On a weekly basis, alongside waiting for new episodes of my favorite TV shows to drop, I also wait for a specific message from my family. We have a WhatsApp group simply labeled “Mishpacha” (the Hebrew word for “family”), and it includes members of my English and Israeli family. Over the last several weeks, alongside photos of relatives and general updates, every Saturday I wait for the photo of my uncle, aunt and cousins attending rallies against the current Israeli government. And it’s not just on the weekend; different types of protests are taking place on an almost daily basis at colleges, schools, businesses, even amongst members of the army.
I will be honest: After the initial reports and pictures from protests in Tel Aviv, I imagined that people would quickly lose interest and it would be left to a small, hardcore group to continue fighting the government. How wrong I was. On a weekly basis, the numbers have increased and the protests have expanded. The people taking to the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and across the country recognize that they are in a fight for the very future of Israel, for its survival as a Jewish democratic state. This is a moment of existential crisis, and we cannot sit silently and passively in this moment of potential disaster for the State of Israel.
For those who have been following, in November, Israel’s political deadlock was finally broken as Binyamin Netanyahu and his allies received 48% of the vote in the election. Due to certain parties falling below the electoral threshold, this translated into 64 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset and a decisive majority. The coalition he put together included parties on the extreme right of Israeli politics, the ultra-Orthodox and Netanyahu’s own right-wing Likud party.
From the beginning, there were reasons to be afraid. The coalition included ultra-Orthodox members who have attacked Reform Judaism and talked about changing the law of return to exclude our members. The coalition included parties with a specific agenda to exclude LGBTQ+ people from Israeli society. And the coalition included extreme right-wing members who have attacked the Arab population and even proposed the expulsion of Arab Israelis. In the aftermath of the election, with some of the statements emerging from Israel, I reached out to our Jewish communal leaders to urge them to raise our concerns about the possible policies this new government would pursue.
But it is the proposed legislation for judicial reform that has created an existential threat to the future of the State of Israel. Some of the key points of the proposals include the introduction of an override clause that would allow the Knesset to reject decisions of the Supreme Court with a simple 61-vote majority, and plans to alter the composition of the committee that nominates Supreme Court justices so that the government would have a guaranteed majority to select the justices they want. The legislation proposed by the government removes the checks and balances from the Israeli political system and allows for the executive branch to rule unchecked by the judiciary. In an article for The Washington Post, Yuval Noah Harari, the author of “Sapiens,” laid it out simply: “In most democracies, the government’s power is checked and minority rights are protected through a number of mechanisms … None of these mechanisms would apply in the proposed new Israeli legal regime.” Israel’s democratic foundations would be destroyed, and her form of government would look eerily like those of authoritarian leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Erdogan in Turkey.
It is these proposals, this threat to the judiciary and to Israel’s existence as a democratic state, that have brought protestors out onto the streets in unparalleled numbers. Every Saturday evening, the news reports on the hundreds of thousands of people gathering in Israel’s major cities to express their dismay and opposition to the judicial reforms, with numbers growing every week. Leaders of virtually every sector of Israeli society have spoken out and begged the government to negotiate a compromise that will be acceptable for everyone. And the opposition has even spread to the Israel Defense Forces. Members of a fighter jet squadron refused to join exercises in protest of the government and members of the military intelligence’s special operations division warned they would stop showing up for duty if the reforms go through.
Today, I am more afraid for Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state than at any other moment in my lifetime. Israel has always faced threats to her survival from external forces, but at this moment it is internal discord and division that threaten to destroy her very foundations. I worry about what type of Israel we will have one, five, 10 years from now if this legislation passes and whether she will even survive. And I am deeply concerned about the damage that is being done to the relationship of American Jewry to the State of Israel by the current government and the legislation they are proposing.
And here we are, sitting together in America. What are we supposed to do?
My grandfather was born in the land of Israel before there was a Jewish state. He served in the Haganah when they were often fighting against the British in what was then Palestine. In his family workshop, they built the Davidka gun, which helped Israel emerge victorious from the War of Independence, a conflict in which he fought. And then he fought again in 1956 in the Sinai War and in 1967 in the Six-Day War. He fought to ensure the birth and survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. My family is continuing that fight today as they take to the streets to protest against the government, once again called on to defend the State of Israel, although this time the threat is clearly from within rather than the outside.
A quick survey of Jewish history and the times when we have had an independent state offer a telling lesson. The reason we were defeated and lost autonomy was not because of outside, external threats—it was because of internal division. We have fought civil wars before over the nature of what a Jewish state should look like; author Amotz Asa-El recounts the 12 separate civil wars our ancestors fought against each other. Every four generations we would come to blows over the nature of the Jewish state; as Israel turns 75 next month, we have reached that fourth generation today.
We cannot and we must not simply give up on Israel; the existence of a Jewish state is a necessity for Jewish survival today. The strength of Jewish communities around the world today is because of the work of leaders in the Diaspora, but it is also because we have a vibrant, democratic Jewish state in the land of Israel to unite us, to motivate us and to inspire us. Whether we realize it or not, we need Israel as a Jewish center in the world, and we cannot allow 48% of the electorate to rob us and rob them of their democracy and their future. The external threats from hostile neighboring countries are nothing compared to the internal threat of this moment of real division.
We need to reach out to our friends and families in Israel, the people who are marching in the streets, to tell them that we stand with them. We should be writing to President Isaac Herzog, who is seeking to find a path of compromise, to let him know that we support him and stand with him. We need to contact the Jewish communal leaders in the United States and ensure that they share a powerful and unequivocal message with the government of Israel to let them know that we object to the path they are currently pursuing. Alongside this, we need to be thoughtful in the way that the American Jewish community financially supports the State of Israel—we cannot be writing a blank check; instead, we should be seeking out organizations that are protecting democracy, supporting minority rights and fighting to maintain Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
And, unfortunately, the gravity of the situation is such that we need to write to our elected representatives and let them know that we love Israel, we support Israel and we need them to ensure that the U.S. administration continues to share a message with the Israeli government asking them to find a path of consensus, just as Secretary of State Antony Blinken did yesterday and President Biden did last month.
While some may question how we can love Israel and at the same time criticize the government and policies that she is pursuing, we should respond that it is precisely because of our love for Israel that we are compelled to stand up, to speak out and to do whatever we can to stop this judicial reform before it is too late. I did not imagine that we would ever reach a situation where this would be a necessary course of action, but the threat posed by the current moment is too great to ignore and too dangerous to stay silent.
We cannot be passive observers to what is happening in Israel. My grandfather picked up a gun to defend the Jewish democratic state, and so I will pick up my weapon—the pen—to continue his fight by writing. I have written this sermon to share with our community, and I will be writing to our Jewish communal leaders to once again express our disappointment and dismay at the proposed judicial reforms. And I will be writing a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and sharing it with the Consulate General of Israel to New England. I will beg the prime minister to stop before it is too late, to step back from the path of destruction and to find a way to be a leader for all Israel and not submit to the will of his extremist political partners.
I never imagined that I would have to give a sermon like this one. But I also never imagined that Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish democratic state would be threatened in such a way by members of her own government. And I cannot imagine standing silently by and watching the Israel I love be destroyed. This is a moment to stand up, to speak out and to act before it is really too late.
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