Friday February 17, 2023 – כ״ו שְׁבָט תשפ”ג
לְמַעַן צִיּוֹן לֹא אֶחֱשֶׁה וּלְמַעַן יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא אֶשְׁקוֹט עַד יֵצֵא כַנֹּגַהּ צִדְקָהּ וִישׁוּעָתָהּ כְּלַפִּיד יִבְעָר : (ישעיהו סב:א)
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, And her salvation like a torch will burn.” (Isaiah 62:1)
When our oldest daughter was born in Israel, we experienced the quintessential experience of everyone giving us advice. “She’s too hot, you’ll suffocate her,” a passerby commented. “She’s cold, where’s her sweater?!?!” said another. “You’re holding her wrong. You shouldn’t bring her in here, there are too many germs,” one woman scolded me as we entered the shuk. Maybe there are greater social boundaries in other societies and cultures, but in a country where everyone sees themself as extended family, one can understand that “strangers” feel comfortable giving unsolicited advice to one another.
That sense of family is also applicable on a much broader scale. If we don’t hesitate to speak up when a baby looks too cold or too hot, how can we not speak up when we see members of our “family” embarking on a dangerous path?
This is such a moment. How can we be silent?
Inevitably, everywhere I visit and with everyone I speak around North America, the same question comes up: ‘What can we North American Jews do who do not live in Israel, who don’t pay taxes or serve in the army? What can we do, we who do not bear the consequences of Israel’s latest elections and the judicial overhaul pummeling its way through the Knesset – yet are affected and therefore implicated as Diaspora Jews?
This is the age-old question of Israel-Diaspora relations that touches on all dimensions of our Diaspora Jewish responsibility and obligation to help build, give support to, and advocate on behalf of the Jewish State mixed with our at-times complex feelings that compel us to both demonstrate our love and support for Israel while also expressing our criticism of policies that we believe are contrary to Israel’s best interests.
Just like the woman in the shuk who saw herself as if she was another one of my aunts or cousins and held no reservations in giving me feedback about my parenting, Israelis should not be surprised by the advice, critique, and feedback – solicited or not – from their “family” abroad.
On a personal note, I am feeling a deep sense of anguish and longing. As a Zionist, having made the choice earlier in life to become an Israeli citizen, and then the choice to live outside of Israel, the worse things become there the more I want to be there. The more I feel the need to join the over 120,000 people who went on strike and skipped work this past Monday, many of whom took their children out of school that day as well, to protest outside the Knesset as the initial legislation proposals of Justice Minister Yariv Levin began their legislative process. The more I feel the need to raise my voice and join in the multitudes of protesters throughout the country, and the list of different groups and demographics continues to grow – including this week former Shin Bet and Mossad heads and high-ranking former generals who fear the impending doom of the irreversible damage wrought by the dismantling of Israel’s democratic pillars.
I no longer fear the retribution of my North American friends and colleagues who urge me and our Movement leaders that yes, these are not necessarily the changes they would have hoped for, but we also need to celebrate Israel and emphasize the good things. Even if it has little impact on the government it is important for us American Jews to protest and raise our voices, which is why I showed up at a protest run by ex-pat Israelis in NY that took place simultaneously in dozens of cities around the world.
Of course, we need to celebrate Israel, and yes, Israel sent a life-saving delegation to Turkey to pull people out of the rubble and provide much-needed humanitarian aid amidst one of the world’s most tragic natural disasters in modern times. However, this moment is different. Former Prime Minister and the current leader of the opposition Yair Lapid commented to a colleague and friend this week that “he’s not sure that American Jewish leaders really internalize how dangerous the situation is right now, and that they [we] need to be doing more.”
Many Israelis are asking American Jews to speak up vociferously. Yet, not everyone agrees.
This week, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, wrote in the Jerusalem Post:
“Whatever our view on the proposed legal reforms and other issues and whether we choose to advocate for our positions, we are not well served by collecting signatures on letters that exaggerate our differences and sow self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom about the future of Jewish and democratic Israel. And though some Israelis ask us American Jews to not be silent for the sake of Zion, for the sake of American Jewry, a bit more silence on our part will be helpful.”
As much as I respect Rav Hauer as a scholar and leader, he is simply wrong. We don’t have a choice right now. Israel as a Jewish and democratic State is being threatened and the damage being done is potentially irreversible. Many Israeli friends and colleagues have reached out with a similar refrain: “When are you, American Jews going to use your power and influence and save us from this mess?!?!”
Their cry for us to raise our voices brings up many questions and issues. We can ask: ’What exactly do they have in mind?’ To begin, we can lobby our elected representatives to speak up and voice our concerns to Israel’s diplomats abroad. We can lobby the administration and refuse meetings with the Netanyahu government. If Israel transitions from democracy to autocracy, the real question becomes what to do with American foreign aid to Israel. This untouchable sacred cow of security support has been the singular unifying issue for the American Jewish community, including a 420-9 vote from Members of Congress showing support for the Iron Dome technology and a ten-year Memorandum of Understanding ensuring a $3.8 billion annual support for Israel – of which roughly 80% is spent in the U.S. on military aid. There is no question that regardless of Israel’s internal strife, it still faces external threats, and the Iranian Nuclear threat is not going away. Israel needs to maintain the “Qualitative Military Edge” for which it relies on the friendship and support of its major ally, the United States. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Israel two weeks ago, the American-Israel relationship is based on the solid foundation of shared values and our mutual commitment to democracy, freedom, equality, etc…
But what if it’s not?
What if those shared values aren’t shared anymore because Israel eliminates the previously untouchable checks and balances between the executive-legislative branch and the judicial branch and is no longer seen as a democracy? There has been a great deal of talk, including from heads of banks and senior financiers confronting Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, warning of the severe economic consequences of the proposed judicial “reforms.” However, the biggest warning of all should come from abroad. I am not saying this as a threat but as a warning. If the United States perceives Israel as no longer sharing democratic values ( which at this moment does not include a discussion on the 56-year-long military rule over Palestinians in the West Bank) when the M.o.U. comes up again for renegotiation it will be very difficult for many in Congress to support continuing such financial and military aid to Israel. Such aid will certainly not have backing from the multitudes of American Jews who have walked away as a result of Israel’s current course of action.
Right now, we don’t have a choice. Israel as a Jewish and democratic State is being threatened, and the damage being done is potentially irreversible. We must speak up, in the same way that we would mobilize and come together if Israel were facing a formidable external threat. We must support civil society organizations and specifically our Reform Movement that is leading the fight for religious freedom and for democracy at large. I’ve never been one to say that Israel is too important to be left to Israelis (see the podcast listed below), but Israel should be important to Jews regardless of where we live. We must pour into the streets in protest – in Israel and around the world. I will be proud to join over 200 of my Reform rabbinical colleagues in Tel Aviv next week as we show our solidarity and support for the majority of Israelis who are deeply committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic State.
For the sake of Zion, we cannot stay silent.
 A saying attributed to Rabbi David Hartman z”l as well as to Anat Hoffman.