What's Going on in Israel?
Protests against the government have spilled over into the diaspora. Local Israelis discuss the crisis and why they think American Jews need to join them.
→ Tablet’s podcast, Unorthodox, dropped its second “Across the Jew.S.A.” segment today, and guess what, it’s about Seattle! Have a listen (it starts around the 45 minute mark) and learn about Seattle’s one-of-a-kind Sephardic community and the recent celebration of Fruticas. Not sure what that is? Listen. :)
→ Purim is coming. Get your human tashen. 🤢
→ Take note: This Saturday is a planned “day of hate” among some white supremacist groups. There is no current threat to Washington, according to authorities, but always remember, “see something, say something.” A few weeks ago I reported a man sitting in a running car outside one of our synagogues on Shabbat morning. He looked suspicious and he had a clear shot to a lot of Jews emerging from Shabbat services. Turns out he was actually the hired security guard, which was a little embarrassing, but I don’t care. Trust your gut, pay attention, and hope that you’re wrong.
This video has been circulating on social. It’s extremely disturbing and NSFW. Click on the post to watch.
Democracy in Crisis
Israel’s incoming government is poised to overhaul the judiciary and potentially undermine democracy in the Middle East’s only democratic nation. Israelis are taking to the streets in Israel and around the world, including in Bellevue, where they demonstrate on Sunday mornings at 10 am in Bellevue Downtown Park.
A conversation with San Francisco-based Offir Gutelzon, founder of grassroots, pro-Israeli democracy group UnXeptable, and Seattle-area Israeli activists Ayelet Shalev and Yuval Neeman.
The Cholent: How did this group come together in Seattle? Have you been involved in activism before?
Yuval Neeman: I've been involved some in issues to do with Israel, but it was kind of different. This feels from what I read in our paper, what I hear from my family and friends in Israel, this is an existential risk to Israel remaining a democratic state. The elected prime minister is standing for trial. There's another minister who was indicted and there was a plea deal that he will be out of politics, and now he's appointed to a minister, and on and on and on. So what they're trying to do is basically circumvent the court system in Israel by enacting laws that basically make the court beholden to the government. There were a lot of people that I know who are usually not at all involved in anything, political protests, whatever. Somebody forwarded me a WhatsApp note from Ayelet, who started this chapter of UnXeptable in Seattle. I went there three weeks ago for the first demonstration. There were close to a hundred like-minded people, mostly Israelis. There might have been one American Jew, but there were mostly Israeli Americans.
Ayelet Shalev: I want to add that it started off as ex-pats. We all served in the Israeli army. We feel connected. We still have family and friends over there. I think it's the mission of anybody that is a citizen of the world today to want to keep humanity on the right side, on the open-minded side. They need to fight for democracy, because it's going to be gone. And for sure, the Jews and the Israelis that care for Israel, if we want to keep Israel safe we need to keep it a democratic state, because otherwise it's going to be chaos. So we must gather together and do whatever we can to keep it safe. It's like two weeks before they take over.
Offir Gutelzon: It's not easy to figure out why it's changing from democratic to nondemocratic, because the democratic system in Israel is different in the US. So one of the challenges that every community, every chapter has is to make sure people understand that this is not a right or left issue. This is not about internal policy in Israel regarding taxes or even the peace process, right? It's really about the basic nature of being a democratic state, which means balances between the branches.
This reminds me a little of when Trump was elected, when liberal Americans sort of woke up and realized that democracy could fall apart very quickly and easily.
Yuval: That's a good analogy, but it's also different in some key ways. I think this wasn't a complete surprise. You know, Bibi, like Trump, is a very good politician, especially by fanning the flames of hate. It's us versus them, and he gets people to vote for him. The second thing is, he was already on trial, and it was very clear by things people in his party were saying that once they got into power, the first thing they're going to do is basically to neuter the judicial. The primary reason is to eventually get Bibi off those trials. The system in Israel is very different in that there's only two branches of power, because whoever is the majority in the Knesset also has the majority in government. Israel doesn't have a constitution, unfortunately, which would've been a very good thing. And that's why it feels a lot more dangerous than Trump getting into power in ’16 here. Israel has a declaration of independence, which, like the US Declaration of Independence, has some concept of human rights and equality, et cetera, but it's not a constitution. In the ’90s, the Knesset in Israel passed a number of basic laws around civil rights and equality. So what this government is trying to do is trying to pass a law that contradicts either the declaration of independence or these basic laws that were passed. You can petition the Supreme Court to overturn that decision. And that has happened. Not many times, but it has happened. What this government wants to do is to take that away, which means we can now pass any law with a simple majority, and nobody can do anything about it, including changing the basic law of Israel, making laws that contradict the declaration of independence in a very clear way. And they're also very clear that they intend to do it.
