“Democracy in Israel is dead.”
Have you seen that headline yet?
Versions of this headline have been making the rounds in American newspapers over the past few weeks. And it is simply not true. To call a government that was voted in, in an election that had the largest turnout in Israeli history, as a sign of the death of democracy is ironic at best.
It is true that some of the policies of some of the representatives of this new Israeli government are extreme, and in my opinion, wrong. But last time I checked, the same could be said about Republicans and Democrats – there are extremists in each party, and yet, no one is sitting shiva over the death of American democracy.
It is not the time and place to review their policies and to try to understand why so many Israelis voted for them (see Daniel Gordis for more on that: https://danielgordis.substack.com/p/no-one-has-the-privilege-to-act-or#details). What is most relevant to us is the response of American Jews to this new Israeli government. A few days ago, a very troubling letter was circulated. The letter, titled, A CALL TO ACTION FOR CLERGY IN PROTEST OF ISRAELI GOVERNMENT EXTREMISTS was signed by over 300 American rabbis and communal leaders. In their words, the new government “will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship, as they are an affront to the vast majority of American Jews and our values.” They conclude the letter by pledging to block members of the new government from attending their synagogues and call on other clergy to do the same.
That, my friends, is not only extreme. It is downright dangerous.
The UN is passing daily resolutions against Israel, the BDS movement and J-street are picking up steam, our children are getting cursed at on college campuses, visible Jews are getting beaten on the streets of New York, anti-“Zionism” is alive and well. And the best you, Jewish leaders, can come up with is further demonizing Israel?!
The Jewish People have been fracturing over the past two hundred years. The Jewish People have been shrinking due to assimilation over the course of the century. The establishment of the State of Israel was the greatest blessing, not only for all the obvious reasons, but it also brought our divided people together like nothing before it. Over the past decades, Birthright trips have been one of the most important features in ensuring continued Jewish identity. The future of Jewish identity among millions of Jews is at stake. And the best you, Jewish leaders, can come up with is further demonizing Israel?!
Where is the vision here? Where does demonizing the democratically elected government lead us? To more antisemitism cloaked as anti-Zionism, or less? To more Jews staying connected to their faith, or less?
And where is the knowledge of history? We’ve been here before. It doesn’t end well. Our Sages taught us the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, a story of two individuals who could not stand each other’s presence. The sages described how their toxic relationship led to the destruction of the Second Temple. Josephus helps us understand that story to be emblematic of the intense infighting that led to the fall of Jerusalem. He describes more Jews dying by the sword of a fellow Jew than dying by the sword of the Romans.
The story goes back even further, all the way back to the birth of our nation. The epic story of Yosef and his brothers is understood by many of our sages to be so much more than sibling rivalry. Many commentators suggest that Yosef and his brothers were arguing over the future of the Jewish People, they had competing visions of what it would mean to be a Jew. Some brothers argued for a particularistic and segregated lifestyle. Others, most notably Yosef, argued for a universalistic way of life. The brothers saw Yosef as an existential threat. Their vision and his were at absolute odds, there was no room for compromise, no room for coexistence. Yosef too, saw himself in his dreams as king, and the other brothers, his slaves. This was a zero-sum game. The only solution was to eliminate Yosef.
Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa points out that if you read the text carefully, you’ll notice, that even after the brothers reunite, their brotherhood is on shaky grounds. The question of succession, of which vision, which ideology will come out on top has not been resolved. Who will receive the blessing that G-d gave Avraham and not the rest of the people of the world, the blessing that Avraham gave to Yitzchak and not Yishmael, the blessing that Yitzchak gave to Yaakov and not Eisav. Who will it be?
On his deathbed, Yaakov calls his whole family together. This is it. They know he is about to appoint a successor. The right way to serve G-d. The right way to lead the people. Sure enough, Yaakov acknowledges the brothers who have unique leadership skills, who have differing viewpoints and ideologies. And then – vayevarech osam – he blesses them all, each one of them receive the family blessing.
Yaakov, in a radical break from his forefathers, does not choose one brother over the other. He introduces a concept that was totally foreign to them – you, the children of Israel, are one family.
It’s at this point, observes Rav Simcha Bunim, that Yosef and the brothers ask each other for forgiveness. There was no winner. There was never meant to be a winner. The children of Israel from thereon in would be a people with competing views, with differing emphases, with ideologies that would be in tension with one another, who would come together at a Shabbos table, yell and scream, debate like there’s no tomorrow, and then when it’s all said and done, one brother would lead them all in Birkas Hamazon. Because the children of Israel are a family. And that’s how families are meant to function.
You know what I would like to do? I’d like to invite the 300 rabbis who signed on to that letter to Ner Tamid. I’d like to also invite Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the two ministers who are seen as most extreme. And I’d like them to have a conversation led by Eliana “Ellie” Glazer, a young woman in our shul who is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah today.
I remember the first time I met Ellie, I thought she was about five years older than she is. Not because of her height, but because of her maturity. She carries herself with dignity and confidence that is well beyond her years. Her social group includes an incredibly diverse group of friends. Those are great, but that’s not why I would want her to lead the conversation.
You see, Ellie told me how her grandparents are her role models in life. And perhaps Ellie, you would be able to share with the people in this gathering what your grandparents had to go through, running from the Nazis, hiding from the Communists. Maybe Ellie, you could remind them of our history, of how important a Jewish homeland is for our safety. And how we cannot take that safety for granted with glib rhetoric that is destructive to this cause.
But also, Ellie could share with this group what it means to be a family. If you ever want to know what it means to be a family, look no further than the Glazer’s. The dedication they have for “mishpuche” as Yehuda Glazer of blessed memory would always tell me, is unparalleled. When Ellie told me that her favorite part of Judaism was spending time with family, I was not in any way surprised.
I think this group of rabbis and politicians would have a lot to learn from Ellie.
Unfortunately, this gathering will likely never happen. But Ellie, you’re going to go far in life, we all know that. Please hold on to those incredible values, reminding yourself where you came from, what your ancestors had to fight against and fight for. And no matter what, never forget what it means to be a family.
I’ll conclude with this – A few weeks ago, I was invited to a panel discussion with a reform and conservative rabbi. We were asked to address a small group of up-and-coming leaders in the Baltimore community. Most of the questions were kind of light until the final question when they asked us about intermarriage. Our answers were not only different, they were in direct contradiction with one another. I spoke last and described what one of the panelists had just painted as a value, I painted that same value as a grave mistake, a sin. And then you know what happened? There was not yelling, no screaming, no name-calling. We wrapped up our conversation, we got up, we smiled at each other and shook hands, and said, “Let’s be in touch.” Because that’s what you do when you’re a family.