Netanyahu in the United States

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on September 20, 2023

I’m heading to New York tomorrow to join some of the many protests around Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first visit to the US since his extreme government’s election late last year.

All week, Jewish Americans and Israeli-American expats have been out in force, greeting the Prime Minister with unprecedented pro-democracy rallies.

It’s a challenging and important moment, and I’m proud J Street is part of this movement.

On Thursday night, I’ll be speaking at a rally outside Netanyahu’s hotel, the night before his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

And – while Netanyahu hurls lies and spin in speeches and media appearances – J Street is bringing Israeli pro-democracy protest leaders to Capitol Hill to meet lawmakers and set the record straight.

The stakes couldn’t be higher – for Israel, for American Jews and for the US-Israel relationship.

My family, life and career have been bound up in that relationship ever since my father arrived in New York from Palestine in 1939 to raise funds for what was then the illegal migration of Jews out of Europe, and for the fight for independence. Ironically, one of the people my father worked most closely with all those decades ago was Prime Minister Netanyahu’s father.

So many J Streeters share similar stories, or have similarly deep bonds and ties with friends and family in Israel.

After all, Jews in the United States and in Israel are one people, with one history.

For centuries, our families lived together in the lands of others, almost always denied the rights accorded to their non-Jewish neighbors. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents fled or were expelled from communities where they were not protected by the rule of law.

Over the last century, they found safety, freedom and prosperity – some in Israel and some in the United States.

What has allowed our families to flourish and prosper?

It comes down to one word: Democracy in English. דֵמוֹקרָטִיָה in Hebrew.

Democracy does not mean – as Netanyahu, Trump and their right-wing allies would have us believe – that elected leaders can rule with absolute power.

No. Liberal, meaningful democracy includes checks and balances, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and protected rights for traditionally marginalized groups, including women, LGBT+ folks and others.

Today, defenders of liberal democracy in Israel, the United States and around the world are under attack:

  • On the tarmac before he flew to America on Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the pro-democracy protesters awaiting him in the US of “aligning with” Iran and the PLO.
  • The same weekend, former president Trump – the overwhelming favorite to claim the Republican nomination – posted a Rosh Hashanah message accusing “liberal Jews” of voting to “destroy America & Israel.”
  • Netanyahu’s first major event was a back-slapping meeting with Elon Musk, amid a major controversy over the tech billionaire’s embrace of white nationalist and antisemitic content on his platform – and just hours after he retweeted the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory and said that George Soros seemed bent on “the destruction of western civilization.”

This is what demagogues do: They paint political opponents as enemies of the state and deny the legitimacy of political dissent and debate as hallmarks of democracy.

The path of the demagogues leads directly to election denial, voter suppression, restrictions on civil rights, curtailing checks and balances, and rolling back personal freedoms.

There is a red-alert blaring that democracy – in Israel, the US and around the world – is under terrible threat.

The MAGA movement in the US and the ultranationalist settlement movement in Israel are pushing ever farther down a dangerous path.

It is time for our community to mobilize, to stand together with our allies in Israel, and to do everything in our power to speak out, stand up and fight back.

As dangerous as this time is, it’s also filled me with optimism and hope.

Hope, as Israelis flood the streets week after week to defend their democracy, challenge the agenda of the far-right and say “enough is enough.”

Hope, as so many Jewish Americans join J Street and our partners to support the Israeli protests – and mobilize with fierce passion to uphold democracy and defeat Trumpism here at home.

Hope, as more and more Members of Congress sign on to a J Street-backed resolution praising the pro-democracy protest movement and trumpeting the importance of democratic checks and balances for Israel.

Hope, as I see more and more pro-democracy Israelis and Americans increasingly clear-eyed about the threat posed to democracy by decades of occupation – recognizing the need to struggle for the freedoms and civil rights of Palestinians, as we struggle for our own.

With energy, determination and solidarity, Israelis and Americans can work together to uphold the traditions of our people and the lessons of our history. We can take on the demagogues, ultra-nationalists and bigots.

We will fight to protect and build democracy – and we will win.