“Doth the Lady Protest Too Much or Not Enough?”
Friday March 3, 2023 – י׳ אַדָר תשפ”ג
כׇּל מִי שֶׁאֶפְשָׁר לִמְחוֹת לְאַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ וְלֹא מִיחָה — נִתְפָּס עַל אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתוֹ. בְּאַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ — נִתְפָּס עַל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ. בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ — נִתְפָּס עַל כָּל הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ. (שבת נד ע”ב)
“All who can protest against something wrong that one of their family is doing and does not is accountable together with their family. All who can protest against something wrong that a citizen of their city is doing and does not protest is accountable together with all citizens of the city. All who can protest against something wrong that is being done in the whole world is accountable together with all citizens of the world.”
Last Saturday night I stood shoulder to shoulder with my rabbinic colleagues, Reform Movement leaders, and the multitudes of Israelis who poured into the streets of Tel Aviv to protest for a sixth week in a row against the judicial overhaul proposed by the government.
Cries from the crowd resounded in a rhythmic chant: “De-mo-kratiah, De-mo-kratiah, De-mo-kratiah,” and were echoed by the monosyllabic accusation of “בושה, בושה, בושה” (busha = shame). To the podium came speaker after speaker, including URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs – as the first non-Israeli to speak at the protests, former PM and Israel’s most decorated soldier Ehud Barak, an ultra-Orthodox feminist, and the former Chief of Police Roni El-Shiekh.
Protest movements strive to convey a message effectively exerting influence over states and other forces and bringing about positive change. This protest movement understands a simple yet fundamental principle: Democracy is not just majority rule; it is also about tolerance, acceptance, and mutual respect.
Rabbi Menahem HaMeiri, a great 13th and 14th centuries sage who lived in Provence, wrote that just as the government is obligated to protest injustices amongst the people, so are the people obligated to protest injustices in the government:
“The king is punished for the sin of the nation because he did not protest against them, and the nation as a whole is punished for the sin of the king because they did not protest against him.”
Are the protests working, and how far are they prepared to go?
It is one thing to go out on a Saturday night and join the throngs of mainstream protesters at a rally. It is quite another to disrupt daily life in order to send a message and effect change.
Last Monday protesters blocked the road of the Settlement Pnei Kedem, home to MK Simcha Rothman, and barricaded the door of MK Tali Gottlieb’s apartment, not allowing her and her special needs daughter to leave the house. This, I would say, is crossing the line of legitimate protests.
Not all is fair in love, war, and protest.
Protest itself is an action, of course, and one we know sometimes provokes change. Merely verbal protest, however, is not as effective as the public’s mass physical protest and organized political action. We should all look for ways not just to speak about injustice, but to change the conditions which give rise to it.
Do protests abroad matter?
It’s hard to make the argument that such protests will somehow influence the Netanyahu government. However, as it says in Pirkei Avot (4:2), “שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה – One mitzvah leads to another.” Each of these elements standing on their own likely does not have an effect, but each form of protest taken in the context of a larger mass of protests that builds a movement and attracts a coalition of allies speaking out against what we all perceive to be a grave danger can, indeed, lead to change..
The last thing I want is for Israel to become a pariah nation on the world stage. However, when we see the possibility of a legacy organization like Israel Bonds purportedly inviting Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich to address their leadership conference, we cannot remain silent.
Let us be clear: NO ORGANIZATION OR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL SHOULD INVITE MINISTER SMOTRICH or MINISTER BEN GVIR to participate in any meeting or event whatsoever. Not the U.S. Government, not AIPAC, not any middle-left Zionist organization, and certainly not State of Israel Bonds. This we must protest in advance using all the connections and means available to us, and should such meetings actually defy the will of Diaspora Jewish organizations and go forward with such meetings, there should be massive protests outside the event because Smotrich and Gvir are racist and homophobic who are pushing unilateral and de facto annexation of the West Bank. Smotrich recently called for the State of Israel to “wipe out” the Palestinian village of Huwara after two Israeli brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv z”l were murdered by a Palestinian resident of Huwara (and a third victim, Israeli-American Elan Ganeles was murdered by a terrorist in the Jordan Valley on the way to a friend’s wedding), and a mob of angry Jewish Settlers set out on a pogrom in the village burning two hundred homes, multiple numbers of cars, murdering one Palestinian and injuring many others, and essentially taking the law into their own hands. Smotrich’s call for ethnic cleansing no longer comes from some random individual on the “extremist fringe,” but from a Government Minister.
