Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Bo 5783

In the wake of the East Jerusalem synagogue shooting, Rabbi Timoner stresses a message of solidarity. 

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Israel and the Unknown Future

Vera, you speak so beautifully about facing the unknown and how frightening that can be. The Hebrews had been in Egypt for 430 years and now they were leaving. They had no way to imagine what lay ahead – what dangers, what possibilities. The known, even if it is wretched, is often more comfortable than the unknown.

You could say that every generation has lived facing an unknown future, and of course that’s true. None of us can see the future, and even when it seems that all is stable and predictable, that is an illusion. But we are living in one of those times when we are aware that massive change is underway and the future is not only unknown but also frightening. There are so many things we worry about – from climate change to war. But today when I look to the future, I’m worried about Israel.

Last night a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Jerusalem as people were leaving Shabbat services. At least 7 people died and more were injured, some critically. Hamas and Islamic Jihad praised the murders, calling them retaliation for a raid in Jenin by Israeli forces who killed nine people there. That was the deadliest West Bank raid in many years. The synagogue attack was the first major synagogue attack in Israel since 2014.

Before I say anything else about Israel I just want to say that here we are at a synagogue on Shabbat praying for a future of justice and peace. And we have to pay security forces to stand outside because we know that there’s a chance, always a chance that someone might want to harm us because we are Jews. We understand how shattering it would be to face violence in such a time and place, and what kind of trauma the victims and victims’ families are experiencing right now in addition to their profound grief.

We worry about our own family and we worry about the whole family of the people Israel. Like many of us, my love for Israel is deep and in my bones.

I am worried that Israel is on a path to self-destruction. I’ve been worried about this for a long time, but in the last few months it’s started to seem very real. It’s been 55-years that Israeli forces have been occupying Palestinian villages and homes and orchards and cities in the West Bank. It’s been 55 years that Israeli governments have coddled settlers and right-wing xenophobic and racist movements which hold similar ideology to our right wing racist and xenophobic movements here, and it’s been 55 years that the American Jewish establishment has refused to criticize Israel’s governments for this behavior. Today we are witnessing the result of those 55 years, a crisis where democratic freedoms and protections are not only unavailable to West Bank Palestinians but also in peril for Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Arab.

There are people who question whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I am not one of them. When the United States faces its very real sins and evils I don’t question whether this country should exist. I continue to believe that the Jewish people need and should have a Jewish and democratic state where we have self-determination and can protect ourselves from those who seek to destroy us. Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. History has proven this need, and the current global wave of antisemitism only confirms it.

However, I also believe that unless Israel confronts its sins and evils, its relationship with the Palestinian people will be its demise. Not because the Palestinian people will be more powerful or able to defeat Israel by force, but because the occupation is eating away at Israel’s character, at the soul of our people, from within.

If you’ve been following the news you know that last November Israel elected its most right wing government in history, with Bibi Netanyahu again at the helm, despite the charges of corruption against him. This time, he is in cahoots with openly racist, supremacist, and violent forces. The new minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich, declared that he didn’t want his wife giving birth in a shared Jewish-Arab floor at Hadassah Hospital or to be treated by an Arab doctor. Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, has said that Jewish citizens of Israel are “landlords” over the Arab citizens of Israel. Since taking office he has already banned Palestinian flags from all public places in Israel.

Israel’s new justice minister, Yariv Levin, is moving to undermine the judiciary branch of the government, which would give the current ruling coalition near-total control of the country, severely undermining democracy. Levin is proposing to restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, by requiring an enlarged panel of judges and a “special majority” to do so, and including an “override clause” which would enable the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, to re-legislate such laws unless all 15 justices unanimously ruled to strike them down. He also is proposing changing the process for choosing judges, to give the government of the day effective control. He also is moving to prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” against which to judge legislation and government decisions; and to allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the Justice Ministry. These moves would severely limit the authority of the High Court of Justice and undermine the judiciary. Unlike our Congress, which includes both a House of Representatives and a Senate, the Knesset has only one legislative body. And because Israel’s system is parliamentary, the Prime Minister’s coalition also controls the Knesset. Therefore the courts provide the only checks and balances against the ruling coalition. If the courts are undermined, there is no one to stop the government’s excesses or hold them accountable to the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws, which are the closest thing Israel has to a constitution.

Not only would undermining the power of the courts be highly relevant to Netanyahu’s current pending charges of corruption, it would also allow some of the following moves to go unopposed:

1. The government’s first stated priority is legalizing dozens of illegally built settlements in the West Bank and annexing occupied territory.
2. The government seeks to endorse discrimination against LGBTQ people on religious grounds.
3. The government plans to give generous stipends to ultra-Orthodox men who prefer to study instead of work and to exempt ultra-Orthodox schools from core curriculum requirements
4. The government plans to make employment for Arab teachers more difficult within Israel and to reduce funding for Israeli Arab villages, which are already unfairly underfunded
5. The government plans to shut down public broadcasting stations, which are the only public source of information and critique of the government.
6. The government plans to define who is a Jew from an Orthodox perspective, invalidating Reform and Conservative conversions and eliminating the grandchild clause of the Law of Return, which counts people with one Jewish grandparent as Jewish for purposes of making aliyah.

