One Saturday night in June, while I was leading a WBT B’nei Mitzvah trip in Israel, I took a couple of hours to stand outside President Herzog’s residence in Jerusalem and witness something that had been happening every Saturday night for close to eight months. I stood with over a thousand people, some wearing kippot and tzitzit, others wearing short shorts. There were toddlers in strollers, teenagers smoking cigarettes, older Israelis using canes and walkers, and everything in between. Almost everyone waved large Israeli flags fastened to long sticks, while some shouted chants like ‘Democracy’ into megaphones as drums banged to the beat. Police stood at the perimeter, at ease, some talking and laughing with protestors. At a certain point, a DJ started playing music to let everyone know that speeches were about to begin. A professor from one of the universities spoke about the historical underpinnings of democracy in Israel and the need to protect it, while another young woman described the need to support all Israeli citizens, whether Jewish or Arab. The evening ended with the entire sea of people singing Hatikvah loudly and proudly. And then, slowly, the crowd calmly dispersed along the narrow streets of the neighborhood. It was a beautiful experience that captured the intensity of the political situation in Israel while simultaneously expressing a sense of optimism and hope among a diverse cross-section of Israeli society.
The images coming out of Israel earlier this week seemed to offer a different, more somber version of the gathering I had attended. On Monday, the government’s coalition in the Knesset approved a provision that removed the Supreme Court’s authority to determine if a government decision is ‘reasonable’, popularly known as the ‘reasonableness clause.’ Most Israelis saw this clause as an important element of checks and balances to ensure government coalitions didn’t make decisions that unreasonably preferenced certain groups or minimized the role of others. While most agree that elements of the Israeli judicial system could benefit from some ‘reforms’, the months of protests seem to represent an awakening among Israelis that the government’s strategies for implementing such reforms don’t align with most Israelis’ understanding of how Israel’s democracy should operate.
Unlike previous conflicts where we tended to focus on issues related to border security and our relationship with the Palestinians, the current crisis (and yes, it is a crisis), has the potential to impact the country’s relationship with the United States, its neighboring Arab nations, and most importantly, its own national identity. It’s all VERY complicated and I urge you to follow what’s happening by visiting websites like www.timesofisrael.com, www.haaretz.com, www.jpost.com, or feel free to reach out and I am happy to direct you to other resources.
For some, the fact that this all happened during the week of Tisha B’Av could be seen as a sign. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar and commemorates the numerous tragedies that have afflicted the Jewish people throughout history. While this week’s vote in the Knesset has rocked the country, I don’t think it marks the destruction of democracy in Israel. After memorializing moments of calamity and despair, Tisha B’Av is followed by a special Shabbat, starting tonight, called ‘Shabbat Nachamu (Shabbat of Comfort)’ during which we read the words of the prophet Isaiah offering us reassurance, comfort, and hope. If anything, the images of hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets are a bold and hopeful reminder that its citizens will not let democracy fail. Israelis will continue to debate the best way to move the country forward.
The ancient rabbis aligned this ‘Shabbat of Comfort’ with one of the most important verses in all of Torah, the watchword of our faith, the Shema. The Shema is about recognizing our belief in one God, but it is more than that. It is a recognition of the unifying ‘oneness’ of God’s creations and a reminder of the special bond we share as the Jewish people. Right now, our Israeli brothers and sisters are deeply divided and in pain. We have a responsibility to try our best to understand why. This is a perfect time for us to remember and recite the Shema, a message which serves as an antidote to a growingly divisive and vitriolic political world, both abroad and here at home.
Shema Israel - Let us truly hear the shouts and cries coming from Israel this week.
Adonai Eloheinu - Let us maintain faith.
Adonai Echad - Let us remember we are all connected to one another and that our connection/oneness can serve as the Jewish peoples’ greatest gift and our greatest strength.
Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai,