of Israel was established, core values of social justice and democracy.
My message to our Jewish brothers and sisters in America is as simple as it is stark: the Israel you know and love is under assault. It’s a self-inflicted crisis. If you don’t believe me, read the open letter from Yossi Klein Halevi, Daniel Gordis and Matti Friedman. Or if you read Hebrew, look at the recent interview with one of Israel’s most decorated and respected military figures, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, where he lauds the IDF reserve pilots who have threatened to refuse military service in the face of the government’s assault on democratic institutions.
This emergency begs for a global Jewish response. Don’t be bystanders. Don’t be onlookers. Suspend the usual playbook of deference, for Israel is going down a path that forsakes the bonds of peoplehood and shared values you fought so hard for decades to instill.
Make no mistake, we are gathering in Washington this week to cheer President Herzog. He is a responsible, wise, and moderate leader, and there is still a chance he could steer the ship of state toward a peaceful outcome that avoids further civil strife. When you join us, you are also cheerleading for President Herzog. We are also gathering in Washington to ask our Jewish brothers and sisters not to look away. Our prime minister faces multiple indictments for serious crimes, and he’s tried to rig the justice system to allow himself to get off Scot-free. Racists, homophobes and extremists sit in the cabinet.
The late Rep. John Lewis taught us that sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone, make noise and “get in good trouble.” In Washington, we will be reading the speech of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, delivered at one of Washington’s most historic marches, albeit in a different context, and draw inspiration from his warning about becoming passive onlookers. We pay tribute to Jewish American leaders like the late Shoshana Cardin, who understood there are times when it is necessary for Diaspora leaders to confront Israeli peers when they go astray.
We are also gathering to say thank you to contemporary leaders, like Susie Gelman, and so many others, who have joined us in this hour of need. We are also being led by our young people, some too young to vote in either Israel or America, but not too young to man the barricades and inspire their peers to take action.
Make no mistake, saving Israeli democracy is not a question of left and right, it’s a question of right and wrong. We are grateful so many communities have joined this struggle. We have forged alliances with a broad array of Jewish community allies, from the Union for Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, to numerous Federation, synagogue and JCRC leaders who have taken a stand, sometimes even when their own institutions refrained from doing so formally.
A veteran liberal Zionist organization, AMEINU, opened its doors and welcomed us to march with them at the Israel parade in New York last month. Our huge contingent swelled their ranks, and we were joined by leading Congressman Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
To our community critics, including those who scoff, citing a history of Israeli detachment from North American Jewish life, we acknowledge that our distance was a mistake. But pay careful attention, today we are knocking on your doors. We need one another. Perhaps this is the silver lining and a once in a generation opportunity to draw Israeli-Americans deeper into communal life. Do not be put off by our “chutzpah” tactics, and don’t think we are in this struggle joyfully. It is a deeply painful moment for all of us.
Deep down, we are fellow travelers in terms of peoplehood and liberalism. Moreover, we come to you in the spirit of “Ahavat Yisrael,” it is out of our love and concern for the Jewish people that we turn to you first and foremost.
When one’s homeland is in crisis, just as we do in our personal lives, we turn first to family. This is precisely why our grassroots movement will continue to build alliances and deepen cooperation with every Jewish community willing to support Israeli democracy.
Offir Gutelzon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @UnXeptableD