Local rabbi, on hiking trip to Israel, joins protests


Staff Writer

Published: 03-30-2023 7:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Rabbi Justin David journeyed from Northampton to Israel at the beginning of March for a 3½-week sabbatical, aiming to hike the Israel National Trail that stretches across the country.

But he nearly didn’t make it back.

“I left hours before the airport shut down,” said David, whose flight home left Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv just hours before all flights were halted, a result of a general strike called amid a massive wave of protests that have gripped Israel over the past several months.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis of all ages have taken to the streets to protest a proposed reform of Israel’s judicial system by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held the country’s top position for nearly all of the last 14 years and is facing charges of corruption. Critics of the proposed change say it would weaken the independence of Israel’s supreme court and would hold the government less accountable, weakening democracy in the country.

Those demonstrations ramped up Sunday night after Netanyahu abruptly fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had urged the prime minister to put his plan on hold, citing concerns about damage to the Israeli military.

The firing sparked a spontaneous outburst of anger, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in just one hour.

David himself took part in protests while he was there, marching with other demonstrators in Jerusalem in support of their demands. In Tel Aviv, where David was invited to attend a showcasing of the Codex Sassoon, an ancient manuscript of all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, a spontaneous protest broke out at the museum exhibit when it was rumored an Israeli minister would be there.

“The people I spoke to were genuinely concerned about the deep fractures in the nature of the country,” said David. “It’s a time of great concern and uncertainty, and yet there’s also a great vitality of and beauty among the people.”

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David also praised the effectiveness of the protests in their ability to project an optimistic energy and sense of purpose. The many issues that sparked the unrest were vocalized in the chanting of a single word, demokratyah, the Hebrew word for democracy.

“When you can take the complex nature of the society and its moment and ideas, and reduce it to one word, you have a really effective strategy,” David said. “I thought [the protesters] were filled with energy, filled with purpose, and that really seemed to lift people up.”

The deep divide in Israel over the protests lies mainly along sectarian lines, with the more secular and Reform Jews supporting the protests and more religious, Orthodox Jews aligning themselves with the government.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener at Temple Israel in Greenfield spoke in favor of the protesters, and said the situation in Israel mirrors the current political situation in the United States.

“The polarization between secular and religious is extreme in Israel, with parallels in the right-left division we have here in the United States,” she said. “Israel in recent years has aligned itself with fascistic and authoritarian regimes, and is headed toward an unavoidable confrontation between democratic and liberal forces and reactionary elements in Jewish society.”

As a result of the protests, Netanyahu announced that he would postpone a legislative vote on the reform until after the end of Passover, which this year takes place from April 5-13. The postponement has drawn some praise from Jewish groups, including the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts.

“We welcome the Israeli government’s suspension of legislative consideration of judicial reform measures and expect to continue to see Israel’s government work toward more consensus and collaboration,” Nora Gorenstein, CEO of the federation, said in a statement.

But with the changes to the judicial system merely postponed, protests are expected to continue in the country.

“This is just an attempt to weaken the protests in order to enact Netanyahu’s dictatorship,” Shikma Bressler, one of the leaders of the anti-government protest movement, told the Associated Press earlier in the week. “Now is not the time to reduce the pressure, but to increase it.”