October 28, 2022 – ג׳ חֶשְׁוָן תשפ”ג
As the old Jewish joke goes: The pessimist looks at the polls of the coming election and says, “It can’t possibly get any worse than this.” The optimist says, “Of course, it can!”
We are taught in this week’s Torah portion that in a time of so much lawlessness, frivolity, chaos, and mayhem, it becomes exponentially more difficult to stand up for what is right and just. In a time when the lines of decency are fading, redrawing the boundaries of what is good and declaring what is unacceptable takes an even greater effort.
During his visit to Washington this week President Herzog praised Israeli democracy and defended the right to free speech. In just three days, Israelis will vote in the 5th election in 3 years, and I don’t think anyone is doubting Israel’s vivacious democracy. The question is whether the mainstream has become so desensitized that it does not have the resilience to fight for decency and the moral imperative.
In a meeting with American Jewish leaders this week, President Herzog said while sitting next to Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, (his brother.): “You have elections and midterms; we have elections in Israel next week. I think one thing should transcend both — the friendship and close bond between Israel and the United States are unbreakable and it is a value that we must all cherish and work for. May I also add we must respect each other’s democracies?”
THE CHALLENGE FROM THE FAR RIGHT
As a liberal and one-time hopeful leader of the Labor party who came close to ousting PM Netanyahu with 24 seats in 2015, Herzog has time and again pandered to and apologized for Israel’s Haredi parties and castigated our Reform Movement leadership for shunning Religious Zionist party head Betzalel Smotrich. He said: “You should meet with him, why have you refused?”
Us? Refused? It’s not like Smotrich invited us for a meeting. Of course, we should refuse to meet with him even if he did. That the enlightened President of Israel cannot understand that says more about him than us.
The reason why we and Israeli voters should reject Smotrich is his record. He made a career out of denouncing everything he labels as a threat to a Jewish Israel including Palestinians and Arabs and LGBTQ individuals.
He has also denounced any Jews who are not like him: Bezalel Smotrich considers non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to be a threat to Israel. For someone who happily admits he became religious later in life, he ironically passes judgment on other people’s paths and religious choices. He believes Reform Jewish conversions should be outlawed.
“I’m not willing to recognize Reform Judaism’s fake religion,” he said in 2016.
A year earlier he stated matter-of-factly, “if homophobia means that I am against a gay parade, then I am a proud homophobe.” (bending the term ‘proud’ as being associated with one who is proud to be identified as a member of the LGBTQ community).
Smotrich said: “There are many things I disagree about with Reform and Conservative Jewry. But I understand that we are brothers. We need to speak and have a dialogue and look for common ground.”
Well, Betzalel, it is hard to have a dialogue with someone who rejects the premise on which the other exists.
IRAC Executive Director Orly Erez Likhovski is concerned that many Israelis have been taken in by Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s charm offensive and their toning down of their rhetoric, as they no longer call for deporting all Arabs, but instead only those who are “disloyal” or “terrorists.”
“Maybe this makes some people calmer, but this is just a mask he has put on,” she says. “His intentions have not changed.”
Explaining some of the fervor around Ben Gvir and his party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), Zeev Degani, the principal of Tel Aviv’s Gymansia Herzliya high school shared that “free speech is only one element in a democracy. Something even more basic is knowledge, and when you have kids like we have here, who grow up quite ignorant about what’s going on around them, you’re asking for trouble when you invite a fascist propagandist like Ben-Gvir in – especially considering that kids by nature are drawn to extremists.”
Members of Itamar Ben-Gvir’s far-right party are attempting to form an armed civilian militia in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, saying their intentions are to “defend our home.”
In September, Smotrich claimed that “the most dangerous threat to Israel is from Arab nationalists. Outlaw their parties.” This from the person who set his hopes on becoming Minister of Defense in the next government.
THE GREATER CHALLENGE
The Israeli extremists are a real danger, but their enabler, Benjamin Netanyahu, has wreaked his own share of damage single-handedly holding the country hostage and forcing it to go to election after election because he can’t cobble together a stable coalition.
Commentator Gil Troy recently observed: “Netanyahu’s behavior in opposition has been unpardonable. He could have scored points and reassured Israelis by acting graciously. Instead, Netanyahu looked small by acting small, petulantly shunning prime minister Naftali Bennett while denying that he first sought to unite with the same Arabs he then demonized so maliciously. Even his ally, Bezalel Smotrich, called him the liar of all liars for this denial, scoffing, ‘He didn’t want to go with Ra’am? Oh boy, did he want to.’”
Netanyahu recently revealed that, if/when he returns to power he intends to push for the annexation of West Bank/Judea and Samarian settlements.
“I think that if I’m re-elected, I will get it. I have plans on how to get it,” Netanyahu told USA TODAY. “Would I do it unilaterally? No, I said that right from the start. I would not because I would like to do it with the understanding and support of the United States. We were on the verge of getting it,” he added.
In his newly published memoir “Bibi, My Story,” Netanyahu describes how former U.S. President Donald Trump promised him in writing that he had Washington’s support to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank, amounting to some 30% of the territory.
According to Netanyahu, the Trump administration backtracked on this promise the same night the “peace plan” was revealed in Washington, leaving him “surprised.”
One could say that Bibi’s single greatest accomplishment in his 15 years as premier was bringing the Abraham Accords to the Middle East. Yet, just this week United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed warned that “the inclusion of such extremist lawmakers in Netanyahu’s government risked upending ties with the UAE in addition to the Abraham Accords more broadly.”
OUR RESPONSE TO THE CHALLENGES
There are some who will read these words and lament them for taking statements out of context and being overly critical. Some will echo President Herzog and say that we have to respect Israel’s democracy, especially as non-citizens who do not vote in Israeli elections.
Others will say that we really need to focus on the good things coming from Israel. Sure. No problem. But I think we need to stand up for what is right and just and redraw the boundaries of what is good by declaring what is unacceptable.
We American Reform Jews and Zionists can also take even more dramatic action.
As I board the plane to Israel to vote in the elections, I will look at my blue Israeli ID card and see it (after family and kids) as one of my greatest accomplishments in life – to have become a card-carrying member of the Jewish State. What we need in Israel are more Reform and religiously progressive Jews who create an Israeli society that is a bastion of Torah values that respects all human beings and strives for dignity, equality, justice, and peace.
We need more tzadikim in our generation and to leverage the scale of our Movement to reject those who use our sacred tradition and wisdom to spurn anyone who is different from them.
Last week, I called upon North American Jews and liberals to put our money where our values are. On the eve of the elections, that may not be enough. If we want Israel to be Jewish in both demographics and values, then now is the time for a mass movement.
While some will see the incendiary rise of bigoted and racist politicians elected through the democratic process as a reason to distance themselves from Israel, the opposite is necessary. Let’s start by flooding the country with our young people. Instead of 80-120 students a year on our flagship semester URJ Heller High program, we should have 1000. We should be sending thousands each summer and even more on MASA Gap Year and post-graduate programs.
Imagine a world in which, even if we don’t all live our lives in Israel, we contributed to the Jewish state by spending a year or two, learning Hebrew, and helping to right the course of Jewish history by rejecting the vitriol and vile of those who are dragging it down.
The future of Israel is too important, and it is our responsibility as committed Reform Jews and Zionists too.
Shabbat Shalom, and next week in Jerusalem!