Without the courts stopping them, without public broadcasting holding them accountable, the ruling coalition will have near total control.

What does the future hold?

An estimated 130,000 people filled the streets of Israel last Shabbat for the third week of protests in a row.

Some 200 leading Israeli musicians signed a petition against the government’s plans to close the public broadcasting authority, including stars like Shlomo Artzi, Shalom Hanoch, Rita, Ninet Tayeb and Ehud Banai — along with hundreds of top actors, directors, and writers. They are joining protests by leading economists, business leaders, lawyers, and students who are protesting the planned judicial overhaul.

The artists wrote: “It is not a coincidence that those trying to stage a regime change and remove all meaning from democracy have chosen to eliminate public broadcasts as one of their first steps…Closing the broadcast authority is the silencing of thousands of voices that will never find a home in commercial media bodies….We will attend the protests on Saturday night and work together with our friends to cancel these plans — and together with all citizens of Israel we will preserve the democracy that is so dear to us.”
These protests are taking place right now, today, all over the country. In fact, there is a solidarity protest from noon to 2 today at Washington Square Park here in New York.

Beyond trying to stop this racist, authoritarian, corrupt and extremist government, what is the future for Israel? What is the hope?

Our member, Jo-Ann Mort, one of the most incisive observers of Israeli society, writes in the Washington Post this week that the future is joint Jewish-Arab political power within Israel. She writes that “Over the past few decades, the number of Arab citizens of Israel (meaning those who live within the 1967 Israeli borders, excluding East Jerusalemites) has grown to one-fifth of the population, and they are claiming their rightful place in Israeli society…The president of the country’s largest bank is an Arab citizen.” There’ve been “significant increases in the number of Arab physicians, dentists and pharmacists. Arabs number among the country’s prominent law school deans, including at the flagship Hebrew University. Arab enrollment in the country’s colleges and universities has almost doubled in the past decade, and the graduation rate for Arab students is approaching that of their Jewish counterparts. The student population at Technion, considered the MIT of Israel, is a bit more than 20 percent Arab.”

“Moreover,” Mort writes, “Arab citizens increasingly feel a part of Israel. In a 2019 poll, 65 percent of Arab respondents said they are proud to be Israelis (versus 92 percent of Jews). Other polls show that Arab citizens want political representation in the Israeli government and to participate in the political process. In a 2019 poll commissioned by The Post, 77.5 percent of the Arab public supported political participation. And should a separate Palestinian state emerge, Arab Israelis overwhelmingly want to remain Israelis, as polls and interviews have shown time and again.” In fact, Mort argues that it is this political participation that could turn the country around. She notes that Arab Israelis voted at a 17 percent lower rate than Jewish Israelis in this last election and if the voting rate had been similar, the outcome would have been different.

Mort imagines a future for Israel where the center and left Jewish political parties partner with the Arab political parties with a platform centered on Jewish-Arab unity, including new state symbols and holidays promoting shared Israeli identity, including major anti-racism campaigns, including codifying the values articulated in paragraph 13 of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares: “the State of Israel 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.” This unity platform would overturn the 2018 Nation State Law, which downgraded Arabic language and Arab identity in Israel, and it would work toward a new Israeli constitution.

Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel will play an essential role in the pluralistic and liberal vision of Judaism – a culture shift necessary to support such a government. In 2018, the Israeli People Policy Institute found that 13 percent of Israeli Jews identify with the Reform or Conservative movements and that identification is growing.

Such a government would have to end the occupation of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, because its commitment to a Jewish and democratic state that honors and protects all minorities while maintaining a Jewish majority would require the release of the Palestinian people to chart their own future independent of Jewish rule. Israeli Palestinians would then be able to choose whether they want to live under the Israeli or Palestinian government, as would West Bank Jews.

We are so far from this vision today. Exactly as far as the Hebrew slaves were from freedom at the start of this week’s parashah.

It is terrifying to leave what we know behind. It’s terrifying to walk into an unknown future. That’s why people get stuck in tyrannical systems for 430 years. That’s why spirits get crushed and hearts get hardened and the cycle of violence becomes normal and no one believes that anything different is possible. But when we have the courage to break from old ways, to do as our ancestors did: to gird our loins and put our staff in our hand and our unrisen bread on our backs, and to walk through our marked doorways in a great mixed multitude toward the sea, whole new worlds can be born. We can birth freedom, the kind of freedom that our great grandchildren will celebrate and remember. The kind of freedom that will be recalled in the seventh generation and in the fiftieth generation. The kind of freedom that will be celebrated forever.
As God said in our parashah:
וְהָיָה֩ הַיּ֨וֹם הַזֶּ֤ה לָכֶם֙ לְזִכָּר֔וֹן וְחַגֹּתֶ֥ם אֹת֖וֹ חַ֣ג לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם חֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָ֖ם תְּחׇגֻּֽהוּ׃
This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to יהוה throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.

Ken yehi ratzon.