Friday December 23, 2022 – כ״ט כִּסְלֵו תשפ”ג
Incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Wednesday night the famous two-word phrase “עלה בידי”- “It has ascended to my hand” – the traditional code words to signal that he has successfully formed a coalition. The coalition deal will return Netanyahu to office just 18 months after he left it, raising grave concerns that his reliance on, and some might say capitulation to, far-right factions will cause Israel to stray from the path of liberal democracy.
We can wax and wane over the intricacies and particularities of the Government, the Knesset, Jewish identity, and even democracy. We can discuss whether it is fair to judge politicians by statements that precede their actions. We can wonder whether or not Netanyahu, who is beginning his term as a lame duck, will maintain a level of ממלכתיות ( i.e. “statesmanship, professionalism, or “unity”) with the cast of characters that he has empowered and who now have placed him at their will, seemingly compliant with their every demand.
At the end of the day, only one question matters.
Has the Zionist enterprise, which conceived of a Jewish State, succeeded in creating a decent society?
In his 1998 book, The Decent Society, Professor Avishai Margalit outlined his social philosophy on the foundation that a decent society, or a civilized society, is one the institutions of which do not humiliate the people under their authority, and whose citizens do not humiliate one another. What political philosophy needs urgently is a way that will permit us to live together without humiliation and with dignity.
The coalition agreement signed this week will be hard-pressed for Israel to pass Margalit’s test.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1915-2012) is rolling in his grave right now. Not known as a leftist by any stretch, Shamir was the long-time Likud leader and Prime Minister from 1986-1992 during which his own party legislators took to the practice of standing up and walking out of the Knesset plenary when Mk Rabbi Meir Kahane ascended the podium. During Shamir’s term, in 1988, the Supreme Court banned Kahane’s Kach party from running in the elections for the 12th Knesset on the grounds of incitement to racism. Fast forward three decades and today’s Otzma Yehudit, Kach’s spiritual successor, has called to strip the citizenship from Arabs in Israel. In its decision to ban Kahane’s party, the court wrote that the party’s members:
“…Request that some of the country’s citizens, as determined by national-ethnic origins, be denied [the right] to vote or be elected. Rescinding rights as such is a clear and unequivocal blow to the soul of democracy.”
However, Netanyahu, Shamir’s political heir, agreed Wednesday to revoke a section of the Basic Law on the Knesset which states that a party can be disqualified from a parliamentary run if it denies Israel’s character as a Jewish or democratic state or if it incites racism. This is a complete 180-degree turn from the party’s soul as a right-of-center party that upheld the values of liberalism and the sanctity of democracy.
“The incoming PM’s capitulation to the demands of his racist and extremist coalition partners undermines every ethical foundation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” stated IRAC director Orly Erez-Likhovski.
Erez-Likhovsky, in her previous role as head of IRAC’s Legal Department, was the lead lawyer who petitioned successfully the Israeli Supreme Court to bar three Otzma Yehudit members from running in Israel’s 2019 elections due to their racist statements and actions. According to her, it is “inconceivable for the Jewish people, who were victims of the most terrible racism, to give a stamp of approval to racism.”
The negotiations between Netanyahu and his far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners came down to the wire, with discussions going to the very last hour. Despite warnings from Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who accused the current coalition members of attempting to turn Israel into a “democracy in name, not in substance,” it seems as though the sloganeering and fiery campaign statements are being fast-tracked now into policy.
Some may dismiss my words as just another North American Reform rabbi criticizing Israel. Others may gently push us to not air our dirty laundry in public.
Let me be clear.
The Coalition agreement is an egregious crossing of sacred red lines. It carries the very real potential to cause serious damage that will be difficult to reverse. This is not another case of being too critical of Israel or let’s not air our dirty laundry in public.
This is a clarion call to all who love Israel, to all who care even a little bit, not to be silent. To all those who derive a sense of pride from a strong Jewish Nation-State, from Israel’s technological advances as a ‘Start-Up Nation’, from the beauty of the Negev and the Galilee, from moving spiritual moments in Jerusalem, Tzfat, and everywhere else, and to the reinvention of secular Jewish and Hebrew culture, and from Israel’s vast contributions to modern Jewish life – now is our time to speak up, lean in, double-down, and most importantly not turn away.
