UnXeptable – Israelis and Jews Abroad Standing Up for Israeli Democracy

Over a million Israelis are estimated to live outside Israel. Most started out on temporary relocations and found themselves staying for decades. They practice a delicate balancing act of staying connected to Israel through language, culture, and family while embracing their newly adopted countries. Many remain connected to Israel through yearly visits, business relationships, family, social media, and even Israeli television channels which are distributed globally.

One unspoken rule followed by most Israelis in the diaspora has been not to “air dirty laundry” in public. Public expression of disapproval of Israel, the Israeli government, or Israeli policies is something most Israelis avoid. Even Israelis who considered themselves “leftist” when in Israel have refrained from outright condemnation of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories or criticism of IDF military operations. Many feel a sense of guilt for emigrating, so they don’t feel they have the right to criticize Israel from the outside. 

In the summer of 2020 Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trials began on multiple charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. Large protests erupted across Israel demanding the removal of the indicted Prime Minister. The protests were led by many organizations all using the code name Balfour, the street in Jerusalem where the prime minister’s residence is located. These demonstrations sparked a parallel protest movement of Israeli expats living in Europe, the U.S., and Australia. The American Israeli expat protest movement started in Silicon Valley with the tagline “UnXeptable – saving Israeli Democracy.”

The Emergence of UnXeptable

UnXeptable is a grassroots movement. It is not a formal organization, but an alliance of grassroots groups in dozens of cities in the North America, Australia, and recently in South America. The movement comes to life on WhatsApp, in a collection of dozens of chat groups each dedicated to a specific element of protest planning, messaging, graphic design, video editing, content translation to local languages, etc. The initial mission of the Israeli expat protests was one of solidarity with the Balfour protests. It gave Israelis abroad a chance to express their support for their friends and family members demonstrating in Israel. It gave them a sense of belonging and empowerment and a chance to feel like they could influence events back in Israel no matter where they were in the world. It allowed them to build local communities of people who felt like them, as well as an infrastructure for effective organizing and messaging. 

This solidarity mission meant that a strong emphasis was placed on producing images and videos that gave a “shot in the arm” to protesters back in Israel. One of the earliest demonstrations held in the U.S. was at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The site was chosen since Israelis took to demonstrating on highway bridges, and also for its familiarity to many Israelis back home. The organizers paid special attention to the stagecraft, making sure to pick the best angles and get the photos and videos on social media to be consumed by Israelis back home. They included Israeli flags in the protests to emphasize they were pro-Israel protests.

A “Mission Accomplished” Moment, Until the Alarm Bells Rang

In June 2021, the Bennet-Lapid government was formed after a series of four contentious and indecisive elections. The defeat of Netanyahu and his demotion to leader of the opposition gave the Israeli protest movement and UnXeptable a “mission accomplished” moment. The movement in the U.S., as well as the pro-democracy protest movement in Israel went into hibernation with a sense of victory. While the activity ceased, the social networks, friendships, and WhatsApp groups remained intact. The activism “muscle” that was trained remained ready to flex. 

In late 2022, the alarm bells rang. The Bennet-Lapid government fell, and after another election it appeared that Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a coalition that would result in Israel’s most right-wing and messianic government ever. As the coalition agreements solidified, it became clear that politicians convicted of bribery, corruption, and terrorism would hold key ministries and drive the policies of the new government. These policies would threaten the rights of women, LGBT, secular Jews, as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Netanyahu’s government announced an all-out attack on the system of checks and balances in Israel. The announced “Judicial Reform” was a full frontal assault on the composition and powers of the Supreme Court, as well as structural changes in ministries that brought the settlement enterprise and the West Bank under the control of the racist ultra-nationalist minister Bezalel Smotrich. Further erosion of secular rights, women’s rights, and minority rights also seemed imminent.

The Protest Movement Rises Again, in Israel and Around the World

January 2023, saw the re-awakening of the protest movement in Israel as well as the movement around the world. The dormant WhatsApp groups sprang into action, and the activism muscles formed during the previous years’ Balfour pro-democracy protests were flexed again. 

