January 13, 2023
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of my trip-to-Israel-that-wasn’t was the missed opportunity to search for, and perhaps catch glimpses of signs for optimism. When I traveled to Israel a few years ago as part of the 5th Qushiyot cohort (which I wrote and spoke about at the time), I returned with stories of religious West Bank settlers who spoke of integrating the Palestinians into a greater Israel; an ultra-Orthodox man who ran a national program to bring religious and secular Israeli kids together (because otherwise they would never meet); a preschool in Haifa which integrated Israeli Arab and Jewish children together, learning about one another’s cultures and fostering friendships; an Orthodox rabbi who was pushing back against the Rabbinate’s stranglehold on the performance of weddings; and numerous other stories of faintly glowing embers – currents that gave one cause for hope.
For many, the latest election in Israel has shattered any hope. It’s not just the election – that was the result of a democratic process – but the trends and what they portend. The coalition government that Netanyahu has constructed is comprised of ultra-Orthodox and nationalist/ultranationalist parties who, among other things, seek to hamstring Israel’s judicial branch, institute draconian measures with regard to Arabs in Israel and the West Bank, and hamper LGBTQ rights. And while there are still many noble and inspiring people and organizations to turn optimistic eyes to, there is real reason for anxiety. Hillel Halkin (American-born Israeli translator, biographer, literary critic, and novelist, who has lived in Israel since 1970 – Wikipedia) recently penned a powerful, grim assessment of the new Israeli government and the demographic and political trends in the Jewish Review of Books (click here to read it). Quoting himself from a letter to a friend, he writes, “For years now, Israel has seemed to me like a man sleepwalking toward a cliff. Now we’ve fallen from it. I don’t know whether this will end with a smash-up and a slow, painful recovery or with something worse. If worse, it will be slow and painful, too.” The full article is worth reading.
Needless to say, a single article is unable to represent a broad and complex reality. But many mainstream commentators, both liberal and conservative, have written about how this election represents a sea-change for Israel’s politics, and how it portends nothing good. Thomas Friedman (someone with whom I don’t often see eye-to-eye) wrote an interesting assessment in the Times last month (read it here) of some of the complexities in Israel’s socio-political trends. He sees the new (at the time of writing, it was the incoming) government as appearing to be largely without the restraints that have kept an uneasy status-quo for years. “…Without self-restraint,” he writes, “Netanyahu and his coalition partners could bury the two-state solution and the one-state solution in the same grave. That would just leave us with the One Big Mess Solution.” In his analysis, that’s exactly where this is headed.
Needless to say, what happens in Israel reverberates in the American (and diaspora) Jewish community. Friedman quotes Abe Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a comment to The Jerusalem Post, saying “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” adding, “If Israel becomes a fundamentalist religious state, a theocratic nationalism state, it will cut Israel off from 70 percent of world Jewry.”
Perhaps to his point, there was an article in the Forward this past week about Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s decision to replace the Prayer for the State of Israel with an alternative reading (he selected Psalm 122 – “pray for the peace of Jerusalem and all who live under her authority”). Rabbi Kalmanofsky is the rabbi of Anshei Chesed in Manhattan. The article (read it here) describes him as “a staunch, lifelong Zionist — a liberal Zionist, as most American Jews would describe themselves, but also a religious Zionist, in the sense of seeing a Jewish homeland in the holy land as a fulfillment of a fundamental tenet of our faith….” In other words, he’s hardly a reactionary lefty. But like many of us, he is responding to the frightening, illiberal attitudes of the new power-brokers in Israeli government, a truly extreme bunch (Friedman again: “Four of the top five party leaders of the… coalition government — Netanyahu, Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir — have either been arrested, indicted, convicted or served prison time on charges of corruption or incitement to racism”).
As always, it’s hard to talk about the extraordinary complexities of Israel in a limited format. All the articles that I mention in this piece are worth reading, even if they’re not particularly comforting, and might expand our understanding, at least in a limited fashion, of some of the issues at play. At EMJC, we will continue to recite the Prayer for Israel, though we too might explore alternatives that continue to bless the State, even as they are less explicit about invoking Avinu shebaShamayim – “the One who is in heaven” – to sanction and bless the current ruling coalition. And I will continue to seek out signs of optimism, even as the skies grow darker. I also commit to continuing our Israel programming at EMJC, nurturing our love of Israel, exploring its darkness and its light, and praying for a brighter future than the one we see now.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, indeed.
Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Sam Levine