For months, Beth Levine, an attorney in New York, grew worried about developments in Israel, where the far-right government has sought to diminish the judicial branch’s independence. Its efforts provoked massive protests in Israel and smaller ones in the United States, including most Sundays in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. Though sympathetic to the cause, Ms. Levine, who lives in the Bronx, never attended.
Then two things happened:Israel’s government passed the first of its judicial changes in July, a move supportive ministers said would eliminate an obstacle to the popular will. And Israeli expatriates in New York, loosely organized under a grassroots group called UnXeptable, planned a rally this summer across the street from Israel’s consulate in Midtown to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies. The timing resonated with Ms. Levine, and, for the first time, she came.
“It seemed to me very significant,” she said. “Many of the worst things that happened on that holiday happened because of ‘sinat chinam,’ or baseless hate, among Jews.”
This month promises a flurry of activity. Organizers staged rallies in dozens of cities globally Sunday, two days before Israel’s Supreme Court considers an appeal of the first overhaul law, including one in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Protesters in New York plan to greet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sept. 21 when he is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. And a “democracy prayer” co-authored by a prominent American rabbi will be read at synagogues across the country for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year festival, which begins Friday evening.
Polling shows that, like many Israelis, many American Jews oppose the judicial changes in Israel. Yet some have also been reluctant to criticize Israel openly for what seems a domestic matter.
But this hesitation has begun to thaw, Israeli protesters and American advocates said, as more American Jews have been swayed by President Biden’s vocal concern over the Israeli government’s actions and persuaded by the argument that the Jewish diaspora should care about the status of Israeli democracy.
Many Jewish American leaders and organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America, a philanthropic giant, have publicly objected to the changes, as have several prominent centrist and center-right observers and journalists. Now, that protest is growing to include individuals and local synagogues.
“American Jews are really accustomed to being asked to rally for Israel,” said Rabbi Michelle Dardashti of Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue. “Being asked to reassess our relationship with Israel and to protest the government, and publicly — that’s foreign for American Jews.”
Ana Blumenthal, an Israeli organizer based in Philadelphia, said she and her colleagues have been invited to speak by synagogues and Jewish community groups who want to become involved in protests. “We are experiencing a shift,” Ms. Blumenthal said.
A June survey of American Jews by the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute found that 61 percent think the proposals would weaken Israeli democracy. The new law restricts the ability of the Supreme Court to overturn laws, removing a check on Israel’s political leadership. Israel’s government, the most right-leaning in its history, also hopes to entrench the role of rabbinical courts in civilian life and deepen Israel’s presence in the occupied West Bank.
Sixty-five percent of Orthodox Jews in the same survey said the changes would strengthen Israeli democracy, revealing a split in the United States between progressive, religiously liberal Jews and conservative, strictly observant Jews, many of whom, said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the Orthodox Union executive vice president, “aren’t finding the level of angst of the ‘end of democracy’ rhetoric to strike home.”
Ameinu, a North American Jewish group that advocates progressive positions on Israel, has told American Jews that their speaking out would not be perceived as overstepping. “Israelis have asked us to do this,” said Nomi Colton-Max, the group’s vice president.
American Jews “have not only an interest but a vital stake in the well-being of the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform congregation. The current government, he added, “risks further disrupting the relationship between world Jewry and Israel.”
Jonathan Goffin, a dual American-Australian citizen in New York, said that Israeli protesters — and standing alongside them, as he first did this spring — brought him closer to Israel, which he was raised in Melbourne to revere.
“Israel is supposed to be founded on liberal, democratic ideals,” said Mr. Goffin. The rallies, he added, were “the first time in a long time I can remember being proud to carry the Israeli flag.”
Still, some engaged American Jews continue to feel the protests are not for them. Around 15 percent of American Jews polled by the Jewish Electorate Institute say the changes will strengthen Israel’s democracy, and another 24 percent don’t think the changes will have an effect.
Jonathan Greenberg, a Reform rabbi and adviser to a private charitable foundation in the Chicago area, said he has not taken a position on the changes, but feels the matter is for Israelis to decide. “The popular will in democracies is expressed in elections,” he said. “I trust Israelis to set their own internal policies.”
Jonathan Wornick, who works for an investment advisory firm in the Bay Area and serves on the national council of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, said he opposes American protests. “There, I think, ‘Wow, democracy in action, it’s a beautiful thing,’” he said of protests in Israel. By contrast, he added, “My role as an American Jew is to support the relationship” between the United States and Israel.
Stephen Lurie, a strategist at a nonprofit in New York, is not interested in attending a rally for Israeli democracy since, he said, “Israel hasn’t been a real democracy for many, many years, because of how it treats all of the people in the West Bank under its control.”
Shany Granot-Lubaton, an Israeli who has organized New York protests since this winter, said she respected that many American Jews felt ambivalent about criticizing Israel. She has departed her comfort zone in a different way: Like many non-Orthodox Israeli Jews, she and her colleagues are not religious; the Tisha B’Av rally featured her first ever afternoon prayer service. The rally’s explicit linking of social justice and Judaism — a mainstay of non-Orthodox denominations here — was novel to her. “To practice Judaism in your life, and still be liberal — that’s an option I didn’t know about,” she said.
Ms. Levine, who is active in her synagogue, found the rally meaningful in another way. “It was amazing to see secular Israelis and more observant Americans,” she said. “I got a little bit teary.”