I had one very Zionist day this past week.
It was not Monday, when my older son completed his service in the IDF, where he has been serving as a combat medic for 2.5 years, packed his bags and went home to his kibbutz. He is thrilled to be free, and we are all relieved.
On Sunday, my family and I were in New York City for the 30th anniversary concert of HaZamir, the International Jewish Teen Choir. This is an annual concert at Lincoln Center which brings together HaZamir chapters from all over the United States and from Israel, about 200 teens sing together after having practiced back home for months. Our Pittsburgh chapter sent eight teens to sing along, a healthy representation. It is an event which is extraordinarily powerful and moving to me, and not just because my daughter was singing along with a sea of sopranos.
The concert is a nexus of some of the things which I hold most dear: Jewish life and culture, Hebrew choral music, an unabashed love of the State of Israel and its musical culture, and to some extent a certain nostalgia. Truth is, I wept more tears at this concert than I had in a long time. It was extraordinarily moving. To hear Naomi Shemer’s anthem Lu Yehi, based on the Beatles’ classic Let it Be, in 4-part harmony, sung by the generation of young people who will inherit all of our worldly messes, fills me with a certain yearning and pride and sadness and hope that can only be captured in the language of the Torah, which is very much a living language today:
מה קול ענות אני שומע
קול שופר וקול תופים
כל שנבקש לו יהי
לו תישמע בתוך כל אלה
גם תפילה אחת מפי
כל שנבקש לו יהי
The anguished voices I hear,
The sound of the shofar and the sound of drums,
All that we ask for, let it be,
And if within all of them should be heard,
A single prayer from my lips,
All that we ask for, let it be.
That was Sunday afternoon. Judy and Zev and I spent the morning prior to the concert walking around Manhattan and taking in some of the sights. And it just so happened that we stumbled across a very different form of Zionist engagement going on in Washington Square Park: a protest against the Israeli government attended by a few hundred people, and judging from the Hebrew spoken all around us, most of the attendees were Israelis living in NYC. The park was filled with Israeli flags; there were speakers and chants and signs. They decried the Netanyahu government and the current judicial reforms package with chants of “Bushah, bushah.” Shame, shame.
The contrast between these two events was quite stark. One was primarily a celebration of Israeli culture and music (OK, so there were a few compositions by American Jewish composers, but a majority of the music was Israeli) and included a brief address by Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the UN. The other brought into focus all of the challenges and divisiveness facing Israeli society at this moment.
I hope by now that you have heard about these protests. They are taking place all over Israel, as well as in cities all over the world which have significant Israeli ex-pat communities, including London, Berlin, New York, and even Pittsburgh. In Israel, for example, on Thursday, perhaps as many as 500,000 Israelis went into the streets all over the country in what was billed by organizers as a “day of paralysis.” In Tel Aviv, water cannons were even used to disperse crowds who were blocking roads.
Israeli politics are complicated, occasionally vicious, and always in your face. Israelis are not shy about telling you how they really feel on any subject, and it is not unusual to go at it with your cab driver about politics or even with a stranger in a cafe. And given that the governing coalition which has proposed these reforms in the Knesset has a 64-56 majority, the nation is extraordinarily divided right now, to the point where many observers of all stripes are calling it a “constitutional crisis,” despite the fact that Israel has no constitution.
This is, however, the greatest existential threat that Israel has ever faced. Yes, Iran might soon have nuclear weapons. Yes, Hizbullah and Hamas are right nearby, occasionally sending rockets and flaming balloons and digging tunnels under the borders. But Israel has never faced a threat of this nature, and the threat is entirely internal. Half a million protesters on the streets of a nation of 9.5 million people would be equivalent to about 18 million Americans stopping traffic on the streets of our nation. Imagine what it would take to cause that kind of disruption. Military reservists are not showing up for duty. High-tech companies and entrepreneurs are pulling their capital out of the country. High-profile retired politicians and judges and military officers have spoken out against the reforms. The president, who usually plays a ceremonial role, has stepped into the fray to try to bring about a compromise.
Israel’s enemies are licking their lips at the internal chaos. (See Amos Harel’s piece in Foreign Policy.)
