September 14, 2023 – כ״ח אֱלוּל
“תְּכלַּהֶ שָׁנהָ וקְִללְוֹתֶיהָ, תָּחֵל שָׁנהָ וּברְִכוֹתֶיהָ”
“Let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin.”
There is no question that 5783 has been a challenging year, a year of drama and trauma, a year of anger and activism, of insight and inspiration. Many on the Left felt a deep sense of loss coupled with a rapidly growing sense of alarm and danger. Many experienced a political-civic awakening. Politics mattered so much that with every passing week more and more people came out of the woodwork to join a protest and to raise their voices. Others felt, for the first time, that their voices were heard, and that they, who had felt oppressed, unheard, discriminated against, and looked down upon finally offered comeuppance.
The beginning of the year saw the election of the most ultra-Orthodox and right-wing extremist Knesset, with a 64-member majority. The date of January 4th will stand out for many as ‘the day democracy was put on death row,’ as the Netanyahu Coalition unrolled its legislative agenda known by them as “Judicial Reform” and regarded by many to be a judicial overhaul or even a coup.
I have not held back in sharing my thoughts and feelings about this being an existential moment for Israel and for the Jewish people. For those of us who follow Israeli politics closely, the stress over the latest move, the next protest, the most recent statement and irrational outburst by this or that Government Minister, and the implications of each Knesset vote has been at times overwhelming and stifling.
Amidst all this protesting, fighting, and mobilizing, Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. It is an important milestone for so many reasons. Any chance to celebrate the miracle of the modern Jewish State is worthy. Celebrating 75 years gave us an opportunity to lift our eyes beyond the daily headlines and the current crisis and remind ourselves what the dream of Zionism was.
To Be a Free People in Our Land.
Well, 75 years later, we have defied all odds and achieved freedom in the Land of Israel.
With a few caveats…
We are not all on the same page about what freedom means. The current constitutional crisis is about totally opposing views and there is a fundamental discrepancy as to where ‘Our Land’ begins and ends.
Most North American Jews do not follow the ins and outs of Israeli politics closely.
My colleagues regularly remind me that many of their congregants don’t know who Smotrich and Ben Gvir are and haven’t heard of Justice Minister Yariv Levin or judicial reform architect MK Simcha Rothman (more on him later). I often hear that the intricacies and complexities of each of the hundreds of bills being proposed or the varying agendas of the Haredi and the messianic Kahanist camp are too confusing and convoluted to follow. I would like to challenge us to move beyond that confusion and take an educated stand.
In a frank, and well-articulated statement, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah – Rabbis for Human Rights said:
“Unfortunately, many American Jews on the left have gotten the message that there are only two options for engagement with Israel: You either defend the government’s every move or oppose the country’s very existence. As a result, too many American Jews have simply thrown up their hands and walked away.
This is not the moment either to defend the Israeli government or to walk away. This is the time for American Jews to wake up to the reality of Israel — a country whose citizens include nearly half the world’s Jewish population, that also has jurisdiction over millions of non-citizen Palestinians. It is also a country whose government is currently descending further and further into fascism and even cynical alliances with dictators who enable antisemitism.”
Rabbi Jacobs is right here. The events of the past week displayed that plainly and clearly on a marathon livestream from Israel’s Supreme Court. Just as Israel’s 75th Independence Day was a formative moment, so was Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing. It was an unprecedented full 15-justice court panel hearing on a petition to strike down the removal of the “reasonableness clause” – itself an amendment on the basic law of the judiciary – that passed in the Knesset in July 64-0 (the opposition walked out and refused to vote). A great deal of tension and speculation led up to the hearing as to how the court will rule (which we won’t find out for several weeks or months), and what will be the reaction of the people and the government.
What ensued in the Court was nothing short of fascinating. As the counsel for each side presented arguments and made their cases, debate ensued with the judges that touched on Israel’s fundamental constitutional character and the nature of democracy itself. It was an intriguing debate about how powers should be divided and where certain authorities originate.
MK Simcha Rothman did himself no favors with the Supreme Court by directly insulting the panel of 15 judges. He used the opportunity to be his own litigator making a campaign speech building on the populist sloganeering and jingoism of his base. In his remarks Rothman said, referring to the Court, “a privileged elite will not be able to protect rights in the long term.” He further accused the Supreme Court (citing comments made by former Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau) of becoming “an oligarchic regime of a [small] group of people, who worry about protecting rights, just their own rights.” In response, pollster and journalist Dahlia Scheindlin remarked that “Rothman framed elections and the Knesset (which the government controls through a parliamentary majority) as the sole authentic expression of the ‘will of the people,’ thereby implying a false Manichean struggle between “the people” (i.e. the Knesset) and their nemesis – the Supreme Court.”
There can be no greater distortion than to argue that the Supreme Court has trampled the democratic will and rights of the people in Israel. In fact, it did not disrupt Israel’s model democracy, but in many ways, historically, advanced it. In recent decades, it has been Israeli governments that have smashed through liberal democratic norms, forcing citizens to race to the court “to provide relief for the sake of justice,” as authorized by the Basic Law on the Judiciary.
Rothman is the political equivalent of a free market purist. When asked about whether the government should intervene and provide health care or support to lower income individuals or those who have fallen through the cracks of society, a free-market purist responds simply by saying that the market will correct and control all.
Justice Anat Baron challenged him, asking: “What if the Knesset said that elections would take place only every 10 years, or that Arabs do not have the right to vote, or that it is forbidden to travel on Shabbat — what would you say?”
To this Rothman was answer-less.
Like the free-market purist, he rests on his laurels and smugly stated that “If we make a mistake, we can correct it when we are made aware of it, and if we don’t (correct it)— we can be replaced via the ballot box.” He was challenged that if the Knesset votes not to have elections every 10 years, how is it possible to replace the ruling coalition if the public wills it to be so?
Now we are approaching the New Year and reflecting on our trials and tribulations of the past year.
While many Reform congregations read the story of creation on Rosh HaShanah, in the traditional world both Rosh HaShanah Torah readings are taken from Parashat Vayera (Genesis Chapters 21 and 22). The first day reading tracks the birth of Isaac, the exile of Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and Abraham’s 2nd wife, and the subsequent saving of Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael by Hagar, and the second day reading is the Akedah – the binding of Isaac.
There are many reasons why these readings are chosen, but both symbolize decisive and formative moments in our people’s narrative. The split between Isaac and Ishmael led to the foundational story of two Abrahamic peoples living separately and often in conflict with one another. The binding of Isaac proved to be a shifting of a theological tectonic plate which left its impact for time immemorial.
My wish for this Rosh HaShanah is to take note of the historic and seismic moment in which we find ourselves, and to dive in deeply. Take some time to read, watch, and listen to the different voices trying to make sense of what is occurring in the State of Israel.
On this Rosh HaShanah, let us take a step to evaluate our priorities in life, our relationships, and above all our values. As the shofar is sounded, may it be a clarion call to bring our people together to celebrate all that was created and achieved these last 75 years and to work to preserve the integrity of the State of Israel as a Jewish State and yes, also as a vibrant and functioning democracy that prevents extreme and unreasonable policies from becoming law, maintains a balance of powers between the branches of government, and strives to be the moral beacon that it already is and should continue to be so despite the existential threats against it.
Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah and for increased support for our Reform Zionist movement in the coming year.
שנה טובה ומתוקה!