Protests and Political Responsibility.
The Talmud preaches the language of protest and as we approach the holiday of Purim, the Megillat Esther presents us with at least two models of resistance against the rise of evil and ultra-nationalism. The first is enacted by Esther’s uncle Mordecai, a Jew who works as a guard in the King’s palace. Mordecai’s mode of resistance is protest. When the King promotes the anti-Jewish Haman the Agagite to be his second in command, Mordecai refuses to bow down to him (3:1-2).
Mordecai’s refusal sets into motion a tragic sequence of events in which Haman conspires with King Ahasuerus to order genocide against all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. Mordecai’s act of protest calls out into the open the ethnic hatred seething beneath the surface of the Empire. However, as an outsider to the palace, he ultimately finds himself powerless to do anything about it. That task ultimately falls to Esther, the Queen of the Empire who has, until now, kept her ethnic identity a secret.
Esther couches her request to the King to stop the genocide not in emotional terms, but in economic ones. She continues:
“We have been sold—I and my people—to be wiped out, killed, and destroyed. If we simply had been sold as male and female slaves, I would have said nothing. But no enemy can compensate the King for this kind of damage.” (7:4)
There’s no question; Esther is a hero. Through charm, patience, and politics, she saves her people. She is also a hero of this moment. Her model shows that we need women (and other oppressed folks) who are loud, impolite, angry, strategic, and tactically astute to use their proximity to power to effect change.
“The Gemara asks: What did Mordecai say when he cried out? Rav said: He said that Haman has risen above Ahasuerus, for he saw that Haman had become even stronger than Ahasuerus himself, and that he controlled all affairs of the empire.” (Megillah 15a)
Just as in this rabbinic interpretation, the agendas of Ben Gvir & Smotrich, Levin & Rothman, Deri & Gafni, rise above PM Netanyahu and become even stronger than the PM himself. It seems clear that Netanyahu is no longer the leader that can rein in the fanatics and staunch ideologues in his coalition. Rather, he is being controlled by them but is seemingly willing enough to let the country burn down as protesters continue to disrupt daily life in the country now confronting riot police who use stun grenades, fire hoses, and stink liquids to violently disperse the protesters. This is dangerous territory, and Netanyahu – not the protesters – has proven that he is no longer the responsible adult in the room who has the interest of the State uppermost in his thoughts and above all else.
As we are about seven weeks from Israel’s 75th birthday, these words of rebuke against the Israeli government are the last things I want to be writing. I would much rather write about the miracle that is the modern State of Israel, to sing its praises and bask in its numerous achievements.
As we are about to celebrate Purim, I want to share the wonder, as written in Megillat Esther עַם־אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים – “certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples” (Esther 3:8) has now come home and is a bastion of achievement and a bastion of morality and ethical behavior and a shining light unto the nations.
But this moment, sadly, calls for protest. To share, as my colleagues from Rabbis for Human Rights recently wrote:
“This is not the way of our forefathers, of Abraham – the father of our nation, who fought to prevent innocents from being harmed in Sodom. This is not the way of Jacob, who rebelled against the massacre committed by his sons in Shechem and denounced them for their acts of violence and revenge. This is not the way of the majority of the leaders and sages of Israel throughout the ages. We are living in a difficult and dangerous time. With no vision, a nation will riot…”
The majority of Israelis have a vision and an understanding of what Israel should be. Those who show up to the protests wearing stickers saying “נאמנים למגילת העצמאות” – “Faithful to Israel’s Declaration of Independence” understand the State of Israel’s purpose and mission. That is the vision, and until we can agree on that and turn it into a constitution, bring on the protests.
Shabbat Shalom and Purim Sameach!
 Minister Smotrich later walked back his statement after intense pressure explaining that he was calling for Israel to focus on eradicating terrorism in the area.