There have been so many crises over the years, but this seems to be the first to really draw out the Israeli community. At the same time, the American Jewish community seems a little unresponsive. I think that may be because we’re so used to being in a defensive stance, ready to defend Israel against all sorts of ignorant and ridiculous claims. And it feels now like we’d be protesting Israel, which is really hard.
Ayelet: My husband and a friend were talking about how to integrate the local Jewish people and the Israelis. And I think actually now we can stand together and defend Israel, because if Israel stops being a democratic state, it'll be very hard for us as Jews and Israelis to defend Israel. And people will hate all the Jewish people and all the Israelis, wherever they are. And that's dangerous to us, too. I'm talking to my family in Israel now crying, and they said, “do whatever you can to save our lives.” Really, it's getting to that point in Israel.
Yuval: Most of the mainstream US politicians, Jewish community, administration, all the way to President Biden, when they talk about Israel, almost always say, “the only democracy in the Middle East.” I think in our eyes and in the eyes of many, if this goes through and they start going on with what they're planning to do, I don't think that statement will continue to be valid, which will make the BDS threat look like nothing. The Israeli ambassador a few days ago issued a statement strongly encouraging Netanyahu to put the brakes on this legislation. And it was a huge break from how the US has diplomatically, publicly, spoken about an internal Israeli political issue.
Offir: While there is a risk to Israel, there is risk to the relationship. You can see the diaspora minister and others, saying to the US “mind your own business,” which is a very non-friendly way to talk to our biggest friend in the world. That's scary in many ways. You can see the impact on the economy already. The shekel is becoming weaker. Venture capitalists are putting statements to make sure that the companies over there are very careful with the dollar and maybe asking them to leave the dollar out. I mean, this is really happening right now.
Yuval: Just to make it apples to apples, imagine if Trump got into power and within three weeks, he was able to pass a law that made the Supreme Court unable to prevent the government for taking any action whatsoever, even if it was unconstitutional. That would be similar to what Netanyahu is trying to do in Israel in a matter of weeks. You are right that when Trump got into power, everybody here was really scared, but it turns out that Trump was not particularly focused and organized on doing things, and two, the Constitution and the courts have so much power that he couldn't really do that. Well, unfortunately, in Israel, Netanyahu can do it. And he is very, very focused on doing it.
Do you think this is just a matter of finally having all the right people behind him? Or are there other reasons why you think this is happening now?
Yuval: I don't think he would've done any of this if he was not on trial.
What is there to do now?
Ayelet: Whoever wants to talk, this is the time or to do something, because very soon it will be closed. We'll miss that train, and then we'll say, “oh, wow, we couldn't do anything.” So now is the time for everybody to act. So to begin with, we need to gather together, to stand together, to have this rally. We have power, we are people and it's still a democracy here. We can do a lot to save Israeli democracy from here, better than there, because there they are stopping the country and nobody cares. So I think the pressure from the States actually is the only one that maybe can make the difference. What needs to happen? I can tell you, Netanyahu needs to go to jail and then there needs to be a reelection. But for sure the way that it's happening now, taking over everything by force, that's not the way to do it.
Do you feel any optimism?
Ayelet: To see all those people suddenly getting together, this is the beautiful Israel that we know and we grew up on. It has warmed my heart, but I know that it's the same in Israel that suddenly everybody, people that never went out to demonstrate, they go out and they talk and they're amazing, amazing people.
Check out the Seattle Jewish community calendar and the virtual calendar.
This week’s parasha is Terumah.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 5:28 p.m.
The WSJHS invites the community to “plant their roots” in Jewish WA in our special book, Roots and Routes. Details at wsjhs.org/roots
Mazal tov to Mimi Broches on being selected for American Jewish Committee’s Goldman Summer Fellowship. —Connie Kanter
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