BOSTON – For weeks, Tally Kritzman-Amir followed the news unfolding in Israel where her family and friends joined tens of thousands of others who’ve been protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A law professor and mother of two young children, Kritzman-Amir has lived in Boston for three years, nearly 6,000 miles away from her native country. But if she was back in Israel, she would be out demonstrating in the weekly protests that have spread from in front of Netanyahu’s official home in Jerusalem, to the streets of Tel Aviv and on bridges across the country.
She wrestled with what could she do or should do here to show her support at a time she believes is a turning point that threatens the democratic foundation of her homeland.
After posting her query on social media among other Israelis in the area, a small group began to brainstorm ideas. At the same time, Israelis who live in other parts of the world – such as San Francisco and Berlin – were also responding and began to hold protests in solidarity with the demonstrators in Israel. In addition to protesting the Israeli government’s reaction to the Covid health crisis, throngs of Israelis have taken to the streets weekly to demand Netanyahu’s resignation. Netanyahu is expected to go on trial to face three corruption charges.
On Aug. 7, the Boston group launched, “Defending Democracy in Israel,” a weekly demonstration, from 5 to 7 p.m., on the BU Bridge in Cambridge. The group stands with the protesters in Israel in calling for the resignation of the prime minister, according to a statement by the grassroots organization.
The first week, more than 60 people turned up, wearing masks and keeping socially distanced. The casual group was almost entirely Israelis, along with some American spouses and partners and children, according to Gal Kober, an Israeli who’s lived in the Boston area for more than a decade.
Kober, a philosophy professor, attended the protest along with her American husband and their six-year-old child. After, the group gathered at a nearby park for a Kabbalat Shabbat picnic. The following week, the Israelis were joined by a handful of local young American Jews, she said.
From the beginning of the social media posts, there were some who pushed back against them, both Kober and Kritzman-Amir said.
“There were people who think any form of protest against the Netanyahu regime is equivalent to betrayal, or even anti-Semitism,” Kritzman-Amir said.
Some responses were even threatening, “including one person who wrote that we should be shot, aimed at our feet. Another suggested we should be spayed with pepper spray,” Kritzman-Amir said.
“It’s easy to write that on Facebook. I’m not intimidated,” Kritzman-Amir said, adding she doubted anyone would actually do anything.
“Protesting on an Israeli issue in the U.S. is more complicated because the general public does not understand the context,” observed Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz, an Israeli who serves as the congregational rabbi at Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville.
As a result, some fear that the nuance is lost and all that remains is “akin to airing dirty laundry,” Jacobowitz said in an email. Some are being unkind in their social media responses, she acknowledged. “I do think it’s courageous to participate in these protests,” she said.
What has propelled Boston’s Israeli demonstrators differs for each person, Kritzman-Amir said. “For me, I’m saying the prolonged process of democratic decline in Israel is the worst situation we’ve seen.”
As in Israel, where the intergenerational protests have swelled to include a wide swath of the political spectrum – including many newcomers to political activism – Boston’s Israeli demonstrators are aiming their outrage at a government they see as mired in corruption, led by the prime minister who has been charged with bribery.
With the pandemic, tensions have risen as unemployment has skyrocketed, businesses are suffering and a precipitous move to reopen schools and other sectors has resulted in increased incidents of Covid-19, Kober observed. As of July, Israel’s unemployment rate stood at 21 percent. This month, the Israeli Employment Service reported that 851,051 people were unemployed in Israel, including 536,906 who have been forced to take unpaid leave due to the Covid health crisis.
Both worry that Israel’s democratic underpinning, even with its faults, is being undermined by the corruption. Kober said that Israel’s political discourse has changed since she was a child.
“It was a national sport to criticize the government. This is how you show off your democracy,” she said. Today, if people challenge the government or the prime minister, there is strong backlash, she said.