January 26, 2023 – ה׳ שְׁבָט תשפ”ג
וְאִם לוֹא הַשְּׂחֹק הָיָה לְךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אִם־בְּגַנָּבִים (נמצאה) [נִמְצָא] כִּי־מִדֵּי דְבָרֶיךָ בּוֹ תִּתְנוֹדָד׃(ירמיהו מח:כז)
“Wasn’t Israel a laughingstock to you?
Was he ever caught among thieves,
That you should shake your head
Whenever you speak of it?”
(Jeremiah 48:27 – Haftarah of Parshat Bo)
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined power as “the ability to produce intended effects.”
It goes without saying that some use their power to produce intended effects that benefit the greater good while some use power to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
Our parashah, “Bo,” picks up amidst a power struggle between Moses (representing God) and Pharaoh. Pharaoh could not have imagined that those whom he enslaved and over whom he wielded power would one day rise up and overpower him. Pharaoh is the ancient and quintessential example of ‘old power.’ Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms argue in their 2018 book “New Power”, that the main driver of the growing tension between old and new power is human agency. The big difference is that old systems aim to control power while new systems aim to channel it. Consequently, by relying on this participatory energy, new power requires a lot more flexibility than old power, and sharing the burden of power affords individuals much less to lose. Pharaoh held ‘old power’ that was closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven, while the Israelites harnessed ‘new power’ that was open, accessible, driven by their peers, and distributive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power most closely resembles Pharaoh’s style of ‘old power.’ The quest for absolute power, as Pharaoh discovered, forced a hardening of his heart, which then ironically became his greatest weakness.
“Why would “King Bibi” be acting in so patently dangerous a fashion — not just demolishing the judiciary, but also empowering, at his cabinet table, criminals and homophobes and messianists and theocrats?” asks Times of Israel editor David Horovitz.
Because it is so transparent that he is not acting with any ideological conviction in service of a particular worldview or belief that will lead Israel and the Jewish people on a path of righteousness.
“He is no theocrat. He recognizes the importance of close ties with the United States, and that they hinge on the intimacy that only two democracies can share. He served for years within the clear chain of command in the IDF and knows the life-and-death significance of that clarity. He does not subscribe to a supremacist Judaism. A secular Jew, he is not contemptuous of non-Orthodox Judaism and does not seek to gratuitously alienate the Diaspora. He has taken immense and justified pride in the fact that Israel is able to serve as a dependable refuge for all who are persecuted as Jews, no matter whether they meet the halachic designation of Jewishness. He nurtured Israel’s astounding tech sector and understands better than almost anyone how crucial it is to the economy, and by extension to Israel’s very capacity to protect itself from its enemies. And he appreciates the value of an independent High Court — for protecting rights within Israel, and as a bulwark against Israel’s powerful external critics, especially as regards Israeli policies on the Palestinians.”
For the sake of power Netanyahu and his band of judicial reformers, staunch ideologues, supremacists, and empowered Likud moderates who are too scared to stand up to the powers that be are now experiencing their own 10 plagues brought about by those who represent ‘new power’ wielding groups.
The protests, this time, are not just angry mobs in the street. Rather, they include hundreds of leading economists and former governors of the Bank of Israel who warned that the government’s efforts to weaken the judiciary would deter investment and damage Israel’s economy. Leading high-tech startups are now wary of Israel’s ability to be a hub for the international economy and are moving money out of the country – exactly the opposite of Netanyahu’s tech vision for Israel. Leading intellectuals and scholars like Daniel Kahneman, Alan Dershowitz, and now a growing number of United States Members of Congress like New York Rep. Jerry Nadler are all raising doubts and asking questions. Media executives are protesting to save the national broadcasting system, and University heads are fearful of a mass brain drain. Legal experts have been sounding the alarm, and even Likud-loyalist, former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, warned against these dangerous trends.
Yet, Netanyahu’s heart is hardened. In the end, his penchant for power will result in the loss of the things that are closest to his heart – economic growth, technological advancement, strong governmental institutions, and ties with world powers – and it will weaken the Jewish State as a regional and world power.
Israelis are realizing their power in taking to the actual and virtual streets/media, but they will need to exert their power at the ballot box, especially in the upcoming Israeli municipal elections. In a democracy that is increasingly becoming authoritarian and using its platform to actually undermine democracy, and wants to promote an extremely narrow agenda, it is important to remember that others don’t take our power so much as we give it away.
We give it away by not organizing or participating out of a fatalistic sense that it doesn’t matter, that “my vote won’t count anyway,” or that “I don’t live there so I can’t voice an opinion or have influence.” But not organizing is essentially handing power to others whose interests may be inimical to our own.
Consider the various forms of power available. Just as B’nei Yisrael built up gradually before dealing the final blow of מכת בכורות (the death of the firstborn), we too have a gradually increasing arsenal of basic powers. We have wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. Every one of those originates from us. That we give power to make the powerful is, of course, a truth of human relations, not just of electoral politics. It is true with our peers and colleagues, with our friends and relatives. And it is true in everyday civic life from the neighborhood level up. No one can wield power except when others yield power. The power that anyone holds over us originates with us — and can ultimately be reclaimed or redirected by us.
We North American Reform Jews have power as well. As IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center) Director Orly Erez Likhovsky writes (see full article below):
“The fight is not ours [Israelis] alone. Don’t give up on us. We need you now more than ever. We need you — and many, many more like you — to raise a voice to make sure Israel remains a democracy. Demand your rightful place in our fight together for Klal Yisrael.”
Sometimes it takes a leader like Moses to show the powerless that they have power. Sometimes it takes a refashioning of power from Old to New to understand the kind of power that is possible. Right now, it takes leaders to inspire people not to walk away, but rather to feel a sense of investment. Of course, power doesn’t come overnight, which is why investment in Jewish education, positive experiences in Israel, and a sense of obligation to and responsibility for the fate and destiny of the Jewish people must be instilled at a young age. This moment might be seen as a gift to those who feel disempowered, enabling them to rise up and join us in organizing and raising our voices to curb and balance the powers that be.
To be continued next week as we move from slavery to freedom. To be involved in our organizing work around Israel and Reform Zionism click here:
 34 members of the current Knesset had previously held positions in local authorities (mayors and regional council heads), higher than ever before making local leadership a more significant platform for power.