Rabbi David Cohen, of Fox Point’s Congregation Sinai, spoke outside the mammoth Fiserv Forum, into a bullhorn: “The Republican Party has stood by Israel for decades and continues to be committed to Israel’s security and to strengthening those important bonds.”
“Today, however, Israel is under a new kind of threat, not coming up from Israel’s external enemies, but rather from inside Israeli society itself.”
Cohen was among a handful of local and east coast Jewish activists who gathered together outside the Milwaukee site of the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 23. Their mission: to call attention to disputes over democracy in Israel.
Tali Reiner Brodetzki, an Israeli biology professor, flew in from her La Salle University teaching post in Philadelphia, to protest outside the Fiserv event. Brodetzki came representing a grassroots, expat-driven, pro-Israel democracy group called UnXeptable.
“We are a bunch of ordinary people who care about our country,” she said. “We’re mostly Israeli. I’m Israeli. I moved to the United States about five years ago. And all my family still lives in Israel. And we just want to make sure we have a home to go back to, that we have a thriving democracy to go back to.”
“This is not a left or right issue … I, myself, voted for Binyamin Netanyahu when I was younger.”
Brodetzki has been home to Israel to participate in the protests there. The protests in Israel started earlier this year, to stop a judicial overhaul that a large swath of Israeli society sees as anti-democratic. The civil actions in Israel continued after a major loss for the activists, when the Knesset abolished the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to review government actions on the grounds of reasonableness.
A varied, rambunctious crowd
The debate inside Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum was among all the major Republican candidates – except for the frontrunner who skipped it, former president Donald Trump. It was televised by Fox News and was a major news story (see story, p. 11). But just before the big event inside, outside the Fiserv and its security-guarded perimeter, people from all walks of life came to protest, or to at least try to be heard. It was a rambunctious, varied scene.
One pair came to stand near the entrance to the Fiserv grounds in costume as Trump and former presidential medical advisor Anthony Fauci; both were wearing pandemic masks, perhaps a dig at the former president. Yet another came to insist in a poster that “there is only one gender.” One man, a lone environmentalist, approached this journalist to ask if visuals like holding a big sign, as the Jewish organizers did, is helpful in obtaining media coverage (Answer: It can be.).
As a few members of the small, pro-Israel democracy Jewish group took turns speaking, with American and Israeli flags at hand, there were a few catcalls about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others stopped by to express support for the Jewish people or Israel.
“The way our government is treating Israel is totally off the wall. Totally off the wall. We need Trump back,” said one man, dressed to the hilt in Trump-support garb.
Andrew Keene, a Milwaukee-area native who lives in Washington, D.C. and serves as vice chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, took a turn at the bullhorn.
“To our Republican friends and family, we need you in this fight,” Keene said. “We’ve heard it before, that you vote for the Republican Party because the party is good for Israel. But in this crucial hour, good for Israel must include speaking out in support of democracy.”
Cohen, standing before an Israeli TV reporter, asked for support for a congressional resolution. The rabbi asked Republicans to support the resolution, noting the importance of democracy in Israel.
“Here in America, we’re living through a frightening surge of racism and antisemitism. Our pain is inexorably tied up with that in the State of Israel,” Cohen said. “A strong democratic Israel is a beacon to the world and a guarantor to the American Jewish community.”
“I therefore ask our Republican friends who have demonstrated their commitment to Israel time and again, to do what they can to strengthen the forces in Israel working to protect and strengthen democracy.”