A 2nd Avenue rally and Tisha B’Av service laments the state of Israeli democracy


(New York Jewish Week) — The thermometer crept close to 100 degrees Thursday afternoon as a crowd of people who mostly had not eaten all day donned woolen prayer shawls outside the Israeli Consulate near the United Nations.

The group was there to mark Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, in a location that symbolized to them yet another calamity to befall the Jews: this time, the Israeli parliament’s passage earlier this week of legislation restricting the judiciary’s ability to strike down laws.

The legislation has deeply divided Israel since it was proposed six months ago. Leaders of the right-wing Israeli government say the changes are needed to rein in a judiciary that is out of step with Israeli voters. A massive protest movement argues that the changes are weakening the country’s democracy and putting vulnerable populations at risk. Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who visited New York City last week, has warned that the tensions could yield “a real civil war.”

The parallels between this moment in Israeli politics and Tisha B’Av were drawn throughout the rally, which mixed prayer and protest.

“We are familiar with the teaching that says that our Temple was destroyed and our sovereignty in the land ended because of sinat chinam, because of baseless hatred, not from our enemies toward us, but from each of us towards our fellow, our supposed ally,” one speaker told the assembled crowd.

Signs at a New York City Tisha B’Av protest against the Israeli government’s judiciary changes connected the calamities commemorated on the day of mourning with the current government of Israel, July 27, 2023. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

“1. Nebuchadnezzar. 2. Titus. 3. Netanyahu,” one man’s sign said, adding the current prime minister’s name to the pair of leaders who conquered Jerusalem when the ancient Jewish temples were destroyed.

The prayer service marked the first time that the protest movement of Israelis abroad, UnXeptable, had partnered with local synagogues and organizations outside of a progressive coalition. Among the co-sponsors of the event were the Marlene Meyerson JCC, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Park Avenue Synagogue.

“Being an American Jew, our community hasn’t really supported these protests enough, so I thought it was important to come,” Tzvi Mackson told the New York Jewish Week. “Also Tisha B’Av has this amazing resonance on a day like this and with this cause, so it seemed like the perfect day to come despite the heat and everything else.”

New York Jews, including Park Avenue Synagogue Senior Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, wearing tefillin at center left, participate in a Tisha B’Av prayer service and protest outside the Israeli Consulate in New York City, July 27, 2023. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

Mackson and his wife, Rachel Landsberg, said they had been inspired to attend after hearing Esther Sperber, an Israeli American architect who has been a protest leader, speak at an earlier rally. Both had been fasting since sundown Wednesday.

“I’m an observant Jew, and it was very meaningful to be here in front of the consulate being visibly observant and really thinking about what we mourn,” Landsberg said.

Sperber was one of the speakers at the rally. “We are here during a severe heat wave, with chances of thunderstorms, while fasting, on Tisha B’Av, because this is very important,” she said, adding, “We know these are not only liberal democratic values, but these are also our Jewish values.”

Israelis held fresh protests in Tel Aviv Thursday night after the conclusion of the holiday there. Sperber said that she believed the movement would ultimately prevail, despite this week’s setback.

“Along with my anger, I also have hope,” she said. “While we lost this particular battle, and unreasonable things may soon happen, we will not lose this fight.”