Fighting for the Miracle of Israel
Two months ago, our congregation marked the observance of Tisha B’av, the commemoration of the destruction of the first and second Temples, with a sermon that Friday evening, about a new form of mourning with which we might mark the day. If it feels no longer appropriate to sit in sackcloth and ashes for Jerusalem, which is now a thriving city, it perhaps is more important than ever to note the ways in which that city, and really the entire nation exists only in bifurcation – it is a wholly divided country, pun intended.
But this division, the one tearing at the very fabric of the country today, is not the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. It is far closer, in fact, to the rabbinic warning issued after the destruction of the first and second temples – which the rabbis tell us, were taken from us not because of some outsider army, but because of “sinat chinam” meaningless infighting. My heart breaks for Jerusalem today, and the state, barely 75 years old. Our family faces a crisis today in Israel, which has been simmering under the surface, for as long as the Jewish eye has turned to the East.
The sages ask us to consider the Holy City of Jerusalem, and all that it represents on this first day of the New Year, a day of self-reflection and communal reflection. On Rosh Hashanah we consider with fresh eyes, the story of the Akedah, Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son to a demanding God. Israeli poets have, for decades, understood walking in Abraham’s shoes, as generation after generation of Israeli children are sacrificed on the altar of war, to that same demanding God, who met with Abraham and Isaac on the mountain where Jerusalem would be built.
But today these simmering tensions have bubbled over, and those who understand our history, and those who feel invested in the dream of a democratic and Jewish Israel must take note, stand and be counted. Our support of the Israel’s founding principles has never been more vital.
Many of you have already streamed the live conversation we held just last week with Eetta Prince-Gibson, past Editor in Chief of The Jerusalem Report and the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine (it is still on our facebook pages). Her perspective, from the on-going protests in Jerusalem, was both comforting, and deeply disturbing. I felt comforted that tens of thousands of Israelis continue to reject the twin bedfellows of Netanyahu’s corruption and the radical right’s oppressive agenda. During any other time in Israel’s history, the dismantling of the judicial branch of government and the courts, the rolling back of equal rights for liberal Jews, for women, and for the LGBTQ community would be unthinkable.
What Eetta also confirmed for us, however, was just how dire this situation feels from the ground. These pieces of legislation are already moving through the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And if they are not stopped by the Supreme Court backed by Israel’s figurehead president Herzog… let me just say that our parents, and our grandparents could never have imagined the miracle of Israel’s very existence under such an internal threat.
As we begin our Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, our teshuvah must include theirs as well. Earlier this month, three of Israel’s top liberal minds (Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevi, and Daniel Gordis) penned an open letter. It read:
“To our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora: We are writing you from Jerusalem… during this time of introspection and self-reckoning, to urge you to join the extraordinary Israeli protest movement that is fighting to save the vision that created this country 75 years ago… this political crisis is not just one more Israeli debate over policy, but a struggle over the fundamental identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state… A year ago, Israel was a regional powerhouse. Within a year, we could be on the road to becoming another failed Middle Eastern state…”
One could argue that Israel has been in one single, continuous existential crisis since the state was first recognized by the United Nations and then set upon by seven Arab armies in 1948. Many rabbis preach regularly, in congregations around the globe, of the importance of our continued support of Israel; and the history of oppression, anti-Semitism, and annihilation that has made the stakes for Israel’s success, so very high.
The sermons continue, as do the many reasons why we should be proud of, and supportive of the state of Israel. But we know that many, especially younger American Jews have raised serious doubts about Israel, and could not support an Israel divorced from its founding principles of equality, democracy, and pluralism. That is not hyperbole. The State of Israel, eternal homeland for the Jewish people, was founded on the ideals of equality, democracy, and pluralism. They are ideals explicitly spelled out in Israel’s declaration of independence. They are Jewish principles vital to the soul of the country; just as vital as Torah law and vital for the realization of Herzl’s dream: for Israel to reach the potential we know has always been embedded in its neshama, its soul.
Equality, democracy, and pluralism. Israel has wrestled with these concepts just as surely as its namesake Jacob wrestled with that angel.
Israel stands for equality.
The declaration of independence promises to, “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex… [and to] extend our hand to all neighboring states… in an offer of peace…” There are many of us who believed we were on a precipice of a new era of cooperation with the Palestinian Authority as far back as the Oslo Accords in 1993, and again in 2000 at the Camp David Summit, and as a new moderate center arose in Israel as recently as 2012 and 2013. The wheels of history move slowly, but this all felt like progress. We cannot afford to lose more traction – for the sake of the Palestinans, as well as Israel’s own sake.
Israel stands for democracy.
