Towards An Aspirational Zionism
Such is the state of Israeli politics these days, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has a second chance in six months to form a government, even as he’s under threat of indictment.
The Hebrew word for elections is bechirot, meaning “choice”. And so, this morning, I want to explain just a little bit about the choice that Israelis are struggling to make now, for the second time in a year. More importantly: I’d like to consider our choices about how we engage with Israel in the year ahead.
The chaos of Israeli elections is systemic. On Election Day, Israelis vote for a party. The party with the most Knesset seats wins the right to govern.
But because of the proliferation of parties, it’s rare for one to win a clear majority of Knesset seats. To govern, the winning party enters a coalition with smaller parties to form a majority voting bloc. The coalition requirement thus grants outsize power to fringe parties.
National elections were held in April. Netanyahu and Likud won the chance to form a coalition. But for the first time in Israeli history, they failed. The Knesset dissolved, and new elections were called for September, producing another razor-thin result between Likud and the new Blue-and-White party led by Benny Gantz. Likud is now discerning whether to form a coalition, or share power with Blue-and-White. Stay tuned.
As Jews outside of Israel, we obviously don’t vote. But we do have a b’chirah - a choice - about how we’ll engage with Israel in the year ahead.
I think about this in terms of the ironclad connection that exists between Israel and America. Writing 100 years ago, Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice of our Supreme Court, wrote that: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” What he meant is that there is a direct relationship between the dreams we have for religious freedom, the right to dissent, and equality for everyone here at home in America and those same dreams in Israel.
Rabbi John Rosove calls this approach “aspirational Zionism,” where we dream of an Israel that doesn’t just survive, but also thrives…when it exemplifies the very best of our values.
There are significant aspects of Israel that are, of course, already thriving. We marvel at Israel’s reputation as an economic powerhouse driving innovation. We take pride in Israel’s humanitarian leadership, sending teams into disaster zones, even to countries it doesn’t have diplomatic relationships with.
And we salute the soldiers of the IDF who wake up every morning to protect Israel from rockets that rain down on innocent civilians, and from the threats that always hover on Israel’s borders. For those courageous young people, we pray: May the One who blessed our ancestors bless the soldiers of Israel’s Defense Forces, who protect our people. May the Holy One protect them and save them from all troubles and afflictions, from sickness and injury and send blessing to all their endeavors. And we say together: Amein.
But there are parts of Israel that aren’t thriving, and this is where our aspiration is required. What does it mean to supply aspiration? Churchill wrote: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain to the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” And in the spirit of Yom Kippur, our feedback presents Israel with the possibility of changing for the better in the year ahead.
Our reflection about Israel will focus on three areas: the struggle to establish a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall, Israel’s intolerance for political dissent, and last year’s Nation-State Law. With each of these, I’ll argue that Israel has struggled to transform its democratic ideals into reality. She can aspire to do better.
Let’s begin with the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and the still-incomplete egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
In January 2016, the Israeli Cabinet reached an historic agreement to allocate 35 million shekels to construct a new 9700 square foot egalitarian space at the southern end of the Western Wall. But criticism from the ultra-Orthodox (whom Netanyahu relies on for his coalition) was furious. 15 months later, the plan was shelved.
The temporary egalitarian space that had already been set up was left untouched.
In July of 2018, a massive stone fell from the upper portion of the Wall into the temporary egalitarian area. It was a miracle no one was hurt. Part of the area was closed, and repairs were to last a week. A year later, and they still haven’t been completed. Worshippers who don’t want to enter the gender-specific sections have no access to the Wall.
The situation is so upsetting because it ignores the gender equality we hold sacred. Professor Judith Hauptman, writing in 1993 as she pushed the Conservative movement to clarify its approach to egalitarianism, teaches: “If a community recognizes that in all other spheres of life women occupy the same social standing as men, it becomes odd and even morally reprehensible to retain the notion of women’s inferiority […] in the religious arena alone.” It may be that the Orthodox continue to differentiate by gender. But the Western Wall belongs to all of us. It’s time that that sacred space also reflects our community and our values.
A Jewish democracy shouldn’t just aspire for a plurality of Judaisms. It should also aspire to a plurality of political expressions.
This issue begins with the government’s recent decision to deny entry to supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, known as BDS.
Let me clarify that I oppose BDS. BDS is an organized attempt at deligitimizing Israel; the movement’s end goal is Israel’s destruction. BDS is fundamentally at odds with Zionism, which affirms the right of the Jewish People to have a state of our own.
And given the security concerns for Israel’s well-being, let’s put the question of denying entry to BDS supporters to the side. I want to focus today on a few examples of the misguided enforcement of this policy.
Peter Beinart, a leading voice on the Jewish left, was briefly detained and interrogated when he arrived at Ben Gurion airport in the summer of 2018. Israel’s security service apologized after Beinart was mistakenly flagged. But the blunder raises questions about whether Netanyahu’s government sees denial of entry to BDS supporters as political cover for detaining any non-Israeli whose opinion they don’t like.
There’s also the case of Israel supporter and Westchester native Meyer Koplow. Koplow, Chairman of the Board at Brandeis (and a past president at Young Israel of New Rochelle), was detained on his way home from Israel to NY. Airport security got nervous when they saw a pamphlet in Koplow’s backpack from the organization called “Encounter”.
