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Ekev 5783          August 5, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Seventy-one years after the constitution of the United States was ratified, our country descended into a terrible Civil War, pitting brother against brother, citizen against citizen, and state against state. There are some who claim that the election of President Lincoln and the rise of the Republican party, which promoted the end of slavery in this country, was the cause of the attack by South Carolina’s National Guard on the Federal Fort Sumter leading to the exodus of the southern states from the United States, the creation of the Confederate States of America and to the first battles of the Civil War.

The real reason for the war was the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1788. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia could not find any agreement on the issue of slavery and whether or not slaves could be counted as citizens of this country. The only way to end the deadlock between the free and slave states was to punt; to not make any decision at all over this contentious issue and kick the can down the road to be determined in the future. Seventy-one years later we would fight the Civil War to determine how slavery was to be handled in this country. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history. More Americans died in this war than in all other wars combined. Although the slave states lost the war and were forced to free their slaves, that war and its cause still echoes in the implicit and explicit racism in this country today.

Israel has been a state for seventy-five years. We just celebrated that anniversary of Israel’s independence. At the founding of Israel, because of the open wounds of the Holocaust, the hatred against the Jews in the Middle East, and the sudden possibility of our own state, all caused an important detail to be put aside when Israel was declared a nation. Israel never got around to creating a constitution to guide the country. Now, seventy-five years later Israel is in grave danger of falling into its own civil war to determine how power is to be shared in the country. What role will right-wing and left-wing parties play in government? What role will there be for the minority Arab citizens of Israel? What role should Orthodox Judaism have in the government? What role does Non-Orthodox Judaism have in the government? Does power need to be shared between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrachi Jews? How will the State maintain a balance of power between the conflicting movements within Israel?

We hear about riots in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We hear about protesters waving Israeli flags blocking roads and being pushed aside by police with water cannons. We hear about checks and balances in the Israeli government and the role that should or should not be given to an independent judiciary.

In this week’s haftarah, the second Haftarah of Consolation since the black fast of Tisha B’Av, the second of seven that will lead us to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe that mark the beginning of the Jewish year, Isaiah comforts the Jews who are returning from exile after the destruction of the First Temple. Isaiah claims that God did not divorce God’s self from the Jewish People. God’s love is eternal. But the people must understand that they have to live by God’s laws. Even though God loves them, God will punish them for their sins. It is a lesson the prophet hopes the people have learned.

My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, in his Devar Torah this week, notes the connection of our reading to events on the streets of Israel today. He writes, No amount of divine love can paper over a society’s self-destructive nature. A society which causes God’s embarrassment will fall. A society which misrepresents God’s will will implode. The events of the past week recall the kind of bad behavior which the tradition recounts as the causes of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of Jewish self-government. In both of these episodes, the majority of the people were not involved in the major transgressions. The situation was the product of failed and immoral leadership. This, however, does not let the people off the hook. It is imperative that the people make it clear that it will not tolerate their government’s destructive behavior. Complacency which allows for the disintegration of civil society cannot be tolerated.”  

In ancient times, it was indeed the leadership of the Jewish state, the corrupt kings and the corrupt priesthood, that led to the destruction of the state and the long exile we endured. This failure of leadership led to the kind of power vacuum that let zealots be in control of the nation’s fate. We often say that Sinat Hinam, causeless hatred, led to the destruction of the Second Temple. But it was zealots who inflamed the people into a reckless and hopeless war against the Roman Empire and who forced the people to fight by burning the stored grain in Jerusalem, causing desperation and famine in the city. It was zealots, who could only see things in their own distorted way, that led to an exile of almost 2000 years.

Today Israel is being torn apart by grievances that can be traced back, not to just the founding of the state, but to the entire history of the exile, the diaspora, and the revenge that some in Israel are demanding for the slights against us.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the president of the Sholom Hartman Institute in Israel, a place where Jews are being taught to listen to each other and to live together, wrote a recent editorial in the Times of Israel listing the grievances that the different factions of the government cling to. He writes,The far-right zealots are in charge of ensuring that Israel becomes an outcast among democratic nations. The ultra-Orthodox state-within-a-state is laying the ground for the eventual ruin of the Israeli economy, forced to maintain an ever-expanding, chronically under-productive population. And a thoroughly corrupted Likud is in charge of dismantling the independent judiciary, the last line of defense for Israeli democracy. This government, which promotes itself as the guarantor of Israeli security, is the greatest internal threat to our security in the nation’s history.”

Klein Halevi then goes on to address the protesters, who are they and why they are in the streets of Israel: “If the government continues to fundamentally transform Israel in its image – we will experience our first ideologically motivated mass flight, among those who connect this country to the global economy and the democratic world.

Israel’s long-term survival in the Middle East depends on maintaining its modernist elite (while expanding the entry points into the elite to ensure greater diversity). The alternative is gradual – or perhaps rapid – descent into a dysfunctional society led by corrupt counter-elites, precisely the scenario modeled by this government.

Israel is unique in one other way: Our elites are not only “privileged” but sacrificial.. Just when we assumed that the era of sacrifice was over, along came the most intense protest movement in Israel’s history. Led by veterans of elite combat units, by men and women who have taken open-ended leave from positions in high tech and academia to devote themselves to saving Israel, the movement is an outbreak of passionate patriotism, a protective embrace of the Israeli ethos. Over and over, protesters tell interviewers variations of the same story: I’m doing this for my father who was wounded in the Yom Kippur War, for my son who was killed in Lebanon, for my grandparents who were uprooted from Iraq or who survived the Holocaust, for my great-grandparents who helped build the state. Now, they say, it’s my turn to defend the country.

The movement persists week after week, maintaining astonishing turnouts, because its wellsprings are Jewish history and the Zionist story. This force is unstoppable.”

Yossi Klein Halevi is one of the protesters in the streets of Israel. He calls himself a religious Jew and a secular Israeli. He notes the zealotry of the government and the anger that they are promoting with their grievances. Just like in the United States, the inability to build bridges from the beginning of the state, are leading, in roughly the same 70-year frame, to the biggest civil disobedience in Israel’s history. So far, the protesters have been peaceful and only the police are responding with violence. What the future will bring is not clear. We can only hope that Jews will find a way to resolve their differences, or it will tear our State apart and there are already enough dangers it is facing on the outside, to see us tear ourselves apart from the inside, just as we did in Roman times, just as we did when the First Temple was destroyed.

As American Jews we need to understand that we can and should support Israel and all that it stands for. It is our hope and the start of the redemption of our people. We should visit Israel. We should be proud of the advances the State has made. We should buy Israeli products and support the economy as best we can. But we should not support this government, one that is filled with corruption and grievances trying to get its revenge for the indignities they believe they have endured.

I will not say that Israel’s government does not need reform. It does. The judicial system has long needed change. Many of these issues date back to the failure to write a constitution in 1948, 1949, or even in 1950. But the changes being promoted by this government are not the changes that are needed now, and these are not the politicians that should be making the needed reforms. Allowing an indicted Prime Minister to pick his own judges is not a proper reform.

Please read carefully the news from Israel. This government, though properly elected, should not be allowed to turn their anger into laws. The streets of Israel are filled with members of every strand of Israeli society. The citizens of Israel need a government that will hear their voices and not stoke fear and violence. The United States cannot interfere with an internal debate in Israel, but we can make our voices heard in Jerusalem and we can stand with those in the streets.

May God hear the voices of protest and defend the democracy of our young State, and may we hear their voices and defend the democracy of our homeland by adding our own voices of protest as we say ….      Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784