The Day Ulpana Fell: at the Knesset with the stroller lobby (day two)
by Jacob Plitman, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, ’14
We strolled briskly into the Knesset building, up the stairs, around the corner and there came face to face with the proponents of the bill we so hoped to fail. They surrounded us, there were dozens of them, and while some sat quietly occupying themselves with toys, others ran squealing around our waists, little kippot flying off their heads. The vast majority fell between the ages of 0 and 7. These were the infamous settlers, or more properly, their children.
These were not the advocates I was expecting to see on the day we visited the Knesset, though I knew the date was an unusual and important one in the trajectory of Israeli democracy. The Knesset was due to vote on a bill legalizing illegal settlement outposts, directly contradicting the ruling of Israel’s Supreme Court. Specifically, the bill promised to negate a Supreme Court decision to expel settlers currently violating Israeli law in the Ulpana neighborhood of the Beit El settlement. Though a minuscule neighborhood of five buildings, Ulpana had been turned into a political crossroads of epic proportions by the settler movement, who collectively hoped that Prime Minister Netanyahu, so long the stalwart friend of the settler lobby, might again champion the cause. Beyond testing the mettle of the Prime Minister’s new coalition, passage of the bill would directly challenge the legitimacy of the Supreme Court to serve as a check on government power.
While a debate ensued within the chambers of the Knesset, the same could not be said for the demonstrations outside. When our bus reached the perimeter of Israel’s Parliament, traffic slowed to accommodate a thronging gathering of settlers and settlement supporters. Adults waved banners and chanted slogans as children meandered in the median of the street. Passing this, I glanced out my opposite window, excited to see the counter protest. There was none. Our bus was driftwood in a sea of opponents to the bill.
Making our way into the Knesset, we joined legions of strollers, young children and visibly tense parents. We took seats in the Knesset room just before the voting commenced. Standing momentarily, I peered down into the chamber, the intensity of the issue made plain by the rows of empty seats. Netenyahu had told ministers of his coalition that a vote in favor of legalizing the settlement would cost them their seat in his government. Many simply stayed away.
The voting began. Our group’s guide translated the crackling cacophony of voting announcements, “Against…For…Against…For…Absent”. Many around us hissed bitterly at the “againsts.” But soon it was over; the bill barely managing to reach even 25% in support.
Everyone stood up as the session closed, and all shuffled out of the Knesset chamber in varying spirits. Despite the victory of the courts, we all left more confused than ever. I could not understand why it would take a political battle of Stalingrad proportions for Israel to enforce its own laws. Why was this issue even being debated? Where was the voice of the Opposition challenging the bill in the public arena and in the Knesset?
Leaving the Plenary Hall, we headed off to our next engagement: a meeting with Atzmaut MK Einat Wilf. She entered the room and sat as we introduced ourselves and our group. We discussed J Street’s work as a pro-Israel movement, our campus strategies, and more. MK Wilf told us this; that we, as American Jews, are fully entitled to criticize Israel’s policies… so long as our criticism does not contradict the democratic decisions of the Israeli public.
While we spoke through the afternoon with several other members of the Knesset, all of whom disagreed with their colleague and argued that we had the right and the obligation to advocate for the kind of Israel we wanted to see, I couldn’t help but turn MK Wilf’s words over in my mind. What were the government’s policies other than the decisions of “Israel’s democracy?” What does criticism mean if it so circumscribed? Or was the problem that we were not just talking, but organizing and lobbying?
I looked around the table at my peers– graduates of Jewish high schools, former national leaders of Zionist youth movements, former AIPAC liaisons, children of Rabbis, Hillel board members, falafel lovers and proud Zionists. We are the future of the Jewish people. We may not be part of the “Israeli public,” so narrowly defined, but the Israeli public is undeniably part of us.
The pyrrhic nature of the courts’ victory in Knesset that day became clear after the corresponding announcement of hundreds of new housing units to be built in West Bank settlements. As I read the news I again thought of MK Wilf’s words. I’m not sure what it means to “have the right” or “not have the right” to oppose policies such as these — even to lobby my government to express its opposition to such moves. They are, after all, the policies of the democratically supported government of Israel. As someone who has lived in Israel and consider the country as a second home, I find no joy or glee in this. I simply see it as necessary. I may or may not be “entitled” to oppose the anti-democratic initiatives of the current Israeli government, but I am obligated to do so.