Friday’s Protest for Democracy in Israel at the UN was Historic

Nobel Laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman (Screenshot from a video by USA for Israeli Democracy)
Nobel Laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman (Screenshot from a video by USA for Israeli Democracy)

On Friday thousands of American Jews and Israelis protested to support Israeli democracy. The protest took place outside the UN headquarters, while Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly. It was a historic event, and as one of the organizers, I want to tell you why.

Photo: Esther Sperber

As soon as we confirmed that Netanyahu would be coming to New York to speak at the UN General Assembly, our group, which had been organizing the weekly New York demonstrations in solidarity with the weekly Israeli protests opposing the judicial overhaul in Israel, started planning a series of larger protests. 

We knew that Netanyahu would try to downplay the legislation his government has already passed and the new legislation his extremist cabinet is planning to bring to vote in the next session of the Knesset this fall. He would try to focus media coverage and his conversations with dignitaries on Iran’s nuclear plans, President Biden’s plan to broker new diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and AI. Our intent was clear – we wanted to make sure that everywhere he went and everyone he met would be reminded by the sound of our protest that there has been an unprecedented protest movement in Israel for the last nine months, fighting to protect the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court, which is the only check on Israel’s single-house parliament and executive branch.

I was in charge of recruiting speakers for four protests that took place last week. I reached out to rabbis, heads of Jewish community organizations, not-for-profits, academics and public intellectuals. An incredible A-list of speakers delivered moving, candid and concise speeches, some of which you can see here.

Some leaders I spoke to were ambivalent about addressing the rally and hesitated to ask their community to participate. They told me, “I agree with your concerns and support resistance in Israel, but I am worried that a demonstration in front of the UN during the Israeli Prime Minister’s address will look like an anti-Israel protest.” 

I admit that I, too, was a bit worried, even while I reassured and promised our speakers that it would be clear we were protesting BECAUSE we love and support Israel, that we all shared a commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. I told them we had 1,000 Israeli flags for the protest. To make sure this was clear, I asked all the speakers to put aside, for the time being, any other concerns they, or their organization, have about Israel and focus on the reason we are gathering together. We want to maintain a wide tent, I explained, that would allow Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews, as well as those representing the political right and left, to chant together “DeMoCratYa.” While I decided I would not review or edit the speeches, I invited speakers based on their leadership and eloquence. I nevertheless worried that one ‘off’ speech could hijack the news coverage and alienate our supporters. 

To my delight, the protest was a huge success. Thousands of Jewish Americans, many protesting for the first time because they could no longer ignore the situation in Israel joined the deeply committed New York-based Israelis and an enthusiastic mix of protest leaders from the main organizations in Israel, Kaplan Force, Brothers and Sisters in Arms (check out the episode of 60 Minutes that featured them) and the energetic drumming corps Pink Front. Many spent the entire week, day and night, trailing Netanyahu to defend Israeli democracy.

Photo: Liri Agami and Dani Tenenbaum
Photo: Roi Bushi

But why was this protest historic? A large group of American and Israeli Jews representing a broad cross-section of our community in religious and political terms, gathered together to protest for Israeli democracy and against the proposed judicial coup and attack on the separation of powers. We stepped forward to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis gathering weekly to defend Israel as a Jewish AND democratic state. And like those protesters throughout Israel, we demonstrated that it is possible to protest the actions of an Israeli government while also showing support for Israel and its people. 

Take a look at the photos and the videos of the speeches from the protest. You will see a sea of Israeli flags and hear Hatikvah sung twice, both at the opening and closing of the protest. You will see the deep love, hope and connection to Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel.

This is a turning point for American Jews and Israelis. A new bridge between Israel and the diaspora is being built. In the diaspora as well as Israel, we who love Israel can speak up to defend her survival and well-being, no less when the existential threat is self-inflicted than God forbid external. Indeed, because we love Israel we must speak out. “L’maan Tzion Lo Echesheh” – for the sake of Zion we must not be silent.

We will continue to stand in solidarity with our Israeli brothers and sisters to fight for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

About the Author
Esther Sperber is an architect, founder of Studio ST Architects. Born and raised in Israel, she has been living in New York for 25 years. She writes and lectures about architecture, culture, religion and psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in the New York Times, The Huffington Post, Lilith, the Jewish Week, TOI the Forward as well as many academic journals. She is one of the leaders of Hostages' Family Forum in NY and the pro democracy protests.
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