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Israel’s Supreme Court is ruling on its own future. What should American Jews do?

The fight against Israel’s judicial overhaul requires American Jews to get involved

“If missiles were falling on Israel, every Jewish synagogue, school, and JCC would be out to support Israel,” Esther Sperber, an Israeli-American architect told the crowd at a Tisha B’Av mincha protest-service outside the Israeli Consulate in New York. “As I see it, this is a self-inflicted, legislative missile attack on Israel, led by an extreme right-wing, messianic and corrupt government.”

The American Jewish community faces a fundamental choice as the Israeli High Court deliberates on whether the Knesset’s first major initiative to weaken the judiciary can stand. On Sept. 12, the Israeli Supreme Court heard petitions against this new legislation that would eliminate the “reasonableness” standard to evaluate both laws and ministerial appointments.

Attorney General representative Avner Helman argued before the court that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government never proposed a compromise as to how the reasonableness doctrine could be applied. “Instead of adjusting the brakes, they completely removed them.”

There is no more important fight right now for those of us who care about the future of Israel and Israelis than the fight for democracy.

For too long, much of the American Jewish community has internalized the message that we have no right to criticize Israeli policy. Some worry that any public criticism of Israel threatens to provoke antisemitism. Others believe that those who don’t live in Israel have no right to oppose the country’s democratically elected government.

Of course, at the same time as both the Israeli government and right-wing American Jewish institutions have tried to silence any attempts to push back on the rightward shift of the Israeli government, or on the expanding occupation of stateless Palestinians, millions of dollars of American Jewish money have flowed into changing facts on the ground in Israel.

Unfortunately, many American Jews on the left have gotten the message that there are only two options for engagement with Israel: You either defend the government’s every move, or oppose the country’s very existence. As a result, too many American Jews have simply thrown up their hands and walked away.

This is not the moment either to defend the Israeli government or to walk away. This is the time for American Jews to wake up to the reality of Israel — a country whose citizens include nearly half the world’s Jewish population, that also has jurisdiction over millions of non-citizen Palestinians. It is also a country whose government is currently descending further and further into fascism and even cynical alliances with dictators who enable antisemitism.

Over the past nine months, we have seen some shifts in the American Jewish community. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements have spoken forcefully about democracy. The Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council recently called on its supporters to lobby their members of Congress to join a resolution supporting Israeli democracy and opposing the moves toward dictatorship, joining 17 national Jewish organizations, including the members of the Progressive Israel Network and UnXeptable, in this effort. American and Israeli Jews, organized by Progressive Israel Network and UnXeptable, have protested in front of Israeli consulates, the embassy and events featuring Israeli government ministers.

But it’s not enough. In order to save Israel from the rapid march toward fascism, American Jews need to stand side-by-side with Israelis here and in Israel in the fight for democracy. In almost every protest I’ve been at this year, more than half of the crowd are Israelis. They inevitably ask me, “Where are the American Jews?” “How can we get them to come?”

This is not to say that American Jews have not turned up at all. Beginning in February, the Progressive Israel Network (of which T’ruah, the organization I lead, is a member) has planned protests that have brought hundreds of American Jews to the street in New York and D.C. But we have not seen the kind of numbers that would show up for a rally supporting Israel during a war.

Some left-wing American Jews have scoffed at the protests. “Israel was never democratic to begin with,” they say, pointing at the decades-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the systemic discrimination against Palestinian citizens, and the expulsions of 1948. Many criticize the protests for not centering the occupation or Palestinian voices, or for suggesting that a return to the previous status quo would be sufficient.

While protests both in Israel and in the U.S. do feature anti-occupation voices, it’s true that the dominant concern in the protest movement is focused on democracy within Israel. But increasingly, Israelis recognize that one cannot separate the anti-democratic agenda from the radical settler movement that has taken over the government, a movement that engages in violence against Palestinians and even Israeli soldiers, and that will stop at nothing to impose permanent rule over the West Bank.

By way of parallel, Americans understand that former president Donald Trump did not invent the racism, sexism, antisemitism or xenophobia that suffused his rhetoric and administration. We know too well that these hatreds did not disappear with Trump’s departure from office. But we also understand that preventing his reelection was, and will be again in 2024, a necessary if not sufficient step in moving the country forward.

The excesses of this Israeli government must be stopped if the situation is ever going to improve for Palestinians or for minority populations within Israel.

Next week, Netanyahu will be at the United Nations General Assembly. I will be there to greet him, along with members of T’ruah — rabbis and cantors taking time during the busiest week of their year — as well as hundreds if not thousands of Israelis and American Jews.

It is unclear when the Israeli Supreme Court will issue its ruling on the reasonableness legislation. Yet as they deliberate heading into the High Holidays, there are plenty of actions American Jews can take to support the preservation of democracy in Israel. Regardless of their political affiliation, American Jews who can be in New York next week should join the protests at the U.N. against Netanyahu. Jews in the Bay Area can greet him there as he prepares to meet Elon Musk, who is spreading and enabling antisemitism on one of the largest social media platforms.

If you can’t protest in person, you can call your Members of Congress to ask them to support the fight for democracy in Israel, and donate money to organizations on both sides of the ocean that are fighting for democracy, human rights, and civil liberties.

Maimonides famously heard the call of the shofar as demanding, “Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator.” (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) This is the moment to awake not only to our own personal teshuva process, but also to the need for communal action, to protect Israel from the internal missiles driving it toward becoming a fascist theocracy.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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