(New York Jewish Week) — The hundreds of Israelis and American Jews broke out into song as they filed from the wide crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge through a small passageway: “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar meod,” “The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is to have no fear.”
It was a fitting tune for the moment, and not just because of the setting: Sunday’s procession was part of a protest against Israel’s government at a moment that its leaders and critics both say is pivotal for the country’s future.
Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved the first piece of a package of judicial legislation that would bar their Supreme Court from striking down government decisions it deems “unreasonable.”
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says its election last year means that its move to rein in the judiciary, which it says is out of step with Israel’s right-wing voters, reflects the will of the people. But a large portion of Israelis, along with U.S. Jewish leaders and government officials, say the changes would fundamentally undermine democratic norms.
A protest movement that has grown over half a year, since the legislation was introduced, has swelled to new heights in recent days. Tens of thousands of Israelis have marched on Jerusalem, with a tent city filled with protesters rising in a park near the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Businesses are closing in protest, army reservists are vowing to boycott their service and the country’s labor union is considering taking action.
The march over the Brooklyn Bridge was part of a global solidarity movement that has flourished in the city with the most Israelis outside of Israel.
“The ties between New York and Israel are so strong and so deep that when there is a crisis over there, as there is now, we feel it viscerally here,” Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said at a rally following the march. “So I am incredibly proud that over the past 28 weeks, New York City has emerged as one of the global epicenters of the Israel democracy movement.”
The featured speaker was Erel Margalit, a tech entrepreneur and former member of Knesset, who tied the timing of the crisis to Tisha B’Av, the Jewish day of mourning that falls this week. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in ancient Jerusalem — known as “hurban habayit” in Hebrew — that, according to Jewish tradition, stemmed from hatred among Jews.
“Like every Jerusalemite, I know that extremism and zealousness lead to destruction,” Margalit said. “This time the destruction is happening within us, and we will not let Netanyahu and his government lead us to the third hurban habayit.”
For Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, the setting of the protest was particularly fitting. Earlier this month, she spoke at a rally outside the U.S. Consulate in Tel Aviv, delivering a message that she titled “We are the bridge.”
Dardashti had encouraged her congregants at Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue to attend the rally, which was convened with short notice. One who responded to the invitation was Lisa Podemski, who said she had “mixed feelings” about participating in the protests, not because she supports the legislation but because she was afraid of inflaming anti-Israel sentiment, which she said was prevalent in her field as a public interest attorney.
“I’m not sure who this is for,” she said, questioning whether the prevalence of Hebrew made the protesters’ message inaccessible to others crossing the bridge. Still, she said, she had decided to come for one reason: “I’m a Zionist.”
Other protesters had answers to that question. Danny, a tech worker who moved from Tel Aviv to New York 12 years ago, said he thought it was important to show up even though the current phase of the legislative fight appeared to be lost. He said he thought the biggest risk to Israel’s future was the potential for the rightward shift in politics to drive out the relatively few Israelis who draw high salaries and fuel the economy.
“One thing to keep these people there is to see more people like them, to see that they are not alone,” said Danny, who declined to share his last name.
The demonstrators were mostly Israelis living in New York, and some could be seen Facetiming with relatives in Israel who were at one of the many protests taking place there. Among the American Jews who turned up in solidarity were Alex Edelman, whose Broadway show pillorying antisemitism, “Just For Us,” is running now, and Jake Cohen, the Jewish food influencer.
A contingent turned out from Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn. Joel Levy, a member who retired after a career in the foreign service, said he believed the protests had and could still influence what happens in Jerusalem. He also said his experience working in politically volatile settings abroad had convinced him that concerns about civil war in Israel — which Israeli President Isaac Herzog has warned about, and polls show Israelis fear — are not overblown.
“These things can happen, and they do,” he said.
One of the first to arrive at the meeting point near City Hall in Manhattan was Bonnie Roche, a member of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side. She said she hadn’t attended many protests but felt emboldened after her rabbi, Ammiel Hirsh, a longtime critic of of those in the Diaspora who criticize Israel, criticized the legislative proposals.
Roche had driven down from the Upper East Side with a friend, Ilana, who has split her time between New York and Tel Aviv for the last 60 years.
“If somebody would have told me seven months ago that everything would look the way it looks now, I would never have believed it,” said Ilana, who declined to share her last name but said she was involved in supporting the arts in Israel. “The Jewish people in the Diaspora should be worried, too. If Israel is not going to be democratic, then God help the Jews.”