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Walking Together?

11/03/2022 03:23:56 PM


While many are focused on US elections currently underway, the Israeli election that took place this week also deserves careful attention. I am proud that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are allowed to be citizens and vote in truly free elections. I will always support the country and its people. However, it is worth considering why the results of this election may give cause for concern, and, as always, I’ll look to our tradition for wisdom.

The Israeli electoral process offers more choices than that of the US: Israelis have a choice of a dozen parties, each with its own agenda and priorities. A party must receive at least 3.25% of the votes to be represented, and the parties with seats must then form a coalition of at least 61. Elections can be called any time that the coalition of parties cannot be sustained. The lack of a clear consensus has resulted in five elections in four years. This time, the previous, precarious coalition of diverse groups, is almost certain to be replaced by a government in which Bibi Netanyahu, returning for an unprecedented third spin as Prime Minister, will depend exclusively on Ultra-Orthodox and right wing parties for a 64 vote majority.

For the past few years, I would have said "if you don't like Israel's government, wait a few months until the next election.” Indeed, the liberal Meretz party, as well as one of the Arab parties, both fell just short of the 3.25 cutoff. If those parties had merged with others, or gotten another 6000 votes, the result might have been another tie. However,  while the loss in representation is in part due to poor strategy, I believe that this election reflects a real change. The left is a decreasingly relevant sliver. The center is in disarray.  For some time, a broad Israeli consensus yearned for a peaceful resolution of the complex relationship between Israel and the Palestinians under its control, with the debate being the details.  After years of stalemate, and continued terror, a majority of the Israeli public has lost confidence (or interest) in the possibility of such a resolution.  And while the majority of Israelis still want freedom of religion and a strong legal system, there are other concerns that are of higher priority for them.

So what's new?  Bibi is still Bibi. What has changed is who he is leaning on for support.  He is no longer beholden to the secular or centrist parties that have led to a moderate course in previous governments.  Now,  some leaders in his likely coalition have as their stated agenda the destruction of all forms of Jewish observance other than their own flavor of Orthodoxy. Others advocate for the implementation of the kinds of racist and anti-democratic policies that until now have existed only in the false accusations of anti-semites. One Knesset member who is jockeying for the role of police minister had been turned down for the Israeli army because of his extreme views, and later bragged about having vandalized the car of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin shortly before his assassination.

Israel has, for 75 years, walked a tightrope that has enabled it to balance its identity as a proud Jewish state with its commitment to being democracy committed to the wellbeing of  all of its citizens, Jewish, Arab and otherwise. It has done so even in the face of implacable foes. If some have their way, that balance will be overturned. If coalition leaders are successful in diminishing the civil rights that make Israel a beacon in a dark region, Israel is at risk of becoming an unwelcoming environment for many of its Jewish and Arab citizens.

Our cousins in Israel have made the choices that they feel are in their best interest, given the challenges that they face. However, those changes have implications beyond their borders. Some of these changes will strike close to home for our own community.  How will our congregation's relationship with Israel change if its government reneges on the deal that allows us to have services at the Kotel, or tries to de-fund our sister synagogues in Israel? I feel an obligation to defend Israel and its actions. That task may be far more challenging if Israel’s ministers undertake policies that I cannot first defend to myself.

In our Torah portion this week, Lech lecha, Abraham and his nephew Lot, who are family, and have been on a remarkable journey together, find that they can no longer dwell in harmony. Abraham suggests a split (Genesis 13:9) “If you go left, I will go right; if you go right, I will go left.” Lot chooses the cities of a fertile plain, one that happens to be inhabited by people who are unwelcoming to strangers  It takes a crisis to reunite these two families: in the very next chapter, Lot is captured when these cities are attacked, and Abraham must rally additional forces to rescue him. I suppose every reader of that story might have their own take on how to apply it here. Who is the one led astray by the temptations of strength and success? Who is the one who ultimately must rally in support?  

I spoke last Shabbat about the increase in visible antisemitism against our US Jewish community (you can watch at More incidents, in Jacksonville,  in Brookhaven, and emergent threats only sharpen my point.  Many of us  see Israel as a refuge- as an ark in case of storm. Meanwhile, Israel, even when relying on the security that comes with military strengh and exertion of force,  still relies on us.  Israeli society expects our community to offer significant political and charitable support. Furthermore Israel faces continued threats of BDS and marginalization the world scene, and a harshening of Israeli policies may make it harder to defend against those attacks. The Jewish communities of the US and Israel need each other more than ever, but less than they realize. I can only hope that it does not take a crisis for the two branches of the family to regain that realization.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784