Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 28, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Allow me to begin this morning with a shocking statement: the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is the best thing that could have happened to liberal Zionists.
Seriously. For years, those of us who are proud Zionists, but not fans of the current right wing government of Israel, have had to defend on ourselves on two fronts. To Likud supporters and Israel ‘right or wrong’ advocates, we have had to defend our position that belief in a two state solution is not anti-Semitic, but rather the best hope for a strong Jewish State. And to the left, we have had to argue that criticizing the government of Israel is acceptable, but condemning its existence is not ‘anti Zionist’, it is anti Semitic. Every country in the world acts inappropriately on some level - if not down right barbaric - but only Israel’s whole reason for being is questioned because it is not perfect.
But now that President Trump has been elected, as one of the Israeli panelists on our Partnership trip to Israel explained, “You will see what it is like to live in a democracy in which the people don’t agree with the government.” While liberal Zionists still must contend with those to our right, at least to progressives on the political spectrum in America, we can now point out that it is indeed possible to find fault with a democratic government, while not dismissing the potential aspirations of that nation. No one suggests that the United States does not have a right to exist because its government is separating children from parents who are seeking asylum, polluting the environment to prop up dead industries and to spite the previous government and question alliances with true democracies in favor of totalitarian governments. No progressives are calling for Americans to ‘go home to your countries of origin.’
These have been difficult years for those who hold fast to the ideals with which this great country was created, as well as the ideals and potential of the State of Israel.
This past week has surely been one of heartbreak for all who love Israel and believe in its possibility of achieving both Jewish and universalist ideals. And that dual ideal is not a contradiction. The prophet Amos made that clear when he declared, “To Me, O Israelites, you are Just like the Ethiopians — declares the LORD. True, I brought Israel up From the land of Egypt, But also the Philistines from Caphtor And the Arameans from Kir.” But he also foresaw: “In that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old, So that they shall possess the rest of Edom….I will restore My people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; They shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil.”
Three distinct events have disappointed those of us who believe in such ideals for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
We in the Masorti/Conservative movement are appalled by the arrest of an Israeli Conservative/Masorti rabbi, Rabbi Dov Haiyun, for the “crime” of performing a traditional wedding ceremony between two Jews in Israel. This outrageous arrest has stirred up many Jews in Israel and around the world to call for the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate, since these unrepresentative government officials have proven incapable of respecting and protecting the plurality of Jewish practice in Israel and abroad. Currently in Israel’s crazy, confusing religion/state dynamic, the only marriages that are able to be registered within the state are marriages overseen by those appointed by the state religious bureaucracy. But marriages contracted outside the state must be legitimated by international law. The marriage Rabbi Haiyun solemnized was a private ceremony; the couple knew that the state would not recognize it. What was different this time was that the religious authorities decided to have the officiating rabbi of this ‘rogue’ wedding arrested. Rabbi Haiyun’s comparison of this situation to the ayatollahs in Iran was apt.
We are equally appalled by the revisions to Israel’s Surrogacy law, which officially discriminates against LGBTQ Israelis for the crime of wanting to become parents. We in the Masorti movement are concerned for the dignity of all our people, and we celebrate the desire of queer Jews to form families and raise children in Israel. In both of these two actions, the Government has made it impossible for many Israelis to marry and form families in the Land, instead pushing them abroad to marry and to bring children into the world. These actions are hurtful and undercut the very ethos of Zionism by which all Jews should be welcomed into the Jewish state.
And speaking of undercutting and demoralizing the original vision of Zionism was the third action, the new basic law declaring Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” This assertion was not news. In fact, despite the hair-on-fire declarations in media, the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel already affirmed this. But therein lies the shame. In the Declaration of Independence the two goals of the state were declared to be a Jewish and a democratic state in which religious and ethnic minorities are to be guaranteed equal protection. In contrast, this new law never mentions the word ‘democracy.’ And the equal protection under the law to minorities was absent as well. The law seems to downgrade the language of Arabic from one of three official languages to one of special status. I say ‘seems to downgrade’ because the new law confusingly also states that “This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.” So does it change the status of Arabic or not?
Avinoam Sharon, editor of the Israeli Supreme court Blog at Cardozo Law School, argues that almost nothing in this law was necessary since the provisions are found in other Basic Laws of the State and in the Declaration of Independence. However unlike the Declaration of Independence there is no statement of treating all minority groups justly. That does not mean that Israel won’t treat these groups with fairness, but why not include it? As a result, minority groups in Israel may unnecessarily be insulted and feel excluded from general Israeli society. His excellent legal analysis of the bill can be found at - click here.
This is not the way of justice, it is not the path of righteousness, and it will certainly not lead toward peace. Arab Israelis are a fifth of the State’s citizens, and it is essential that they and other minorities, specifically the Druze who serve proudly in the army, be treated as equal citizens, even if they do not share the religious identity of the Jewish majority.
Given our deep disappointment with these cruel and unjust actions of the Government, how do we respond? Do we join the BDS movement? Well, unless you suggest that a BDS movement against the United States is an appropriate way to respond to our disappointments with the Trump administration, I don’t see the logic or ethics of doing such a thing. Israel is far from the only democratic country in the world whose leaders act in undemocratic, cruel, and embarrassing ways. Citizens of democracies around the world, including our beloved United States, are often dismayed by the cruel and unjust actions of their government. The only appropriate response is to protest – in the voting booth, in organization, in letter writing campaigns.
Our Torah portion this week includes a restatement of the 10 Commandments. Rabbi Danny Nevins, dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS, writes how in reviewing the laws Moses makes it clear that he yearns for his people to live up to their potential, creating a civilization that will be universally admired for all its righteous laws. He imagines a time when others will observe the righteous laws and rules of Israel and remark, (Deut. 4:6-8) “Observe these laws faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” … (W)hat great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?”
In the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Rosh HaShanah 1:3), this verse serves as centerpiece for the claim that, unlike a human king, God first fulfills God’s own decrees before imposing them on others. In our case, God designs the Torah with justice and righteousness, and then challenges Israel to follow suit. Achieving this goal is a historic task; sadly, it remains, still unfulfilled.
Like Moses, in whose final song to his people foresaw there abandonment of these laws, we often experience the heartbreak of a reality that falls far short of divine instruction, and yet like Moses we hold fast to these commands and commit ourselves to work, and to fight, so that reality will bend closer to our highest goals.
Like Moses we must state our principles clearly, and like Moses we must be willing to criticize conduct that falls far short of our goals.
The gap between ideals and reality can be painful, but despair is not an option. This is a time to increase our engagement, to augment our activism, and to support organizations such as the Masorti Movement in Israel. Last year members of the congregation donated $6000 to strengthen Masorti Judaism in Israel. I hope we will do the same this year. Rather than venting, we must provide a counter-reality, just as Moses did. Then, perhaps, we can one day achieve his glorious vision, of building a country that is admired for its just and righteous laws.