Yisrael: Loving and Struggling with Our Homeland in Crisis

During my year in Israel, I participated in a program that brought rabbinical and cantorial students to small Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union to lead seders and Passover programming. It was truly an incredible experience participating in Judaism through a very different lens. My friend Leah and I were sent to two communities in Belarus – Mogilev and Bobriusk. Both of which lent their own local flavor to their seders. Our seder in Mogilev happened in a nightclub. Instead of singing Hallel at the table, they opened the stage and turned on the karaoke machine. Leah and I belted out our best rendition of Adon Olam to rapturous applause. In Bobriusk, instead of drinking four glasses of wine, we drank four shots of a local favorite – vodka.  

These two communities maintained vibrant Jewish life, and it was a joy to witness and to be part of. But in our time there, we also heard stories about how incredibly challenging and often scary it is to be Jewish in Belarus. How they usually hide their Judaism while in public for fear of being attacked. That the shadows of the Holocaust and the ghosts of the community that once was still haunts their daily life.  

Throughout our year in Israel, my friend had really struggled to connect with Israel and Zionism. She loved being Jewish in America and found that it was particularly difficult to be a Reform, female rabbinical student in Israeli society. In Israel, Jewish observance has, for a long time, been black and white. You are either “dati” “religious” meaning Orthodox or you are “Hiloni” secular. The Reform and Conservative movements are minorities and are often dismissed and ridiculed by both sides. 

But something happened on that trip to Belarus as we witnessed Jewish life under an authoritarian regime.  

When we returned to Jerusalem, we were asked to share a few reflections about our experience with our classmates. I will never forget Leah standing up and proudly exclaiming, “I am a Zionist!” After seeing what life was like for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, she realized how critical it was for Jews across the globe to know that there is a safe place for them, a place where they do not have to hide their Jewish identity for fear of their physical and emotional well-being.  

At the heart of the State of Israel is that exact mission – that Israel is the Jewish homeland for every single Jew. A place of refuge, a haven from a world mired in antisemitic aggression.  

This value is laid out clearly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:  

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.1

But right now, the current administration in Israel has taken drastic anti-democratic steps that put this central mission in jeopardy. Trends of extremism that we have been watching develop over the past decade have reached a fever pitch and I, along with many others, are deeply worried that we are rapidly heading towards a point of no return.  

As you may or may not be aware, this past winter, Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud party were re-elected to power, following a brief hiatus. The government that Prime Minister Netanyahu has put together is comprised of some of the most extreme sectors of Israeli society; individuals with ideologies that dream of the eradication of Palestinians, the complete annexation of the West Bank, and a rescinding of rights for the LGBTQ community, the Arab Israeli community, and the non-Orthodox community.  Throughout Netanyahu’s nearly 20 years of power in Israel, his party, Likud, has always been firmly situated on the right, but this is the first time that he has led a government composed of so many extremist factions, and, disturbingly, this is the first time that his coalition does not include a single party to the left of Likud.  

One reason that Israel has been in the news in recent weeks is a new wave of violence perpetrated both by extremist Israelis and Palestinians, largely as a response to this new government. But Israel has also featured prominently in the media because of a current effort to dismantle the Israeli judicial system, partially in an effort by Bibi to circumvent legal ramifications for his financial corruption. But, perhaps more alarmingly, this “restructuring” as they are calling it, places Israel’s democracy in jeopardy.  

The CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic organization of which Rabbi Knight, Rabbi Nichols and I are a part of, released a statement following the formation of this government condemning the ways in which it has expressed its intent to undermine Jewish values.  

This government, the CCAR asserts, “has been established by a coalition agreement that violates central values of Judaism – above all, K’lal Yisrael, the unity of the diverse Jewish community, both within Israel and worldwide; and ahavat ha-ger, loving the non-Israelite in our midst….the coalition threatens minority rights that are central to any democracy. The rights of Israel’s women, ethnic and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and Reform and Conservative Jews are particularly at risk.”2

Furthermore, they assert, the new government has considered limiting immigration rights for tremendous numbers of Jews who are not considered Jewish by Ultra-Orthodox authorities. This is particularly dangerous now when Ukrainian Jews and their families are seeking refuge in the Jewish state, a flagrant violation of the Jewish value of the “ingathering of the exiles,” that core missional value articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  

To be clear, what is happening in Israel right now is unprecedented. We are witnessing threats to Israeli democracy and pluralism that we have never seen before. And while the possibility of a peaceful and productive end to the conflict has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, under this administration it feels like even more of an impossibility.  

