How should America — and American Jews — react to “J14,” as some are calling the social protests in Israel that had their symbolic start on July 14? American-Jewish organizations are often loath to involve themselves in internal Israeli affairs, making exceptions for security matters that touch on the U.S.-Israel relationship. They also hesitate to take sides in political disputes and instead honor the democratic process in Israel and support its elected leaders.
But as the massive protests continue, it is becoming harder for American Jews to sit on the sidelines. If nothing else, the protests speak to the strength of Israel’s democracy — no small thing, as Dan Shapiro, the U.S. envoy to Tel Aviv, noted in his statement on the demonstrations. “The citizens of Israel know that they can demonstrate in the streets without fear of violence, and that’s not the case in many other places in the region,” Shapiro wrote, adding, “[W]e are confident our democratic partner will come out of this period even stronger.”
The Jewish Federations of North America took a different approach, speaking directly to the economic distress at the heart of J14. JFNA “views the growing social gaps in Israel with concern,” according to their statement. “While acknowledging the many positive steps taken by the Israeli government to relieve poverty, encourage economic development, and improve social equality, it is clear that much more needs to be done.”
Diaspora Jews, of course, have always placed the economic well-being of Israelis at the heart of their activism; witness the spectrum of Jewish fund-raising efforts — including the federations’ support for the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — intended, as JFNA put it, to “bring relief, development, and hope to so many each day.” It would be odd for American Jews to sit this one out, while so many of their brothers and sisters advocate for changes in their society.
Considering the state of the world these days, from the burning streets of London to the razed neighborhoods of Hama, one can only look at the tent cities in Israel with a sense of Jewish and Zionist pride. Israel is first and foremost a statement of Jewish self-determination. We only hope that the demonstrators remain peaceful and that policy makers address the issues with the seriousness, creativity, and respect that they deserve.