Time to Join the Struggle to Protect Israeli Democracy
OpinionsRosh Hashanah 5779

Time to Join the Struggle to Protect Israeli Democracy

Shai Robkin is chairman of the Atlanta Regional Council of the New Israel Fund.

Shai Robkin is the chair of the Atlanta Regional Council of the New Israel Fund (www.nif.org).

Shai Robkin
Shai Robkin

As Israel celebrates 70 years of independence, we have many reasons to rejoice and take pride. This is also a difficult time for so many of us who love and care about Israel. There are many warning signs that the principles of equality and democracy upon which the country was founded are being uprooted.

This summer, along with the vast majority of American Jews, I was dismayed to watch as the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law, a totally unnecessary piece of legislation that was enacted for populist political reasons. It mainly served to slap non-Jewish Israelis and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora in the face. At the same time, the Knesset rejected an amendment to the Surrogacy Law that would have allowed surrogacy for same-sex couples and passed a bill that seeks to keep human rights organizations from speaking in public schools. Then there was the Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun, who was arrested, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, for daring to officiate a wedding.

Especially in times like these, I’m grateful to be a part of the New Israel Fund. After the passage of the Nation-State Law, protested in the streets by thousands of Israelis, NIF launched a campaign, in cooperation with other leading Jewish American organizations, to hold accountable the 62 Knesset Members who voted for the law when they meet with our communities, conferences, and delegations. It is critically important that American Jews make it clear to our brothers and sisters in Israel that we will make our voices heard when the Jewish State acts in a way that contradicts the Jewish and democratic values we hold dear.

It’s our responsibility to stand together with the many Israelis who are working to prevent the exit of Israel from the family of liberal democracies. While NIF is not the only organization engaged in this fight, if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attacks on NIF are any indication, it is clearly the organization that Israelis are looking to for leadership. NIF is the bedrock for Israelis doing the hard work of steering the country on the path towards liberal democracy, pluralism and shared society.

Just before Passover, we saw the power of this community in Israel after Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly ended his policy of forcible deportations of people seeking asylum in Israel. This policy change followed an outcry by the Israeli public. For months, with the support of NIF, Israeli nonprofits that specialize in the rights of refugees stepped up their efforts to advocate for the basic human rights of the asylum-seeker community in Israel. Rabbis mobilized. Holocaust survivors spoke out. Zazim – Community Action, a new grassroots organization incubated by NIF, successfully organized pilots to pledge not to fly deported refugees back to countries where their safety could not be guaranteed. In this mobilization, I saw the greatest hope for Israel’s future: Israelis, from all walks of life, who believe that Israel can indeed be the light unto the nations that its founders envisioned.

There is enormous potential for mobilization and activism like this on the ground – with tens of thousands of Israelis showing up under the banner of “equality for all” after passage of the Nation-State Law. The Israelis who still believe in the Jewish and democratic principles that animate Israel’s founding vision need our support, our encouragement and our passionate engagement. This year more than ever, it is clear to me how important this partnership is to the future of Israeli society.

Shana tova.

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