For those not following the story – the current prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is failing his country, for two interconnected, but very different reasons. First, after having served as prime minister for fifteen years, Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery and fraud, and a list of other corrupt practices. I pray we are still shocked when an elected official faces criminal charges and jail time, especially when that individual seems willing to trample on laws, customs, and etiquette to get themselves out of trouble.
Netanyahu has proven that he will dismantle Israel’s democracy for his own benefit. It is as simple as that. He and his ultra-right wing cronies are attempting to sever the checks and balances which exist between the Knesset and the Supreme Court. This means that the charges against Netanyahu, should the courts no longer have authority to challenge him, will be easily overcome, or even dismissed.
In Israel, there are only the two branches, since the legislative and executive branches are one and the same. With this safeguard gone, the ruling coalition will operate with absolutely no oversight. And while an ethnic democracy might look different than America’s melting pot, these are the very foundations of the system – respect for and a balance of powers, both of which this coalition threatens.
And, Israel does, in fact, stand for pluralism.
Pluralism means Israel must acknowledgement that not every citizen is Jewish, and all citizens’ rights must be protected. It also means that not every Jewish citizen is going to define Judaism the same way, and that this country is going to be defined, has always been defined through a global-collective conversation about what makes a Jew. And, as is the case with the real progress made in moving toward peace with the Palestinians, not to mention our Arab neighbors like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; we have taken incredible steps forward in defining liberal Judaism in and for Israel.
It may be surprising to learn that more and more of Israeli society has begun identifying with progressive Judaism – Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, and a study in 2018 showed that we have reached a critical tipping point. For the first time, the numbers of liberal, affiliated Jews, and the numbers of orthodox affiliated Jews are equal. A majority of Israeli society have been to a Reform synagogue for a service or life cycle event, and a majority of Israelis now know what Reform is, and consider it a valid expression of Judaism.
It is hard to overstate what a sea change this represents. The vast majority of Israelis have always self-identified as secular. But as secular Jews, most of these Israelis attend High Holy Days services, they observe Shabbat with their families, and many of them keep some level of Kashrut too. For years our movement cried, if you would but see us as your brothers and sisters, Reform Judaism has so much to offer you. And they have begun to do so.
Netanyahu is failing Israel in this arena as well. The current ruling coalition he has put in place represents those most loyal to his efforts to undermine democracy. Netanyahu has always made deals with the various and small ultra-orthodox, right wing radical elements of Israel’s society. This is the reason why religious sites are controlled by the ultra-orthodox, including the Western Wall. This is why these same groups do not pay the same taxes, why they enjoy substantial government subsidies; and why they do not send their own children to serve in Israel’s military.
We have largely bought into the false premise that Israel is awash with religious Jews, while in truth only 12 percent identify themselves that way. Another 12 percent now see themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a graduate of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem’s Israel program, is now the first Reform member of the Knesset, and of the more than fifty Reform congregations in Israel, more than a dozen now receive official financial support from the government, just as their orthodox colleagues do.
As you can imagine, all of this is extremely threatening to the status quo. The minority radical right is watching their strangle hold over definitions of Jewish sacredness and Jewish identity slip away. Last year over 300 non-orthodox conversions happened in Reform congregations in Israel, and over 1800 non-orthodox weddings were performed by Reform rabbis. We are taking major steps forward in establishing thriving liberal Jewish communities in Israel under the banner, “Yesh yoteir mi derech echad lihiot Yehudi – there is more than one way to be a Jew.”
Benjamin Netanyahu came along at just the right time looking for just the right partners to get himself acquitted of corruption charges, while his old buddies from coalitions past needed a prime minister who would double down on their monopoly on religious sites, and religious issues. And coming up on their legislative agenda? New laws which would abolish equal protections for the LGBTQ+ community in Israel, dismantle Israel’s free press, undo controls on settlement activity in the West Bank, and relegate the role of women in society to one based on orthodox teachings.
So what right do we have to interfere? There is simply no one else who will. No one else will raise the warning, sound the alarm, voice the concern if we sit idly by and do nothing. This is our birthright, just as surely as free ten days trips to the same homeland will continue to be.
Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the famed Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, used to teach that, “Israel is too important to leave to the Israelis.” Yossi Klein Halevi teaches that Israel is, “the project of the Jewish people.” And even (American born) Danny Gordis, who once urged American Jews to stay out of Israeli politics since, we “don’t live there”, now argues that, “If you think Israel is making a huge mistake, and is sliding in the direction of being non-democratic, you owe it to the security of the Jewish people, more than the security of the Jewish state, to say what you believe.”
The good news is that there is plenty of fight left. Tens of thousands of Israelis continue to protest. Eetta, our guest last week, shared that most of her friends and family now plan their Saturday nights around these events. Childcare is offered by several organizations so that parents can attend. More than 20%, one in five Israelis have participated.
