Most of the time, when you go on a trip to visit friends and family and pursue your passion, you don’t fall straight into history.
But everyone who went to Israel during the last few weeks, and most particularly this week, was faced with history in the raw. News as it happened.
To be clear, we don’t know what will happen. We do know that just as the situation changed from Saturday night to now, as I write, on Monday, it will have changed, probably many times over, between my now and yours, as you read this.
But this is a report of Danielle Nyman’s experiences in Israel last Saturday night.
Ms. Nyman, who has lived in Englewood since 1987, was on a trip with the American Friends of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel — an organization whose name is mercifully shortened to Nature Israel at home — as well as to visit people she loves. (She’s on the board of ASPNI.)
“While I’ve been here, I have attended two demonstrations for democracy in Jerusalem,” she said over WhatsApp. One was last Saturday night, and the other the Saturday before.
The backstory: Soon after Benjamin Netanyahu formed his new government in December, he began to push through highly controversial changes to the way Israel works. His government, a coalition considered to be the most right-wing in the country’s history, has revised or wants to revise many Israeli policies; the most overtly controversial now is the reforms to the judicial system that would result in the Knesset having more power and the courts having less. Because Israel does not have a constitution, it does not have built-in checks and balances, as the United States does; that lack is at the heart of the anger and disruption now.
There have been demonstrations in the streets of most of Israel’s big cities for months, mostly on Saturday nights, right after Shabbat ends. They’ve been huge and nonviolent. The biggest so far began the day after Ms. Nyman’s second one, fueled by Netanyahu’s firing his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. But Ms. Nyman’s experiences seem to have been both vivid and representative.
“There were thousands of people there, in Jerusalem,” she said. “They were in good spirits, shouting slogans. Most were shouting ‘Democratia,’ Hebrew for ‘Democracy.’
“They were milling around with large Israeli flags,” she continued. “They want to emphasize that they are not a bunch of malcontents, or unpatriotic left-wing kooks. They want to show that they are people who deeply love their country, and they are willing to come out week after week to protest the new government’s policies.”
The first week that she went to a rally, “it was raining hard, and it was cold,” Ms. Nyman said. “There were people there handing out hot tea.
“There were lots of people there. Including me. And I’m 83.”
She was struck by the women dressed in the red robes and white bonnets of Margaret Atwood’s breeders in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “They were walking with their hands behind them; submissive women there only to bear children for the patriarchy,” Ms. Nyman said. Many Israelis think that Netanyahu’s proposed changes are likely to harm women.
“The women were protesting against the government’s policies about women and families that it is trying to push through, which will change the daily lives of people here,” she continued.
As for everyone else, “they were dressed casually, in everyday clothes,” she said. “Some men wore kippot,” showing that they are religiously observant. Others did not. “There were religious and nonreligious people there. There were children; little children, being carried on their parents’ shoulders.
“There was a sense that it is important,” she said. “A sense that we all need to be out here.”
Ms. Nyman joined the protests because “I am a liberal Jew, and I believe in democracy,” she said. “I believe in checks and balances. It’s a good American notion.”
She brings her own history to the protests. Ms. Nyman was born “to a French Jewish family on October 14, 1939, a month and a half after the war began,” she said. “We lived in the north of France, and we fled to a town called Montlucon, in what became Vichy. We lived there for three years until we were able to come to this country. To America.”
The family was able to get American visas. That was unusual. “My father was an electrical engineer,” Ms. Nyman said. “He worked in a steel factory in the Vichy area, and he was fired because he was a Jew.
“But he stole the blueprint of the factory, and he offered it to the American consul. In return, we were promised visas.” There were very few such visas given. “We were very lucky,” Ms. Nyman said.
She grew up on the Upper West Side, went to the High School of Music and Art, where she majored in violin, viola, and conducting, and then on to City College and Columbia. She taught in private and public schools for 45 years; her career culminated in her role as social studies supervisor for kindergarten through 12th grade in Millburn-Short Hills.
She’s also a trustee at the Flat Rock Brook Nature Center in Englewood, and she’s on Englewood’s environmental commission.
In other words, Ms. Nyman is well positioned to understand political threats, political extremism, the importance of checks and balances in a functioning political system, public service and the responsibility politicians have to the polity, and that the polity has toward politicians.
That’s why she protested — and that’s why everyone else did as well.
“We weren’t a bunch of leftwing crazies,” she stressed. “We weren’t anarchists ready to bring down the system.” They were just a bunch — a very large and loud bunch —of good-natured Israelis and other Zionists, doing what they felt compelled to do.