Informed by our Jewish values, we so often use our voices to speak out against injustice when we see it in our own backyard, but Israel has become such a difficult subject within the Jewish world that many of us, myself included, have been unwilling to speak on the issue. We have been silent on injustices that are being meted out in the name of Judaism, against Jews and Palestinians alike, and against Jewish values.  Israel got increasingly difficult to talk about, so we stopped talking about it. The differences in opinion amongst American Jewry widened, and no one wanted to say or do anything that might cause an argument or disturbance.  

But what is happening now passes a new threshold of permanent reshaping and a threat to the essence of the Jewish State and we cannot remain silent.   

While I was studying in Israel, I remember how often Israelis would tell us that if we want to make a difference in Israel, we cannot simply sit in our homes in the United States and critique Israel, we had to move there, to become citizens, and make our voice heard through our ballot. The tune has dramatically changed on that front. This week, prominent progressive Israeli thinkers Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Ha-Levi and Matti Friedman penned an op-ed in the Times of Israel begging American Jews to take a stand and speak out against the actions of the current government.3 But, how do we do that as American Jews?  

We first and foremost cannot be afraid to speak about Israel, to criticize Israel, to question the government and its actions. Over the years, Israel has become an issue that many of us are afraid to speak about. Our feelings about Israel run deep, and it can be a difficult and emotional conversation. It strikes a chord with so many of us because we profoundly care about Israel and its legacy, about the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters in Israel as well as the rights and safety of our Palestinian neighbors. But we must talk about tough things. We can no longer afford to keep our heads buried in the warm sands of the Mediterranean and concern ourselves only with a celebration of Tel Aviv’s tech industry, falafel and vaccines. To love something means to embrace all of it – it’s joys and triumphs and strengths, as well as its challenges, tragedies, and weaknesses.  

Second, we cannot give up on Israel at this difficult moment. For us to be able to engage in this conversation, to be able to critique Israel with meaning and value, we need to do so in concert and conversation with Israelis, in particular the growing Reform movement in Israel. Many Israeli Reform Jews see us as an inspiration for how to create an Israel where religion isn’t black and white, where there are alternatives between Orthodox Judaism and no Judaism whatsoever. If we give up on this fight against tyranny, we also give up on Progressive Judaism. We would be giving up on democracy. We would be giving up on the 250,000 Israelis who took to the streets last week to protest this government. We would be giving up on an Israel that is both a Jewish and a democratic state.  

We often speak about ahavat Yisrael – how we are to love Israel. The phrase itself holds within it our answer to how we are to love Israel. Yisrael – the name given to Jacob when he wrestled with an angel of God. We must love and struggle in the same breath. We must wrap our arms around Israel, in an embrace, but also in the fight. There is, as we learn from Jacob and Esau, a fine line between the two. Out of a deep and abiding love for the land of Israel, for the people of Israel, for the future of world Jewry, we must confront the threats of this extremist government with clear eyes and a loud voice. And we must use our voices to lift up and celebrate the citizens who are taking to the streets, who are fighting back against tyranny and the destruction of democracy.  

And we are not alone. There are organizations on the ground doing the critical work to combat these anti-democratic efforts – organizations such as ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Israel arm of the Reform Movement, and IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Center, just to name a few. I encourage you to reach out to friends and family in Israel, offer your words of support, ask them what we can do to help, remind them that their Jewish family in America stands with them, and with an Israel that is that haven for every Jew, regardless of their religious practice, the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation.  

To close, I want to offer a prayer for the State of Israel. However, the traditional prayer for Israel focuses on the wisdom and compassion of its leaders, and while I believe in the power of prayer, the words of that prayer these days feel hollow and disingenuous as they leave my lips. Alan Elsner, a congregant of a Conservative synagogue in Rockville, Maryland felt similarly, and composed an alternative prayer which invokes that paragraph from the Declaration of Independence.  

We pray that the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence will continue to guide Israel’s leaders and its people; that the Jewish state will be inclusive, promoting the unity and embracing the full, glorious diversity of the Jewish people. Let us never forget that our history teaches us to stand with the oppressed around the world. Strengthen the hands of those who defend Israel’s borders, its security and its democracy and uphold a government which enshrines the principles of equal justice and moral accountability. Let Israel foster the generosity of spirit to share the land in peace with others whose home it is. May Israel remain a place where the still, small voice is heard. Let its leaders resist the temptation to believe that might makes right. Rather, let all recall the lesson of Zechariah: “Not by might and not by power but by my Spirit, says Adonai of Hosts.”4

And together we say, Amen.  

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