Support from Israeli expats offers big boost to protesters

Yossi Mekelberg

If there is behavior you would not normally associate with Israeli expatriates and members of Jewish communities around the world, it is vociferous criticism of Israel, even of administrations whose behavior through the years they have felt deeply aggrieved by.
Any such criticism is usually confined to conversations within immediate families or social circles, not shared in public with the wider society.
There has always been a mentality of not wanting to “wash dirty laundry in public,” and some sort of submissiveness to the decisions and actions of the Israeli government.
Thanks to the current government, however, this approach has changed and protests against its attempted judicial coup continue to take place frequently in places such as New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin and even as far away as Sydney.
There is no single answer to why this specific Israeli administration, unlike all the others before it, has managed to provoke such opposition and anger among Israeli expats, as well as from more liberal elements in Jewish communities.
Yet two things clearly unite the protesters. The first is an understanding that the 2023 version of the Israeli government is a threat to the very values upon which — at least declaratively speaking — the country was founded and are still held sacrosanct. This is true because so many of this government’s actions are endangering its long-term survival.
The second is a recognition that the actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are harming the bond between the Jewish state and Israelis and Jews who live outside Israel. The actions are challenging the very foundations of any willingness among these communities to support a country that is on a journey toward authoritarianism.
Bear in mind that supporting Israel, regardless of the state of its domestic affairs, is in any case becoming more challenging for many as a result of its 56-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which continues to deprive Palestinians of their national and human rights. But this issue has, for now and for tactical reasons, been parked by the leaders of the protests in order to keep the pro-democratic camp united.
As is the case with the protests taking place inside Israel, an impressive leadership structure, the members of which are all volunteers, has emerged organically in other countries. It is made up of a group of people from different walks of life who for months have dedicated almost every waking hour to rallying support for those battling to preserve democracy at home. They are doing so with creativity and great political astuteness.
By now, there is enough evidence of the effectiveness of these protests around the world and of how they are annoying Israeli officials. In one infamous incident, a member of the Knesset who is one of the driving forces within the coalition government, and a very unpleasant one, violently snatched a megaphone from the hands of a female demonstrator in New York, where the politician was participating in Israel’s 75th Independence Day celebrations.
This loss of nerve by a leading member of the Israeli government served only to energize the protest movement in New York and elsewhere. In London, for example, a group of protesters gathered outside the Israeli ambassador’s residence equipped with megaphones, not only to protest against the judicial coup, but as an act of defiance against a vile and violent attempt to silence their compatriot on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Earlier this year, after forming his sixth government in late December, Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, found solace every weekend in traveling abroad. Their trips offered a brief respite from the prime minister’s corruption trial and the weekly protests that gradually became a daily occurrence, and indeed from a coalition government that is as much Netanyahu’s worst nightmare as it is for most Israeli citizens.
These junkets came at vast expense to the public purse. Off to Rome, Paris, Berlin and London they jetted, in quick succession, allegedly on official visits — but given that Israeli officials do not work on the Jewish sabbath, much of their purpose was to recuperate through shopping sprees and enjoyment of good food, some of which Netanyahu’s coalition partners would not necessarily approve.
Much to the surprise of the couple, however, everywhere they went they were confronted by protesters. Not only were they in possession of accurate information about the couple’s whereabouts, they were equipped with, yes, megaphones and whistles, which they used to remind the prime minister that what he is doing to the country is utterly shameful — the Hebrew word for which, Busha, sounds even more powerful — and that democracy will prevail long after he is gone.
After several of these whirlwind weekend trips, and protests, the Netanyahus stopped taking them, most probably to avoid facing such humiliation abroad.
Some people, even among those who support the pro-democratic demonstrators, have asked whether it is legitimate for individuals who live abroad to protest against an Israeli government and to do it so publicly and vocally.
Frankly, I believe it is indeed legitimate — and in the spirit of full disclosure, I myself have participated in some of these protests — because freedom of expression is a basic right.
Many of the Israelis who take part in these rallies have paid their dues to Israel by serving in its military or paying their taxes year-in, year-out, so they have supported the Israeli economy and society during their residences abroad. Many do not intend to live in other countries permanently, and if and when they decide to return to Israel they would like to find themselves in a country that has not changed beyond all recognition — and much for the worse.
For too long it was expected, even demanded, of Israelis in Jewish communities abroad that they support whatever actions were taken by Israel’s leadership and avoid any criticism of it, even if such support left those communities facing moral and ideological dilemmas, or friction with other segments of the societies in which they live.
For most of the time since the Jewish state was established, this was indeed the case. The exhilaration and enthusiasm created by fulfilling the Zionist dream led many people to turn a blind eye to Israel’s faults, whether it was the Nakba, the post-1967 occupation, widespread corruption, or how its democratic system has recently been plunged into a downward spiral.
Now, however, demographically and perceptually, there has been a profound change, which the current judicial coup has only underlined, and which has accelerated existing trends.
It is estimated that about 1 million Israelis live abroad, the vast majority of them in the US, and unlike many members of the current coalition government, they served in the armed forces and are expected to do so in the future. They continue to contribute to their home country’s economy and society, and their advocacy for Israel has been invaluable.
Therefore, there is no requirement for them to remain silent and stand idly by while their home country is hijacked by a group of anti-democratic and corrupt political pyromaniacs.
The main battle to safeguard Israel’s democracy will be fought by those protesting en masse across Israel itself, but the protests in other countries are providing Israelis at home with a significant tail wind, sending them the clear message that they are not alone in their just, and winnable, battle.