Image: The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem. (James Emery, Wikimedia)
This post will be a long one. If you aren’t up for a long read, I’ve raised my main points to bold lettering.
Tisha B’Av is coming, and I am already in mourning.
I have said elsewhere on this blog that I am a Zionist. I still identify as a Zionist, because I believe that the Jewish people need a home of our own, somewhere on earth where we will not be persecuted, driven out, or murdered. The logical place for that is our historical home, the place from which the Romans drove us in 135 CE. Only a few Jews were allowed to remain in the holy Land from 135 forward, and that small community was decimated again and again under Byzantine, Crusader, and Ottoman rule. Others moved in and made it their home. Yet every year since then, Jews prayed daily for a return to our home, and every Passover announced our intention to someday return: “HaShanah haba’ah birushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”
When the Zionist Movement came together in the late 19th century, galvanized by the vision of Teodore Herzl, there was talk in Europe that the historic Land of Israel was “an empty land.” That was not true – as some of our leaders, especially Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginzberg in Ukraine) tried to warn us, there were people presently living on the Land. As the article on him in the YivoEncyclopedia says:
In “Emet me-erets Yisra’el,” [“Truth from the Land of Israel”] Ahad Ha-Am had made the case that the brutal treatment of Arabs as meted out by some Jews could, if not stopped, ruin the prospects of Zionism and rob it of its moral standing and legitimacy.
We should add the name Ahad Ha-Am to the lists of names of the prophets. This week the Knesset, the parliament of the modern State of Israel, passed a bill that chills me to the bone. Titled “The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” it is a radical re-visioning of the Modern State of Israel. (For a complete text of the law, click on the link.) It explicitly states:
1.C The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
And makes clear, as it goes on, that what that means is that the status of Jewish citizens of the State is superior to that of non-Jews. Specifically, it reduces the status of the Arabic language, previously one of two official languages of the State of Israel, to that of “special status.”
Ominously, Section 7 states:
A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.
What precisely this means for the Occupied West Bank is murky.
Finally, the word “democratic” appears nowhere in this bill, which purports to define the “Basic principles” of the State. Given the constant talk to outsiders about it being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” that is at best very odd and to my ears, very ominous. Contrast its language with the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, which states:
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; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. – Declaration of Independence, 1948
My only consolation is that according to HaAretz, often known as “the New York Times of Israel,” the bill was passed after “stormy debate” with a 62-55 vote and 2 abstentions.
I grew up in the Jim Crow South in the United States. I believe this “Nation-State Bill” is a step in the Jim-Crowing of Israel. Arab citizens (20% of the populace) are still legal citizens of the State of Israel, but their language has been downgraded and the voices of the Arab members of Knesset were drowned out in a hail of right-wing jingoism in the Knesset.
I am a Reform Jew. I believe that we outgrew the Temple and its sacrifices long ago, and because of that, I did not mourn the Temple. After 20 plus years of intensive study of Judaism and its traditions, I do believe that residence in the Land of Israel is the only way to fully observe Jewish tradition. Our calendar is set to Israel Time. Our religious laws are rooted in its soil. And there must be a place on earth where Jews are not merely tolerated but welcomed. For 70 years, the Land and the fact of a Jewish state have been our Temple rebuilt anew.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, gives us license to oppress others in that Land. Just the reverse: our scriptures state unequivocally and repeatedly, that we are to welcome gerim, “strangers” into the Land. Gerim in Biblical parlance refers to non-Jews. (Medieval/Rabbinic Hebrew is a different matter – languages evolve over time.) Granted, first the Arab States and later the Palestinian leadership have done their best to terrorize Jews living in the Land – as I write this, Hamas incites the Palestinians of Gaza to send fire kites and fire falcons to lay siege to the farmlands of southern Israel. Our tradition gives us license to protect ourselves against those would would kill us. It does not give license to a single step beyond what is necessary.
As a person who experienced first hand the bombings of the Second Intifada seventeen years ago, I could defend the decision to build a wall, so that people could not bring in explosives willy-nilly. I could defend the checkpoints that have hurt Palestinians and done God-knows-what to the souls of the Israeli soldiers who work there. I blamed the idealism and naivete of the U.S. Administration at the time for Hamas’ takeover of Gaza after it was returned to the Palestinians; and I felt I could defend the need to defend against attacks from Gaza.
But I cannot defend the Jim-Crowing of the Muslim, Druze, and Christian citizens of the State of Israel. I cannot defend the haredi-fying of the Jewish State, the moves to make one particular expression of Judaism – the ultra-orthodox brand – the sole legitimate form of Judaism. I specifically reject that idea, because in my experience it reflects an outdated understanding of Judaism, one that stifles all but the most sexist, homophobic, and cruel elements of the tradition. Judaism is more than black hats and 16th century Shabbos. Judaism is more than Ashkenazi Judaism, more than Orthodoxy, more than Reform, more than Conservative, more than Sephardic, more than Mizrahi, more than the thousands of converts worldwide. Judaism is all of us and more.
Many of her actions have isolated Israel among the nations, as its enemies are well aware. Even its friends are not really friends, as some of the United States’ most recent moves have served to inflame matters. There is a dark romance between the so-called Christian Zionists and the current Israeli government. On the one hand, a significant number of those so-called Zionists look forward to an end-times scenario that has Israel in flames. On the other hand, the present government of Israel has an arrogant sense that they can accept the Christian support while laughing off their plans.
There is an illusion that Israel can stand against the whole world, as long as it has U.S. support. I believe it is a tragic illusion on a par with the foolishness of the doomed Bar Kokhba Revolt.
I am bereft. The vision of a Jewish democratic state in the Middle East is disappearing under a wave of right wing, haredi influence. Too many of its politicians are corrupt, and it seems that the State no longer even holds the ideal of equality for all its citizens. (If you do not believe that those ideals once guided the state, look at the quote from the Declaration of Independence above. As with the American Declaration of Independence, the ideals did not match the reality, but they were an aspiration.)
I cannot wash my hands and walk away. The vote was 62-55, hardly an overwhelming majority. Half of the world’s Jews, my cousins, live in the State of Israel. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: All Jews are responsible for one another. I cannot wash my hands and walk away. I have vowed to stand with the Jewish People, come what may.
I have responsibilities that make it impossible for me to make aliyah. I cannot vote in Israel.
I can call and write my local Israeli consulate.
I can support the organizations of the left in Israel, like the Israel Religious Action Center.
I can make my opinions clear to my legislators here in the United States.
I can pray, and I can cry “Eicha?” (“How?”)
This is indeed a dark Tisha B’Av, because the Israel I love is in flames.