One evening in November, I walked to the Knesset with my 10-year-old twin daughters. We were there to protest Israeli arms sales to Burma, where the government continues a brutal campaign of murder, rape and expulsion of its Rohingya minority.
As we approached the site of the demonstration, a security guard stopped us and asked where we were headed. I said we were going to protest, and he inspected our bag of handmade signs reading “The nation demands ethical exports” and “We don’t do business with murderers.” He told us the best way to get to our destination, and waved us on.
Once we were on our way, one of my daughters asked, “Why did he help us? If his job is to guard the Knesset, isn’t he against people coming to protest?”
I explained that in a democracy, every person plays a role in contributing to and building the society. The legislators in the Knesset debate and pass laws. The security guard stays vigilant to ensure that process proceeds without disruption or sabotage. And we, the citizens, express our will. We vote in elections. We call Knesset members to make our views known. We write op-eds. We educate ourselves and use social media to raise awareness in others.
These are the privileges and the responsibilities of life in a free society. We are not subject to the whims of our leaders. They derive their power from the citizens, and we hold them accountable to use that power responsibly.
In authoritarian regimes, security forces maintain a different kind of peace. They protect the powerful at the expense of the people, crushing dissent with force. How lucky I am, how lucky my children are, to live in a place where security guards cheerfully give directions to protesters.
It was a proud moment, watching that guard defy my daughter’s expectations. In a democracy, security and dissent coexist. The security ensures the effectiveness of the government, and political pressure holds the government accountable to the will of its citizenry.
All of this was on my mind Tuesday night, when I stood up in the audience at the Bible Quiz and interrupted the speech of the prime minister. Together with other concerned citizens, I challenged Prime Minister Netanyahu to uphold our mandate to be a light to the nations, a beacon of morality to the world.
Israel has the unique distinction of embodying both democratic and Jewish values. How can a society as free and morally attuned as ours tolerate weapons sales to a place like Burma, where the military burns villages, kills children, violates women? How can we remain silent while the government we have elected refuses to hold weapons manufacturers legally accountable for how our military exports are used?
More to the point, how can the same country that absorbed millions of refugees from the Holocaust and from persecution in Muslim-majority countries stand silent as the Rohingya are tormented and driven from their homes, and even sell arms to their persecutors?
If we were ourselves subjects of an authoritarian regime, we could resign ourselves to shaking our heads and hoping our government will act with decency. We might assume that our leaders know best and vaguely assume that these well-documented horrors are part of a nuanced regional conflict that we need not try to understand.
But we are not the subjects of all-powerful rulers. We are citizens of a democracy.
On Tuesday, as hard-working security guards attempted to gently remove me from the hall while the prime minister attempted to finish his speech, a young woman approached us.
“Let her stay,” she said. “He’s her prime minister, too.”
I gripped her arm in gratitude and hoped we would meet again under calmer circumstances. Her words gave me hope. In a country like ours, where I can shout down our most powerful politician and be peacefully escorted to the exit, where the prime minister patiently tolerates the disruption, where the press is free to report the proceedings, we may yet awaken the conscience of the nation. We might still proudly demand that our weapons export policy reflect the greatness of our values.
After I protested and was removed from the convention center, I arrived home in time to light the last Hanukkah candles with my family. I watched my four young children sing and play their instruments with their father, and I thought about the example I am trying to set for them.
I would have rather spent the last night of the holiday frying up latkes with my kids, not looking into the prime minister’s eyes and demanding answers. But I want my children to grow up free and secure that their government will not support atrocities. I want them to understand the precious responsibilities that come along with self-determination and civil rights. I want to give them the country and the future they deserve.
There will be a demonstration in support of ethical export policies on Wednesday, December 27 at 6:00 p.m., in the garden across from the Knesset. For more information, click here.