(New York Jewish Week) – In mid-September, a group of Israeli activists projected a message in all capital letters onto the headquarters of the United Nations reading, “Don’t believe crime minister Netanyahu.”
About a month later, the same activist group projected another all-caps message onto the same building. But instead of targeting Israel’s leader, it displayed the photos of some of the country’s youngest and oldest citizens.
“3 year-old Avigail,” read one message, above the photo of a smiling girl. Similar messages followed, depicting the photos, names and ages of Ariel, age 4; Carmela, age 80; and Yaffa, 85. Beneath every photo was the caption “Kidnapped by Hamas.”
Both projections were the work of expatriate Israeli protesters who have organized and gained national attention over the past year. But as of two weeks ago, their cause has changed.
Originally, the activists gathered to protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his effort to weaken Israel’s judiciary, organizing protests and heckling Israeli officials when they visited the city. But after Hamas’ devastating Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which terrorists killed and injured thousands, and took more than 200 captive, the activists quickly pivoted — repurposing their tools and connections to support Israel’s war effort, aid its vulnerable populations and advocate for the release of the hostages.
“We’re all just thinking about our families and we have sleepless nights and we’re doing whatever we can,” said Shany Granot-Lubaton, a prominent Israeli activist in New York who previously worked in progressive political organizing in Israel. The protest group she helps organize, UnXeptable, has changed its motto from “Saving Israeli Democracy” to “Saving Israel.”
“We know many people who were slaughtered and kidnapped and raped and it’s in our closest circles. We have kids, we used to be their guides at scouts, who were kidnapped and killed,” she said. “As Israelis, being far away from home right now is devastating and we all just want to do something to help.”
For Granot-Lubaton’s family, as for many Israelis, the devastation is personal. Her husband, Omer Lubaton-Granot, found out last Wednesday that four of his relatives are among the captives; two more were murdered in the massacre. He is running an advocacy campaign for the hostages in New York — part of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, a larger coordinated effort with activity in Israel and around the world. Israelis have taken an active role in the grassroots “Kidnapped in Israel” project that pastes flyers of hostages on city streets.
“It’s a whole family, and we thought that all six of them are gone, then the family realized that four of them are hostages and held by Hamas, and two of them, the bodies were identified a couple days ago,” he said regarding his captive relatives, adding that despite the initial shock and horror of captivity, it was a small relief to find out some had survived. “It’s not good, but it’s better.”
So far, the activists say they have raised around $1.2 million, in addition to sending supplies to soldiers and civilians, staging rallies, providing services and community to Israelis in the U.S. and organizing efforts aimed at freeing hostages held by Hamas.
The protesters’ mobilization in New York and other international cities parallels the approach of the protest movement in Israel, which brought hundreds of thousands to the streets earlier this year to protest the judicial overhaul. Since Oct. 7, the movement has set aside that fight to focus on relief work — delivering services and supplies to those in need. Granot-Lubaton said her NYC-based group and others in the United States, which coordinate with the Israeli groups, is a “sidekick” to their efforts. American Jewish organizations have also been crucial partners, she said.
Israeli expatriates established branches of the protest movement in dozens of cities in North America and have learned to navigate the intricate landscape of American Jewish organizations and formed ties with many of those groups — connections that proved crucial in rapidly launching a major relief effort in the United States.
“It was very easy to transform because we know how to mobilize people, we know how to reach people,” Lubaton-Granot said. “We know how to organize events, we know how to raise funds.”
In one aid operation that began at the war’s outset, the U.S.-based protesters sent four tons of supplies to Israeli soldiers who found that they lacked essential equipment as the military called up 300,000 reservists.
Tali Reiner Brodetzki, an Israeli activist in Philadelphia, was inspired by seeing supporters of Ukraine’s war effort organize Amazon “wish lists” after Russia invaded last year. She asked colleagues from an Israeli combat veterans’ protest group, Brothers and Sisters in Arms, to tell her what the soldiers needed, and began spreading the word about a wish list of her own.
Volunteers responded by buying 80,000 flashlights, 100,000 olive green T-shirts, socks, ceramic body armor, tourniquets and dressing for trauma wounds. The equipment was sent to a volunteer’s house on Long Island near John F. Kennedy Airport, packed into duffel bags and sent as overweight baggage on El Al flights. Activists from Brothers and Sisters in Arms collected the supplies at Ben Gurion Airport and distributed them to troops.
“We got a call from a mother crying her heart out” after her son was shot, said Granot-Lubaton, who assisted with that initiative. “He’s in the hospital and he got a bullet, but the vest we sent saved his life.”
Many Israelis who live in New York and across the United States have flown to Israel to fight in the reserves, and some of those reservists — in addition to medics — arrived on flights organized by an UnXeptable chapter in the Bay Area, led by activist Offir Gutelzon. And some Israeli families who were in the United States on vacation have opted to stay for the meantime. The activists are helping to organize programs for children of the reservists and those here temporarily, assisting new arrivals in gaining admission to Jewish day schools and enlisting kosher restaurants to help out with food deliveries for families.
One of the main ways the protest groups have communicated with and mobilized followers is via Whatsapp groups, and those groups have proven crucial for crowdsourcing support during the past two weeks. One woman was eight months pregnant when her husband went to the reserves, leaving her alone in the city. She was able to access health insurance and find other support through the activist network. A recent request for Hebrew-speaking psychologists in New York who could treat trauma also elicited a long list of recommendations. Some Israelis who were stranded in the city have been able to find temporary free lodging.
Some of the activist programs aim to bring Israelis, including children and their parents, together on the weekends. An event on Oct. 14 at the Manhattan JCC drew more than 300 people, and a David Broza concert on Sunday drew hundreds to B’nai Jeshurun, an Upper West Side synagogue. Many Israelis feel out of place in New York, where life continues as usual, despite the trauma and hardship back home. The Israeli and American Jewish communities have also responded differently to the war, Granot-Lubaton said.
“American Jews, they speak about the war in this very frightening way,” she said. “They’re doing ceremonies, lighting candles, but the Israeli kids in the schools are getting freaked out about it because their fathers are out there and it makes them afraid, so the way we talk about it is very different.”
Now that the immediate needs of troops have been mostly met, the activists hope to aid the communities in Israel’s south that were hardest-hit by Hamas’ atrocities, including by helping fund mental health services. Organizers also hope to support Israel’s economy, which is also battered by the war, by buying aid supplies from local stores rather than U.S. suppliers. That aid effort comes alongside an American Jewish fundraising drive that has directed hundreds of millions to Israel since Oct. 7.
The war has also led to new ties between the Israeli activists and American Jews who opposed their previous anti-government demonstrations. Reiner Brodetzki, the Philadelphia activist, said a group of religious Jews opposed to the protest movement had dropped by her house to borrow her Israeli flags and megaphones to use in their own pro-Israel demonstration.
“It’s amazing to see how people who would not talk to us previously, and had a lot of criticism about us protesting outside of Israel against the Israeli government, how they want to work with us now,” Reiner Brodetzki said. “They understand that we love Israel and we’re supporting Israel and now we’re in this fight together.”