Demonstrations started up in solidarity with the early anti-judicial overhaul protests in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Square during January 2023. On January 4, 2023, some of the original founders of UnXeptable launched a petition for Israeli expats to express their dismay. The petition began:

“We, the undersigned, Israeli expats, are concerned and dismayed by the assembly of the new government, the 37th government of Israel, whose attributes, messages, and actions undermine the fundamental values of the State of Israel and the democratic and egalitarian foundations of the home of the Jewish people as stipulated in the Declaration of Independence. We were raised and educated to serve the State of Israel, and we’re committed to its safety, ethos, and prosperity at all times, wherever we are.”

UnXeptable protest in New York, 2023

The Occupation Question

The petition explicitly called out institutionalized discrimination and racism, the attack on the judicial system, threats to the independence of the media, religious control of the education system, as well as changes to the Law of Return. Most significantly, the petition invoked Israel’s Declaration of Independence promising freedom, justice, peace, and equality for all citizens. The petition spread quickly through tightly-knit social media groups of Israeli expats and reached over 500 signatures. Not all Israeli expats were willing to sign the petition. Among those objecting, some stated they did not believe they had the right to critique Israel publicly when abroad. Others objected to the fact that the protest movement, and therefore UnXeptable, omitted any mention of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and did not recognize it as a contributor to the current situation. 

We attempted to create a wide tent to attract as many Israelis and Jews around the world as possible to the movement. Like the protests in Israel, the occupation was omitted from the movement. This met with spirited debate, as many anti-occupation activists wanted to take part, but felt that the occupation was too central a topic to be eliminated from the conversation. Eventually, the movement explicitly decided to welcome any opinion as long as it was directly related to the effects of the judicial coup. This included the Occupation, as well as the rights of the Palestinian minority within Israel which have become valid topics of discussion during UnXeptable events and protests.

Organizing in the U.S. and Around the World

In February 2023, the movement began organizing demonstrations in multiple cities in the U.S. and Australia. Early demonstrations began in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Sydney Australia. Simultaneously, a similar movement called Defend Israeli Democracy (DID) started operating in Europe. The two movements cooperate and share tactics and creative content. Demonstrations sprung up in nearly a dozen cities across Europe at the same time. 

The UnXeptable demonstrations in the U.S. usually occur on Sundays. They incorporate many of the same elements as the Tel Aviv Kaplan demonstrations – marching, singing, and chanting. “De-Mo-Kra-tya!” (Democracy) and “Bu-sha!” (Shame) chants echo through the crowd. Speakers from the local Jewish community, local rabbis, visiting Israeli academics, and on occasion visiting sympathetic Israeli politicians address the crowds. Demonstrations range in size from 25 people in smaller cities to hundreds of people in larger ones.

When Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to London in March, 2023 for meetings with the British PM, he was greeted with protests outside his hotel. Hundreds of Israeli expats shouted “Busha!” (Shame). Women protesters dressed in red robes and white caps, echoing “The Handmaid’s Tale,” marched in silence, representing the discriminatory positions of many ministers in the current government on women’s issues. The purpose of these demonstrations was to let Netanyahu know he could not travel anywhere in the world without being held responsible for what he was doing back home. Israeli expats were not going to let him have a moment to relax. They were not letting him off the hook for a moment. 

As more and more American cities joined in, we made a conscious effort to invite the American Jewish community to the demonstrations. A deliberate plan to invite local rabbis to speak at the demonstrations and invite their congregations was put in place and succeeded in attracting more Jewish Americans to the demonstrations. As more Americans came, the dominant language of the demonstrations shifted to English. The rabbis (mostly Reform) began connecting Jewish values with democratic values. They equated support for Israel with support for democracy.

Individual leaders of liberal Jewish organizations such as the Union of Reform Judaism, Arza, J Street, JCRC of Silicon Valley, NIF, NCJW and others began to express public support for the demonstrations. More importantly, they began to highlight the need for American Jews to speak up. They declared that the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel was based on democratic values, and that without a healthy democracy in Israel that special relationship is at risk. 

