BOSTON – Boston-area Israeli-Americans protested the sweeping policy changes proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government at a demonstration across from the Massachusetts State House on Sunday.
Featuring both speeches and music, the rally drew about 75 people to the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial. Braving a cold, wintry day with occasional light snowfall, attendees called for democracy to be safeguarded in Israel while waving Israeli flags and protest signs.
Speakers included Rabbi Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.
In her remarks, Penzner called the current situation “an unprecedented time, a time when Israel’s own Basic Laws, judiciary, its very democratic structure and values are challenged.”
Netanyahu’s proposals would restrict the Israeli Supreme Court from altering the basic laws on which the State of Israel rests. The new government is also seeking to make it easier for the Knesset to overturn Supreme Court decisions and to allow the Israeli parliament to select justices for the court, rather than the current structure of a nominating committee.
For the past two months, tens of thousands of Israelis have demonstrated against the proposed changes, in the streets of cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
“Remember what it is you love about Israel,” Penzner said. “Join the Israelis in protest.”
Those listening to her included many Israeli-Americans from the Greater Boston area, some of whom had come together to plan the demonstration.
One organizer, Sophie Shnaper of Brookline, told the Journal that she found parallels between her cause and President Biden’s State of the Union address.
In Biden’s speech, “there was a lot about democracy,” Shnaper said. “We need to have a commitment that ensures Israel remains a democratic country. This is the struggle now.”
Sunday’s event was the fifth that Shnaper and co-organizers have organized. The previous four took place in front of the nearby Consulate General of Israel to New England.
“We wanted to be more visible,” with a location reflecting “something connected to the American institutions,” Shnaper said.
On Sunday, she led the crowd in chanting such messages as “What do we want in Israel? Democracy!” “When do we want it? Now!”
Fellow Israeli-American Sam Agus of Brookline served as a facilitator, introducing speakers and delivering remarks. “I am a strong believer in grass-roots efforts,” said Agus, 56. He added, “If enough voices demand change, it will occur.”
The voices calling for change at the microphone included Dotan Greenvald, a visiting scholar at Harvard University; Barry Roth, a psychiatrist and peace activist affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Law School; and Penzner of Hillel B’nai Torah.
Roth repeatedly asked the crowd, “What is our brand?” In response, he cited sayings from two rabbis of the Mishnaic period: “That which is offensive to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary,” by Hillel the Elder, and “You are not required to complete the task, nor are you free to abandon it,” by Tarfun.
Greenvald, who spoke in Hebrew with a translation afterward, discussed multiple proposals of the Netanyahu government that worried him, including “a legislative ban curtailing behavior seen as immoral or immodest at holy places, like men and women praying together at the Western Wall.”
Some attendees criticized the Israeli government for reasons beyond a curtailed judiciary. Penzner addressed some of these issues in her speech.
“If, like me, you are a critic of Israeli policies, if you call yourself a leftist, whether it’s religious things or anti-Arab legislation or the occupation or corruption by the highest officials, I ask you not to abandon Israel,” Penzner said. “Our Israeli brothers, sisters, friends and family need us more than ever to support them by pressuring our leaders, leaders of Jewish organizations, as well as our American elected leaders, to stand up against anti-democratic so-called reforms.”
Israeli-American Michal Fux of Brookline sought to incorporate the issue of Palestinians into the protest. She held a brightly-colored, hand-lettered sign read “From the river to the sea, everyone gets democracy” in Hebrew and English.
“I think the occupation is the key issue,” Fux said, as well as the “separation of religion and state.”
Her sign incorporated the hashtag #SaveMasaferYatta, a reference to a collection of Palestinian villages in the West Bank that are facing eviction by Israeli authorities. Fux, 41, said she visited Masafer Yatta last December.
Born in Rehovot, Israel, she left the country in 2008, and after living in other parts of the world affected by conflict, such as Northern Ireland and South Africa, she moved to the U.S.
“My opinions are a bit far too left,” Fux said, calling herself “happy to be here” at the protest, but “not to be toeing the mainstream line.” Θ