Meanwhile, over eleven hundred Israeli Air Force pilots wrote they would refuse to fly for a dictator *****(room for update 9/12/23)********. Another letter was given to Netanyahu signed by dozens of former top security officials, including former heads of the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israeli police demanding an end to his agenda. Israel’s top business forum has opposed the government, as have many units of the current Israeli military.
Israel stands for equality, democracy, and pluralism, and that promise of the founding fathers has yet to be realized. An Israeli Constitution and Bill of Rights which would have enshrined these democratic principles into law has been left unwritten and unsigned. In its place, Israel has Basic Law, which is, as it turns out, easy to change with a simple majority in the Knesset.
The very issues that have kept some American Jews distant from the Jewish homeland is finally front and center. After decades of debate, controversy, existential threat from within and without – today the hope of our grandparents is presented to us as a simple question. Are we prepared to work, as our ancestors before us did, for a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all her inhabitants, a shining example of liberty and human rights? Do we believe it is possible for the Jewish values we teach and preach to manifest in this land, about which David Ben Gurion once said – here, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles? Or are we prepared to abdicate our Judaism to those in black coats and fur hats who would tell us that we are not Jewish enough? To those whose own commitment to Jewish values extends only to the shtetl in Eastern Europe of the 1800’s but no further. To those who reject the vision of Herzl, Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, Ben Gurion, Begin, and Rabin, and who would create an isolationist, racist and theocratic authoritarian regime?
This past spring, our reform rabbinic conference shared a Shabbat at Beit Daniel synagogue in Tel Aviv, one of the largest reform shuls in Israel. Senior Rabbi Meir Azari shared these words: “We fight for a Judaism not based solely on halacha, but also enriched by the voices of the Prophets, who remind us that corruption both political and spiritual, must be fought at all costs.”
Upon my return, I wrote these words to you in our Kulanu newsletter: In the coming months we will appreciate that our Jewish identity, our safety and security, our cultural and religious lives as Jews in America, have all been inextricably linked to Israel’s fate and destiny, for better and for worse. We share spiritual bonds as well as physical ones: the theoretical bonds of democracy and the financial bonds of brothers in arms. We will find ourselves unable to persist should those bonds be permanently severed.
Our synagogue is forming a new Israel focused committee designing itself to discuss these issues, educate our community, explore opportunities to support the right organizations on the ground, and to plan upcoming visits. I welcome any and all of you who wish to join us. And I would ask us all to start today by matching your High Holy Day appeal annual donation to IHC, with funds to support the Association of Reform Zionists of America at ARZA.org. My good friend and colleague Rabbi Josh Weinberg carries on the tremendous work of his father as Executive Director of this arm of the reform movement.
In his last email, Rabbi Weinberg commemorated the 2nd yahrzeit of Rabbi Dick Hirsh, the founding rabbi of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. He worked closely with the NAACP, Dr. King and even provided space for the headquarters of the Civil Right Movement. In his book on Israel, Rabbi Hirsch reminded us of the rabbinic adage – kol Yisrael areivim yeh la’zeh – all of the Jewish people, all of Israel, are responsible for one another. “To be a Jew,” he wrote, “is to be wedded to the collectivity call the Jewish people. Judaism has given the world its fundamental ideological foundations. The Exodus for Egypt gave the world the concept of human freedom; Sinai, ethical law; biblical tradition, historical purpose leading to the messianic hope for peace and brotherhood… The world instinctively recognizes that if this people, the perennial victim of mankind’s evil impulses, can return to its land, restore its sovereignty, revive its language and culture, absorb Jews from seventy divergent cultures, and, we pray, establish enduring peace with its neighbors, then it there not hope for all humankind? That is why the State of Israel is so central. And that is why Progressive Judaism is so vital. We stand firmly on fertile ground, we synthesize faith, people, Torah, land, history and modernity.”
I honor Rabbi Hirsch for the firm foundation he laid. I am proud to stand next to Rabbi Weinberg and so many others fighting with every breath for this vision for Israel and the Jewish people. And I continue to be inspired by the dedication and commitment that comes from our congregation past, present and future – in believing in that continued miracle, Israel, Jerusalem of Gold.
 Quoted in https://jewishinsider.com/2023/03/daniel-gordis-israel-protests-netanyahu-government-impossible-takes-longer/
 See – https://www.jpost.com/blogs/just-look-at-us-now/in-israel-in-order-to-be-a-realist-you-must-believe-in-miracles-366168
 Hirsch, Richard G. From the Hill to the Mount: A Reform Zionist Quest (2000) p. 13