This Netanyahu-led government came together at the end of December, and includes not only the center-right Likud party but also Orthodox and right-wing parties, the leaders of some of which are in fact convicted criminals and also express views which many of us find odious.
They have proposed an onslaught of legislation, including the judicial reforms, the first one of which was passed Thursday, shielding the Prime Minister from criminal prosecution while in office. This particularly benefits Netanyahu, who is currently facing corruption charges.
But the most controversial legislation on the table would grant the ability to the Knesset to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court and to have a heavy hand in picking Supreme Court judges, thereby dramatically reducing the independence of the judiciary.
Other bills which the coalition has indicated that they will introduce would allow greater political control of the police, increase the authority of rabbinical courts (which of course are Orthodox), and, of greatest concern to Diaspora Jewry, modify the Law of Return to eliminate the current provision that any person with at least one Jewish grandparent, regardless of halakhic status, may become a citizen.
You may know that this law, the first law established by the State, is guided by the intent to ensure that there will always be a safe haven for Jews; having one Jewish grandparent was enough for the Nazis to put you on a train to a death camp.
While there are certainly arguments on either side of these proposed changes, a healthy segment of Israelis feel that these changes would fundamentally alter the nature of Israel’s democracy, endangering minority rights, elevating religious control in the public sphere, and creating an environment that smacks of dictatorship. Israel has no formal constitution, but democracy requires that majority rule respect minority rights, and this is what many feel the Netanyahu government is threatening to destroy.
Much of what we do as Jews is based on a kind of national nostalgia. We have a theoretical ideal of behavior, identified in the Torah, and a blueprint in the Talmud and later literature to help us attempt to live out that ideal in changing times and circumstances. We read in Parashat Vayiqra about the qorbanot, the sacrifices carried out by our Israelite ancestors in the mishkan, the portable sanctuary used while wandering in the desert for 40 years, and then later, in already changed circumstances, in the Beit haMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem.
The very idea of animal sacrifice is anathema to us today. When the Romans destroyed the Beit haMiqdash in the year 70 CE, we ended that practice. Thank God! We have a better method of worship today, with a lot less blood, which is more portable and more sustainable. And yet we still read about the theoretical ideal, which we long ago replaced. And there are plenty of other examples from Jewish life. The reality of Jewish practice today includes, if you will, the nostalgia for what we used to do, even though we no longer do it.
The State of Israel is about to turn 75 years old. And as much as we should maintain our nostalgia for the theoretical ideal of what the Jewish state is, contemporary reality has taken a bite out of nostalgia.
Why am I telling you about all of this? Because all the more so at this moment, we as American Jews who care about Israel need to pay attention. We need to ensure, as much as we can from a distance, that the crisis in Israel does not tear the Jewish state and the Jewish people apart. Several major American Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federations of North America, have issued statements urging compromise to preserve democracy and minority rights in Israel.
It is not necessarily up to us in the galut / Jewish diaspora to help identify the compromise position which, I hope, the Knesset will hammer out. But we must raise our voices in support of democracy in Israel.
We cannot only play in the nostalgia for the past; we must also be a part of the current moment. We too are part of the picture. We have a stake in the future of Israel – of its safety and security, of its stability, of its presence in our lives as the merkaz ruḥani, the spiritual center of the Jewish people, and, God forbid, as a haven if needed.
Every Shabbat morning here at Beth Shalom, we recite the Prayer for the State of Israel, which we sang just a few moments ago. And we prayed to God that the leaders and advisors of the Jewish state be guided by God’s light and truth, and that the inhabitants of the State and the entire region be blessed with a lasting peace and joy.
Ladies and gentlemen, please pray harder. And also consider the following:
- Local Israelis are hosting a weekly protest here in Pittsburgh on Sundays at 4 PM at the corner of Forbes and Murray. All are invited to join.
- Beth Shalom will be hosting a public reading of the Declaration of Independence on Yom HaAtzma’ut, in celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday, and in acknowledgment of our desire for Israel to maintain its foundational values.
כל שנבקש, לו יהי
May everything that we seek be granted; may peace reign once again in Israel and among all the people who call themselves Yisrael.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/25/2023.)