What Can We Expect from Netanyahu’s new Government?
- Netanyahu gave a green light to legislation aimed at reforming the judicial system, including the Override Clause – which would enable the Knesset to enact laws that previously would have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Advocates of the Override Clause claim that they hope “to restore the proper balance” between the two branches of government and change the process of selecting judges.
- He also gave a green light to the ultra-Orthodox Parties to amend the Law of Return. In Netanyahu’s coalition agreements with the Religious Zionist Party and United Torah Judaism, he agreed to let this proceed – which is a significant break from a prior guarantee.
- New Laws: Three amendments of Basic Laws
- The “Ben Gvir law,” a bill to expand ministerial powers over the Israel Police will radically redefine the relationship between police and politicians, giving the police minister far more authority over the police force than ever before. minister (Ben Gvir) the authority to set general policy on investigations and the handling of cases. Currently, the commissioner sets policy in consultation with the minister. However, the shift gives Ben Gvir, an oft-convicted far-right extremist activist, wide control over a police force with which he has long been at odds. Netanyahu has enabled the Shas Party chairman MK Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite Deri’s suspended jail sentence following a January plea bargain to tax offenses.
- Netanyahu has enabled Religious Zionism Party chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich to serve as a minister within the defense ministry (in addition to being Finance Minister) and to control all that takes place in the West Bank.
- Netanyahu also worked out a deal with his coalition to cancel the current law that enables four MKs to break away from an existing party.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote this week:
“This is the moment for liberal Jews to fight even harder for the Jewish State as envisioned in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Leaders of the new Israeli government are hoping that we North American Jews will abandon Israel and allow them to create a new Israel that is divisive, tyrannical, and tribalistic. This is why they fight us so bitterly at the Western Wall, and why they stymied the agreement that would have created an equitable prayer space at that holiest of Jewish sites.
We will not stand idly by while the State of Israel, arguably the most important project of contemporary Jewish life, is led down the road of autocracy by extremists. Instead, we will renew our dedication to the State of Israel as a safe home for all her citizens and the democratic, pluralistic homeland of all the Jewish people. We refuse to allow extremists to subvert religious equality in Israel.”
In the coming days and weeks, we will be reaching out to our North American Movement to organize and mobilize around issues including the Law of Return and the conversion bill both of which significantly affect Diaspora Jews. In the meantime we ask three specific things of all our Reform movement leaders and members:
- Spread these words far and wide. Teach them to your children and to your fellow congregants, co-workers, and friends. A friend recently commented to me that few American Reform Jews are familiar with the names “Ben Gvir,” “Smotrich” or “Maoz” and are very much unaware of the severity of the moment. Don’t be afraid that it will be off-putting. As Reform Jews, it is time to pay close attention and to know what is happening.
- Our Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ and IRAC) is our partner and change agent on the ground, doing the work daily to stand up for our Reform Jewish values and defend democracy in Israel. They need our support now more than ever.
- We, in the URJ, need more Israel engagement here in North America, in congregations, youth movements, and our camps. And we need to exert our influence in Israel’s National Institutions (World Zionist Organization, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund, and the Jewish Agency for Israel) where we can have a significant impact. The most important thing we can do for that right now is to spread this newsletter wide and far to help build our lists and subscribe as many people as possible.
As our Festival of Lights comes to end, let us be reminded of the last line of a famous Hanukkah song that many of us sing each night:
“וּבְיָמֵינוּ כָּל עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתְאַחֵד, יָקוּם וְיִגָּאֵל.”
“But now, in our days, all Israel must arise as one
Join together, and redeem itself.”
Following the example of all those who we remember on Hanukkah, it will require today the courage and determination of the vast mainstream of Jews in America and around the world to re-dedicate our “Temple,” namely the State of Israel, and to buttress and recreate, at the minimum, a decent society.
Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach!