Ed Gaskin

What Can I Do to Help Israel’s Democracy Movement?

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - January 21, 2023: Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against plans by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu .
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - January 21, 2023: Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against plans by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu .

An African American Christian seeks guidance from Jewish friends around the world

The first in a series of questions for Times of Israel readers.

American Jews have been helping American Blacks fight for civil rights for the past century as part of tikkun olam — the mission to repair the world. Is now the time for Black people and the Black church in America to support Jews and Israel? If so, how?

The current democracy protest movement in Israel is massive, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting at more than 100 sites throughout Israel on a regular basis. The protests began in January, and polling indicates that at least one out of every five Israelis has participated.

As an African American Christian who practices Judaism and belongs to a synagogue, I’m not sure what I should do regarding this cause. Because I have become a member of the Jewish community and have made Jewish friends in Israel and Arab friends who are both Christian and Muslim, I relate to this struggle more than to other democracy movements around the world.

Some of my Jewish friends swear that the existence of Israel as we know it is at stake. Others don’t see the problem as so severe.

Advice from my Reform Jewish friends ranges from, “Stay out of it. There’s no upside for you,” to “Better to focus your efforts on the problems we have with the government here in the U.S.” Another said, “American Jews have supported American Blacks, but Israelis are racist in terms of their treatment of Africans in Israel including Ethiopian Jews and in Africa,” meaning American Blacks shouldn’t feel compelled to support Israel since Israel supported South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Congregants from my Reform synagogue regularly demonstrate for many causes, including reproductive rights, gun safety, fair housing, and environmental justice. Typically, we protest because we want the government to do something it’s not doing or to stop doing something it is doing. When it comes to the situation in Israel, it’s not as clear what I want our government to do or not do.

Some Jews champion Palestinian rights in Israel and the West Bank, up to and including support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which is seen as antisemitic by the Anti-Defamation League. One argument I’ve heard against BDS is that if one is not protesting and boycotting other countries that violate recognized human rights practices, why single out Israel? So it confuses me when those same people say I should be advocating for the collapse of the current elected government in Israel. To me, working for the collapse of the current government seems far more intrusive than participating in a BDS boycott.

In has been an unspoken practice that American Jews don’t criticize Israel, at least not publicly. When non-Jews criticize Israel, they are often suspected of being antisemitic. Some Israelis would say in this break glass in case of emergency moment this is different. American Jews need to speak out. But what about non-Jews?

In any case, I don’t understand why the Israeli government would listen to someone who is neither Israeli nor Jewish any more than the American government would listen to a protester who is not a registered voter or even an American citizen. Do we listen to “Dreamers,” who are neither citizens nor able to vote? On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to simply wish those in the struggle well and tell them to call me when it’s over.

It seems wrong to know what’s going on and be silent, as that seems to imply complicity. In terms of doing something, some have advised that I should just be supportive of Israel in general, including promoting the idea that there should be a Jewish state (Zionism), buying Israeli products, fighting antisemitism, and defending Israel when it is unjustly accused, in the United Nations.

Yet another friend told me what he does:

  • Try to stay educated on what’s going on.
  • Demonstrate here in the United States when possible.
  • Lobby representatives in Washington to place restraints on Israel’s extremists who hold the Biblical view of an Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Try to work with organizations on the ground that promote equality for all in the region, whatever their religion.
  • Try to do all of the above without jeopardizing U.S. dollars going to Israel’s defense, while keeping an eye on those defense dollars to make sure they aren’t diverted to expansion in the occupied territories or Palestinian-owned land.

Some see the conflict over a one- versus two-state solution and the actions taken by the current Israeli government as two separate things. Others see the two as integrally linked. Deciding what to do in response depends on your perspective.

Having met with Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, the one thing I know for certain is that I want peace and freedom from fear for everyone.

Every Shabbat, we sing Oseh Shalom. Since the Democracy movement has started, this song has taken on new meaning for me.

May the one, may the one who makes peace
Bring peace down, bring peace down
May the one, may the one who makes peace
Bring peace down, bring peace down

“May God who caused peace to reign in the high heavens, create peace for us and on all Israel.”

May it be so.

How do you recommend I support the current democracy protest movement in Israel?

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.