OP-ED: Why pro-Israel U.S. Jews Like Me Are Protesting the Israeli Government

March 13, 2023


By Halie Soifer

Thirty-five years ago, I marched with my family in New York’s annual Israel Independence Day parade, proudly carrying a hand-painted banner in honor of Israel’s 40th birthday. Nearly 23 years ago, I led a student protest at the beginning of the second Intifada, publicly declaring support for Israel and hope for peace.

Since then, I worked for more than 20 years in support of the U.S.-Israel relationship – first in government, and now as the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), an unabashedly pro-Israel organization.

For the first time in my life, I protested yesterday against an Israeli government official, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, during his visit to Washington.

I protested Smotrich’s visit for the same reason I’ve marched in support of Israel in the past – I remain an American Jew motivated by a deep and life-long commitment to Israel and its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

I also protested as the head of a Jewish organization deeply committed to the shared values on which the U.S.-Israel relationship is based, including pluralism and democracy.

But there’s another factor that motivated me to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets protesting their own government. Whereas in recent decades American Jews could not fully relate to Israel’s many security crises other than offering our support, today, for the first time, Americans and Israelis face a very similar crisis – one of democracy and governance.

For the past six years, our democracy in the United States has been under threat. For four years, it was threatened by an extremist president who ultimately encouraged a violent insurrection, and since then, by extremist members of his party peddling election denialism and other dangerous conspiracy theories, including some targeting the Jewish community. According to the ADL, a record number of extremist candidates ran for office in 2022 – at least 119 ran in primaries, and roughly 25% won and ran in the general election, just four months ago.

Make no mistake – American Jews have been at the center of this crisis.

Not just because we are a target of right-wing extremists who also threaten our democracy, but also because we took to the streets and ballot box to do something about it.

In response to the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States, American Jews stood up, spoke out, organized, and helped to defeat extremists, including the one in the White House.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America played a key role in this effort in 2018, 2020, and again in the 2022 midterms, when the number one issue for Jewish American voters – according to national polling – was the future of our democracy.

Today, Israel is at a similar inflection point with its democracy at a precipice. Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich is part of a group of democratically elected Israeli government officials threatening the power of Israel’s judiciary and its democratic system of checks and balances.

In response, in January, our organization expressed solidarity with Israelis concerned about extremist members of their government. Last month, we stated our concern about Israel’s proposed judicial overhaul and supported Israeli President Herzog’s calls for compromise.

While American Jews respect the right of Israelis to elect whomever they choose, we have the right to express support for democracy, whether here or in Israel. We also have the right – indeed the obligation – to speak out when Israeli officials express views that are antithetical to the foundation of U.S.-Israel relations.

This includes Minister Smotrich’s recent call earlier this month for “the State of Israel” to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Hawara.

The U.S. State Department correctly called these remarks “irresponsible, repugnant, and disgusting.” His words exacerbated an already volatile situation days after Israeli settlers rampaged Hawara, leaving one Palestinian dead and dozens of buildings and vehicles burned, as retaliation for the killing of Israeli brothers by Palestinians earlier in the day.

Smotrich’s statement didn’t just add fuel to this fire, it was also blatantly racist; he was encouraging state-sponsored violence specifically targeting Palestinian civilians.

As more than 100 Jewish American leaders wrote on March 3, “Smotrich has long expressed views that are abhorrent to the vast majority of American Jews, from anti-Arab racism to virulent homophobia, to a full-throated embrace of Jewish supremacy. To this list, we can now add his endorsement of violence against innocents based on their ethnic heritage.” The letter declared that Smotrich should not be given an honor in the United States simply because of his role in the Israeli government, certainly not by a Jewish American organization.

Regardless, yesterday Minister Smotrich addressed Israel Bonds at the same Washington hotel where we protested.

For ten consecutive weeks, Israelis have taken to the streets, with each week’s protests growing in numbers and strength. This week, half a million Israelis protested across the country, some of whom spoke directly to members of the coalition, including Minister Smotrich.

They chanted “You forgot that the country is not yours alone; it is ours as well and we will fight for it.”
There is hope in this refrain – Israelis are fighting for their future as a democracy, and American Jews – including this one – stand with them in this fight.
Halie Soifer is CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). She previously served as national security advisor in the Senate to Vice President Kamala Harris, as foreign policy advisor to Senator Chris Coons, and as a senior policy advisor in the Obama administration. Twitter: @HalieSoifer