Encounter’s non-partisan mission is “to grow the Jewish community’s capacity to contribute to a durable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which all parties live with respect, recognition, and rights.”
What does it say about the Israeli government that they’re threatened by a pro-Israel philanthropist with a brochure for a dialogue program?
As we struggle to make sense of a leader who is so quick to demonize and silence individuals that disagree with him, Netanyahu ought to study the story of the Talmudic rabbis Shammai and Hillel. The Talmud teaches that in matters of dispute between them, Jewish law follows Hillel. Why?
The law sides with Hillel because he intentionally cited Shammai’s opinion on difficult legal questions. As an expression of humility, Hillel included Shammai’s perspective, affirming Shammai’s humanity and the legitimacy of his opinion, even if Jewish law disagreed with him.
In addition to Jewish pluralism, and the question of dissent, Israel faces existential questions about how it relates to its minority population of Arab-Israeli citizens.
Last night, I spoke about antisemitism. And there’s no question that there are Arabs in the world who hate Jews and are prepared to act on those sentiments.
But that doesn’t mean that every Arab-Israeli citizen of Israel is a threat.
And yet: if it were up to the Netanyahu government, the Arab citizens of Israel would be marginalized. We saw that during these last two rounds of voting, when Likud activists used scare tactics to frighten Arab-Israelis from voting.
Arab-Israelis have been discriminated against in more subtle ways for years by Israel.
Consider the issue of road signage.
As far back as the early 1920s, Israeli law has expected that every road sign would be written in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. Those who have visited Israel know that on interstate highways, that’s largely true today. But signage in Israel’s small and medium size cities don’t always follow that practice.
In communities where most residents are Jewish, there’s Hebrew and English. And in communities where most are Arab, the signs are in Arabic and English.
What was left unresolved were mixed municipal areas with substantial Jewish and Arab populations. According to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, 80% of the signage in those mixed communities lacks Arabic. In 1999, Adalah filed a lawsuit, which went to the Supreme Court. The Court affirmed that Arabic has a privileged status in Israel, and that road signs must include Arabic in mixed communities. Up until the arrival of electronic signage in the last year or so, that ruling was never implemented.
The Nation-State Law passed recently sheds light on the State’s ambivalence toward Arab rights. While the Nation-State Law that passed was less stringent than its original version, the Law is a step toward formalizing Arab-Israelis’ status as second class citizens.
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, in the months after the Six Day War victory in 1967, cautioned Israelis against denigrating Arabs. He included this poem in his collection “Jerusalem 1967”:
On Yom Kippur 5728 I put on
dark holiday clothing and I walked to the Old City in
I stood a long time before a crypt-like shop of an Arab,
not far from Damascus Gate, a shop of
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color, and snaps and buckles
A light of splendor and many colors, like an open Holy Ark.
I said to him in my heart that my father also had
a shop like this of thread and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart about all tens of years
and the factors and events, that I am now here
and that my father’s shop is burned-down there and he is
When I finished it was the hour of N’ilah [when the gates
close in heaven at the end of Yom Kippur]
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned home with all the worshippers.
Keep in mind that Amichai was born in Germany, and didn’t emigrate with his family until 1936. He is sympathetic with the frustrations of the Arab shopkeeper - because he knows that the story of the Arab is not so different from the story of the Jew.
There’s a danger in Israel of labeling Arab citizens as different and less than. The land we aspire to build embraces diversity.
As the rabbis of the Mishnah put it 2000 years ago: Why did God create swarms of bees, prides of lions, herds of deer, schools of fish, and flocks of birds, and only one human couple? So that no one can say to another ‘My ancestry is superior to yours.’” We might look different. But we are all equal to one another.
The aspirational vision I’ve shared with you this morning…concerning religious pluralism, open dissent, and equality for all…is already enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Her founding document makes it clear that Israel’s founders shared the same aspirations we do.
As the text notes: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [and] it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”
As we prepare to cross into the year ahead, we have our own bechirah - choice - to make about Israel and her future. Will we choose to ignore Israel in our communal conversation and identity? Or will we choose to bring Israel back into the center, with an aspirational hope that she might come to embody the best values of our tradition.
We can make that choice, first, by casting a vote in an election that we are allowed to participate in about Israel’s future! Every few years, the World Zionist Congress elects delegates to decide how best to disburse money raised by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Reform movement has a slate of candidates in the election, to maximize the disbursement of funds to local organizations and projects in Israel that affirm religious pluralism, that build an open society that respects disagreement, and that imagine a society that treats minority citizens with equality. We’ll be working to facilitate voting here in January and February. Stay tuned for more details so that your voice can be heard.
We can also bring Israel back to the center of an American Jewish conversation by choosing not to lose faith in the goodness and worth of what she represents.
Naomi Shemer, in her immortal song Al Kol Eileh, writes of the paradox that is modern Israel. al hadvash v’al ha’oket: It’s the honey and the sting. al hamar v’ha’matok: It’s the bitter and the sweet.
For the ones we love, and the countries we love: we accept the sting, even as we wait for honey. We accept the bitter, even as we work for sweetness. Al na ta’akor natua: Do not uproot what has been planted. Al tishkach et hatikvah: And never forget, never ever forget…the hope.