Maybe. About 2,000 people turned up Friday morning outside the U.N., far more than at any previous protest in the U.S. since Netanyahu’s far-right government proposed its judicial plan — and far, far fewer than typically join New York’s annual Celebrate Israel parade on Fifth Avenue.
The crowd definitely included a higher percentage of Americans than the March protest I attended in Greenwich Village. But when someone bumped into me, she said “slicha” — Hebrew for “sorry” — and many of the crowd-control instructions were given in Hebrew first.
As with the weekly democracy protests in Israel, the plaza was a sea of Israeli flags — the organizers had purchased 1,000 for the occasion. And as in Israel, there was an eclectic mix of slogans on the signs and shirts: “From the river to the sea, democracy for all.” “Jews for Palestinian justice.” An image of Netanyahu tearing an Israeli flag. “Rabbis say: Repent, Bibi!”
There were no visibly Orthodox Jews — until a couple of dozen Chabad guys in black hats and black suits showed up on the sidelines, asking random men if they wanted to wrap tefillin — I wished they’d been there an hour before to see the women wearing tefillin at the egalitarian minyan; I wished I’d brought my own tefillin to show them.
There were two small counter-protests: One with a few dozen people holding signs with pictures of Netanyahu that said “Americans got your back,” the other made up of perhaps a dozen Haredi Jews with banners opposing Zionism altogether. This is what democracy looks like, indeed.
Offir Gutelzon, the Israeli-American tech entrepreneur who started UnXeptable, the group leading the U.S. protests, agreed with Sperber that this week has felt like a turning point. His group has doubled the number of people on its email list and WhatsApp group to 10,000 since the Israeli Knesset’s July vote to strip the Supreme Court’s of some of its power to review legislation, he said. It now has 40 chapters across North America, up from 25 earlier in the year.
The protest movement has also hired a high-powered Washington P.R. firm, Trident DMG, for three months at a cost of $75,000. And this week’s actions included a plane flying overhead with a banner saying “Defend Israel’s Democracy,” a boat sailing across from the U.N. with a sign shouting “NEVER SURRENDER” and messages projected onto prominent New York buildings. (Spokespeople declined to say how much all this cost, or how much the movement has raised in 2023.)
“It grew up really fast,” Gutzelon said. “It’s hard to get Jewish Americans to say something against the policies — the DNA was always you support Israel no matter what. It’s hard to get people to say, ‘It’s OK to criticize the judicial overhaul, it’s not about criticizing Israel.’ You are holding an Israeli flag, you cannot be against Israel.”
That’s pretty much what Rabbi Buchdahl told the conservative congregants who expressed concern about her plan to participate in today’s rally, what she said in her sermon.
“We are reclaiming the flag, we are reclaiming the Declaration of Independence, we are reclaiming this language around Jewish values,” she said. “Of all my Israel sermons, this one felt less controversial to me, because who doesn’t stand for democracy? We are one people. Our destinies are bound up with each other. We shouldn’t walk away from Israel.”
Buchdahl, who I’ve known since college and who is a member of the Forward Association — our advisory board — first went to Israel at age 16 on the prestigious Bronfman fellowship. She has been back about 40 times since, including this year, when she joined the hundreds of thousands protesting every Saturday night on the streets of Tel Aviv.
She had not originally planned to speak about Israel during these High Holidays — her Rosh Hashanah address was going to be about artificial intelligence. But she said she changed her mind about three weeks before the holiday, after listening to some podcasts in which prominent Israelis were begging for Americans to stand up and speak out.
“I woke up one morning,” she recalled, and thought to herself, “‘You are a rabbi in this moment, you have to talk about Israel.’ Up until this point, American Jews have been radically silent in the face of all that’s going on. It’s like, where the hell are American Jews right now?”
Some hundreds of them were in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on Friday morning, screaming “Busha, busha” — Hebrew for “shame, shame” — backed by drums and whistles as Netanyahu spoke inside the U.N., largely ignoring the political turmoil tearing his country apart.
It hardly feels like enough.