Not all American Jewish organizations have shown support for the protests. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has not taken any position supporting the fight for democracy in Israel. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) leadership refused to meet publicly with protest leaders during their World Congress in Israel. And many local Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Centers have distanced themselves from the protest movement.

Targeting the Prime Minister and Other Politicians

In April 2023, the UnXeptable movement sent an open letter to the Jewish Federations of North America and the attendees of the 2023 General Assembly in Tel Aviv. The letter urged the organizations to revoke the invitations issued to Prime Minister Netanyahu and MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee who is one of the main architects of the judicial coup, to speak at the conference. We worked together with the protest movement in Israel to organize large demonstrations outside the conference. Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled his planned speech at the conference. Most press accounts claimed he did so because he did not want to appear there given the planned large demonstrations. 

During the New York City Celebrates Israel Parade on June 4, 2023, we teamed with the liberal Jewish organization Ameinu to march in the parade under the Ameinu banner. The parade has long suppressed any open criticism of Israel by excluding political groups and censoring signs and banners used at the event. The Ameinu/UnXeptable group, of over 1000 people, was the largest single group to march in the parade. They wore T-shirts saying “Zionism = Democracy” and were led by Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) in a clear show of support for the protest movement.

The NYC Celebrates Israel parade marked a transition to an explicit focus on nonviolent harassment of Israeli coalition politicians when they visit the U.S. nine Israeli government ministers arrived to march in the New York parade. Protesters tracked down the hotels they were staying at, and staged protests that disrupted their ability to move around, shop, dine, or enjoy their stay in New York. In one infamous incident, Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli was photographed giving a middle finger to the demonstrators. While MK Simcha Rothman forcibly grabbed a megaphone from a demonstrator, injuring her. Both incidents received wide exposure on social media, and were effectively used by the protest movement in Israel to shame these ministers. 

Another important achievement for the movement came when Israeli expats in Philadelphia successfully targeted one of the two major donors to Kohelet Forum, the right-wing think-tank widely believed to be responsible for planning the judicial coup. UnXeptable activists demonstrated outside the home of Arthur Dantchik, the 104th richest billionaire in the United States. After weeks of daily demonstrations and loud public shaming in the local Jewish community, Dantchik announced that he will discontinue his financial support for the Kohelet Forum.

Acting in Washington DC and the Congress

In July 2023, during the Washington DC visit of Israeli President Herzog, members staged a demonstration outside the Capitol, supporting Herzog in his bid to find a compromise, but demanding a fully democratic future for Israel and an end to the threats to the Supreme Court. Prior to Herzog’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress, movement representatives met with multiple congressional offices and distributed pro-democracy literature to Representatives. 

In August 2023, Representatives Schakowsky (D-IL) and Kuster (D-NH) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 61: Supporting Israeli Democracy. The movement joined a growing coalition of 17 liberal Jewish organizations including J Street, Ameinu, Israel Policy Forum, J Street, Partners for Progressive Israel and T’ruah in lobbying Congress to cosponsor the resolution. Members across the U.S. have called and written their representatives asking them to co-sponsor. In Silicon Valley, a group of 30 Israeli Americans attended Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D-CA) town hall event in San Jose, CA wearing UnXeptable T-Shirts. Rep. Khanna confirmed he will co-sponsor the resolution at that event.

Members continue to debate the role of the occupation, apartheid, and the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel as explicit topics of the movement. The wide tent the movement built accommodates these debates and allows expression of differing opinions by speakers at the same demonstration. There are activists within UnXeptable who are affiliated with organizations with widely differing political points of view such as AIPAC, DMFI (Democratic Majority for Israel), and J Street. This shows the power of this protest movement to bring together people who would otherwise not be speaking to each other. 

UnXeptable is now the fastest growing movement led by Israeli Expats, with over 70 communities worldwide. It gave the Israeli American community a voice in U.S. politics. It also succeeded in a task no Jewish organization succeeded in before: bringing together Israelis and Jewish Americans in a shared mission to support Israel, giving both groups the permission to criticize Israeli government policies, while still expressing love and support for the country as a Jewish and democratic state with rights and equality for all its inhabitants.