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Democracy protests give expat Israelis a new identity

Elan Ezrachi
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Democracy protests give expat Israelis a new identity

Published: 5 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Once derided as selling out the Zionist dream, the Israeli Diaspora is developing a powerful political sense of purpose.

A group of Israeli expats recently demonstrated outside the Philadelphia home and office of a key funder of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based think tank that has been a catalyst for Israel’s proposed judicial reform.

Kohelet generated the conceptual foundation for the barrage of new laws and amendments, particularly those aimed at weakening the authority of the Supreme Court. Kohelet was not known to most Israelis. When it became evident that most of its funding came from a single American donor, the billionaire Arthur Dantchik, a group of Israelis living in Philadelphia took their protest his door.

In Ha’aretz earlier this month, Kim Legziel described in detail how the group conducted a relentless campaign over weeks using all the tools that American democracy offers, and succeeded in persuading him to stop funding Kohelet.

“For a few times a week (in) the past few months, about 30 Israelis who live in the Philadelphia area have been protesting outside Dantchik’s home and office”, she reported. The group was mixed. Protesters ranged from academics spending a few years in the US to those who have been there for many years. At times, they were joined by American Jews with ties to Israel.

The Philadelphia operation was not a unique occurrence. All over the US and in many locations around the globe, Israelis flocked to city squares and other symbolic sites to voice their objection to the proposed judicial reforms. When members of the Israeli government travelled abroad, they were met with Israeli protesters in front of their hotels and the sites they were visiting.

The Philadelphia operation was not a unique occurrence. All over the US and in many locations around the globe, Israelis flocked to city squares to voice their objection to the proposed judicial reforms.

The protesters held signs and chanted slogans that supported the protest in Israel. In Australia, a network of protests has emerged in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane, and Canberra. In addition to the protests, Israelis used social media to spread the message.

Information and mass mobilisation also travelled between locations around the globe. In the US, some of the activity was coordinated by UnXeptable, a group that describes itself as a "grassroots movement launched by a group of Israelis residing in the San Francisco Bay Area in support of a democratic Israel".

UnXeptable asserts that American-Israelis and Israeli expats will not stand idle. "We want to support the ability of the Israelis to recover from many years of divisiveness, a culture of corruption and fear mongering used by Prime Minister Netanyahu and reinstate the values on which the country was established: social justice and democracy."

In other locales, there were similar ad hoc initiatives. In Australia, for example, the protest network operates under the name "UnXeptable Australia - Saving Israeli Democracy," with its members demonstrating every Sunday morning. Although the Australian network functions independently, it collaborates and coordinates with counterparts in the US and Israel.

Israelis protest in Melbourne in May
Israelis protest in Melbourne in May

This form of political activism is a new phenomenon. However, the notion of Israelis residing abroad is hardly new. It goes back to the beginning of the Zionist project. Leaving Israel has been a mirror image of the main Zionist tenet, Aliya (ascend), and known by its Hebrew opposite, Yerida (descend). For many years, leaving Israel was considered an improper act, a threat to the Zionist creed and an embarrassment. In 1976, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin labelled Israelis abroad as nefolet shel nemushot (leftover weaklings). Rabin was not the only Israeli leader who looked down at Israelis who left the country.

But times have changed and having a million Israelis living around the world is rarely seen in such terms. Some of those Israelis are even celebrated personalities in science, business and art. Israel had major demographic growth and gained confidence. The drain of departing Israelis is no longer considered a threat.

The global economy also helped normalise the act of migration with the new language of relocation The crisis in Israel has accelerated another motif: leaving Israel as an act of desperation; anticipating negative outcomes of the new political realities that will make Israel unlivable.

As the Israeli Diaspora was gaining momentum, Israelis around the world were willing to confront their complex identity and invest in the sustainability of their communities and their next generations. In recent years, Israelis have organised themselves in formal and non-formal communities and created local associations with the goal of formulating a distinct diasporic identity (see, for example, the American Israeli Council that maintain active social networks, cultural projects, educational initiatives and more. In addition, Israelis residing abroad have made efforts to define their relations with the local (non-Israeli) Jewish community.

The speed and efficiency of social media in political mobilisation reaches expats with no delay. They are called to action, just like their relatives and peers in Israel who are relentlessly protesting.

For many years, being an Israeli abroad meant that one did not participate in Israeli politics. Israel does not allow absentee voting, so the only way Israelis abroad could express themselves politically was by travelling to Israel on election day to vote.

Some Israelis do, most do not. In the absence of a political option, Israelis kept their ties to Israel through family connections, consuming Israeli culture, and philanthropy for a variety of causes in Israel. And when it became necessary, Israelis were mobilised to stand by Israel and defend their country when it was attacked or critiqued. The recent protest in Israel changed this paradigm.

The idea that expats are involved in the politics of their homeland is not new nor reserved to Israelis. Yossi Shain, a political science professor from Tel Aviv University who briefly served as member of Knesset in 2022, studies the matter in his book Marketing the American Creed Abroad: Diasporas in the U.S. and their Homelands (Cambridge University Press, 1999).  

Since the cold-war era, he argues, diasporas attempted to restructure the politics of their homelands. There are many factors at play with this activity, among them, the relations of the country of residence with the homeland, the political conditions in the homeland and the political issues at stake.

When one thinks about expats involved in homeland politics, it is often associated with totalitarian regimes. In such situations, the expats are typically people who were forced out of their country by a totalitarian system and while in exile they try and influence the homeland's political scene from afar.

Israelis protest in Sydney in March
Israelis protest in Sydney in March

Israelis abroad are in a different position. They are not dissidents who were forced to leave and they are not refugees. They can go back at any time and once they are there, they will not be scrutinised for their activities abroad. They are engaged in a protest campaign that is freely happening in Israel. Often when they return they find themselves seamlessly participating in the Israeli version of the protest.

What is compelling Israelis abroad to take to the streets now? There could be a number of reasons. The speed and efficiency of social media in political mobilisation reaches expats with no delay. They are called to action, just like their relatives and peers in Israel who are relentlessly protesting.

As one activist in the Israeli community in the US told me: "We feel that our home is on fire". Israelis abroad feel that by protesting they are defending their country.

The political activism that we see around the world pursued by Israelis is a new development. It is a narrative that gives many Israelis a new identity and mission. Israeli diasporic identity is not only a matter of ambivalent cultural preservation and mutual support; it is a new narrative that places the task of preserving and deepening Israel's fragile democracy in the centre. Israelis at home can look at Israelis abroad as an asset and not a liability.

The protest movement is stronger when a global network of Israelis is in place. New partnerships can evolve that will also bring the non–Israeli Jewish diasporas into the game. Together, all those liberal forces can work for the common goal – advancing Israel's Jewish and democratic character.

In Italy's alpine foothills, Israelis are starting an expat community. Similar initiatives aren't far behind

In the wake of the judicial coup, Israeli discussions about relocating abroad no longer stop at social media groups. In a lush valley in northwestern Italy, ideas of collective emigration are being played out on the ground – and similar initiatives are taking shape elsewhere.

More than 20,000 Israelis sought Portuguese nationality last year (JTA)

Photo: Israelis protest outside Arthur Dantchik's home in Philadelphia in July (Rotem Elinav)

About the author

Elan Ezrachi

Elan Ezrachi is a native of Jerusalem, an educator and specialist in Jewish peoplehood and Israel-Diaspora relations, and a social activist promoting pluralism and community in Jerusalem.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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