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Olim join forces to fight for democracy



Olim form a vital part of Israeli society, yet their voices are often overtaken by the loud, proud voices of those born in Israel. But olim are just as proud of their adopted country, and believe that they have a unique and important perspective to add, especially as the political temperature heats up.

This is why a number of South African olim joined their brethren from the United States, the United Kingdom, European countries, Australia, Russia, Ukraine, and South America in forming a new organisation called Olim for Democracy in mid-March.

Its first act was to write a letter calling on the Israeli government to halt its planned judicial reforms, and it has now launched a digital campaign and petition urging Likud Minister of the Knesset (MK), Dan Illouz, himself an oleh from Canada and the representative of new immigrants in Likud, to oppose a judicial-reform package “that goes against the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic Israel that has inspired tens of thousands to make aliya”, according to the group.

Regarding the letter, “We got 1 600 signatures in three days. Signatories come from all backgrounds, including Orthodox, secular, Reform, Conservative, and haredi Jews,” says Southern African oleh Paul Mirbach, who is on the organisation’s steering committee.

“We write to you as olim and olot, devoted Israeli citizens by choice, individuals who made an active choice to leave everything that was familiar to us in our countries of origin and weld our destinies to the destiny of this country. We’re all here because of a dream, a vision, a hope for a better future,” they wrote.

The letter addresses a number of MKs, President Isaac Herzog, The Jewish Agency for Israel Chairperson Doron Almog, Jewish Agency for Israel Chief Executive Amira Aharonovitz, and Nefesh B’Nefesh Chief Executive Rabbi Yehoshua Fass.

“We’re writing this letter with heavy hearts,” continued the letter. “The Zionist vision that inspired us – and all the olim who came before us – has been hijacked by extremists who threaten the very fabric of this country as a Jewish and democratic state. The judicial overhaul package being advanced by the governing coalition in a blitz threatens to irrevocably damage Israel’s delicate system of checks and balances and leave our society vulnerable to a tyranny of the majority.

“Coming from Jewish communities around the world, we know what it’s like to feel prejudice and discrimination as a minority group,” they said. “As Zionists, we believe that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination, a universal right based upon principles of equality and freedom that are integral to all democracies. This legislation undermines the very basis of the justification for the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

“Today, the necessity for this safe haven is becoming ever more real. But a non-democratic Israel isn’t an option for a haven. And many Jewish individuals are even facing the prospect of no longer being eligible for aliya since members of this coalition have threatened to remove the Law of Return’s ‘grandchild clause’.

“The legislation being advanced will force Jews facing antisemitism in their countries to choose between living in a society where they suffer hate crimes or moving to a country with restricted freedom and a compromised justice system. It will extinguish the dream of Jews all over the world that they, too, can choose to live as free people in their own land.”

As olim and olot from the four corners of the earth, “we urge you to take a stand now and do whatever is in your power to halt this march of madness! The judicial overhaul legislation must be halted, for the sake of Israel, for the sake of all Israel’s citizens regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender, and for the sake of the Jewish people worldwide,” concluded the letter.

Gideon Miller, who was one of the signatories, is originally from Bulawayo and went to the United States before making aliya in 2001. “I signed the letter because I will add my voice to any effort to stop this abomination. I have also signed letters representing Israeli graduates of my graduate school – which is the same one Bibi [Netanyahu] went to – and representing groups of concerned members of the high-tech sector.

“Why should olim speak up? Everyone who cares about Israel should speak up,” he says. “That said, there may be a few things particularly relevant to olim: First, aliya is still a core value in Israel and olim are valued as people who came voluntarily. It’s one of the core values being betrayed by this deliberate effort to degrade Israel’s democracy and rule of law.

“In addition, there’s an unwritten contract that the country we’re making aliya to is both Jewish and democratic, as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, which is our only foundational document. Changing either one of those attributes, which is what the government is trying to do, breaks that contract.

“Israel’s democracy isn’t only relevant to Israelis but to Jews worldwide,” he says. “No Jew who believes in Zionism and a Jewish state wants that state to be an undemocratic embarrassment. And olim represent a unique bridge between Israeli and diaspora Jewish communities.”

The organisation plans to host webinars with relevant speakers, and to have shirts made for protests so that they can identify one another. They are in contact with other olim organisations and are trying to create a united voice.

“As opposed to people born in Israel, olim have taken an active choice to uproot themselves and move to another country for an ideological reason,” says Mirbach. “That makes our voice unique. We came to Israel with the expectation of it being a democratic and better society than the one we left.”

He believes this organisation is needed because “a lot of olim don’t have enough Hebrew to understand the political landscape, so we can provide a deeper understanding and the tools to be able to argue on the issue and not feel left out of everything that is happening in the country.”

He decided to join the steering committee because “I felt that I wouldn’t be lost in a sea of activism, and my contribution could be greater. After living Israel for 41 years, volunteering in the army and a combat unit, fighting in the First Lebanon War, serving in miluim [reserve duty] for five extra years after retiring age, these laws that will transform Israel into an illiberal tyranny is like a spit in my face.”

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  1. Choni Davidowitz

    Mar 31, 2023 at 12:58 pm

    Yasher Koach to all olim/olot. I suggest that if you are really democratic you will express your feelings at the ballot box and not cause chaos in the streets of our Holy country.

  2. andrew

    Apr 3, 2023 at 4:26 am

    the majority voted for change, the supreme court is undemoctatic and leftits.

  3. Gideon Miller

    Apr 3, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    Let me take the liberty of addressing the above two comments. This has nothing to do with votes and ballots. Nobody denies that the current coalition won the election. However, what winning an election gives the winner is the right to govern within the system. It does NOT give the winner the right to completely overturn or revamp the system itself (never mind to change the system from a democratic to autocratic one).

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