Just one week ago I was celebrating Shabbat in Jerusalem, with our pre-confirmation family trip. It was really a magnificent Shabbat. The weather was clear and mild— the last tinges of pink were on the Jerusalem sky; the air was just warm enough to make a fleece jacket sufficient for the evening. As we got out of our bus on Rehov Asher, we heard the siren, signaling to all of Jerusalem that Shabbat had arrived. We celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat at Kol Haneshama, a reform synagogue in Jerusalem, where both our Hevreh teens and parents were delighted to see that they could sing and pray right along, remarking afterward that they felt so at home. We went from there to my sister in laws house . The pre-confirmation students relaxed into feeling right at home with my niece and nephews, the grown-ups kicked back around the table— our first homecooked meal in a few days, and after a long week of excitement and activity, we all breathed in that sense of Shabbat.
Why then did that next morning feel so fraught to me, as we set off on our walking tour of the Old City? All week I had been anticipating Saturday— set on our itinerary like a jewel in a crown: a grand finale moment of finally walking into the story book picture of Jerusalem of Gold. As we made our way to HaKotel Ha’Maaravi– that western, wailing wall— I thought long and hard about how to frame the moment.
My angst wasn’t about safety, or about the weather or even about whether or not the moment would live up to the expectation: but rather, could I tell them the truth about this beautiful holy magnificent place, without taking away the magic? Could I help them understand how the Western Wall has become a metaphor and microcosm for Israel herself: on the one hand, a beautiful, holy site, where Jews have come for millennia to feel close to something ancient, and Divine? And on the other hand, a tightly controlled Ultra-Orthodox synagogue, where some of them would not be recognized as Jews, where I most certainly am not recognized as their rabbi, and where inequality reigns.
Could I help our young people and their parents hold competing truths in their hands?
This, my friends is a tall order— and that moment, last Saturday morning in the Old City of Jerusalem was in itself, a microcosm for the dilemma of being a progressive Jew in the Diaspora today.
Just days before we all made our way up to those cold and holy stones with tiny prayers on folded paper clasped in our hands, the leader of Israel, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu made a calculated move to ensure a coalition, and thus, his continued power in Israel’s upcoming election.
Last week, Netanyahu announced his decision to merge the national-religious Jewish Home party with Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” a small party led by disciples of Meir Kahane. The merger all but guarantees the Kahanist party a seat in the Knesset.
The late Rabbi Meir Kahane advocated racist policies towards Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Kahanism, as expressed through his former political party Kach, is a hateful and hate-filled political and religious philosophy.
To quote the Forward: Kach was banned from Israeli elections for racism in 1988, and then banned entirely under anti-terrorism laws in 1994. Kach and another Kahanist group, Kahane Chai, are currently designated foreign terror organizations by the U.S. State Department.
Kahanism, as it is called, defies any reasonable or normative understanding of what it means to be a religious Jew— “Kahanism” – named for the late American-born rabbi, Meir Kahane – is the spirit behind numerous acts of Hillul Hashem (or, desecrations of God’s name) from desecrating mosques and churches to Baruch Goldstein’s 1995 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. Yigal Amir, the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was inspired by Goldstein and by the writings of Meir Kahane. Kahanism allegedly struck in 2015, when someone firebombed a home in the Palestinian village of Duma, killing three family members, including a baby.
Today’s modern political party, Otzma Yehudit, is made up of Kahane’s disciples. While today’s leaders claim that they are different than Kahane, and a different party entirely, their racist stance and dangerous ideology remain. Otzma Yehudit entirely rejects the formation of a Palestinian state, calls for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, and advocates Jewish control of the Temple Mount, now overseen by Muslim clerics under Jordanian supervision.
By inviting them back to the table, which, to be clear—they had been banned from since 1988 for their racist ideologies, Netanyahu’s position is unmistakable: human rights are of little value in the face of political expediency, and the dream of a two-state solution has been cut off at the knees.
When the news was announced, I asked our Israeli tour guide, Shani, what she thought. I wish I had some brilliant gem of wisdom to pass back along to you all, but in her eyes—I saw that same look of battle fatigue that I see in so many Americans today: a look that asks “What more can I say, when my government no longer speaks for me, over and over again?”
If this story doesn’t feel achingly familiar, then perhaps we can more explicitly name what we see happening in Israel as parallel to the rise of the alt-right in the United States. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin wrote this past week, the hechsher of Otzma Yehudit has given oxygen to what we can understand as “alt-zionism”. To solidify a coalition government with Otzma Yehudit at the table is to dismantle the very ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded. Just as we have watched our own president give tacit approval to white nationalism, racism, and anti-semitism, Bibi Netanyahu has similarly made it possible for these small but dangerous groups to come back out of the woodwork.
Just last week I stood at 16 Rothschild Blvd, in front of a modest looking building which nobly bears the name “Independence Hall”. Our Hevreh group stood rapt with attention as our guide described for us the events leading up to May 14, 1948. How David Ben-Gurion knew he had to make this declaration quickly— before the Mandate expired, and before Shabbat began. How he gathered up his people and went to 16 Rothschild, then the home of Meir Dizengoff, expecting a modest and expedient ceremony, without much fanfare. She asked us to look around at this leafy boulevard, lined with trees and Bauhaus buildings with verandas and balconies— and she described Ben-Guriion’s shock at arriving to a crowd of thousands of people filling the streets, ready to witness the birth of a nation.
That Declaration of Independence signed more than 70 years ago reads:
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.
I think about the crowd that gathered on RothschildRothchild Blvd that day in 1948, and I try to imagine what they would feel, knowing that this precious gift of a state, envisaged by the prophets of Israel—built upon complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex— was now led by someone who would willfully ignore all of it, in order to preserve his own power. Someone, in fact who just today was indicted on corruption charges, though that is a story for another time.
My fear at this precarious moment for the State of Israel is not unlike my fear for our own country: what does it mean to give sanction to groups who boldly fly the banner of hatred, racism, and violence? What does it mean to love a country, even when the you cannot abide by the machinations of itsit’s government?
One of the definitions of Zionism that resonates most for me, and that I refer to most often in my teaching and thinking comes from Theodore Herzl in which he writes:
Zionism, as I see it, includes not only our aspiration for that Promised Land as a commandment for our unfortunate people, but also an aspiration for moral and spiritual perfection.
The racism and hatred that fueled Kahane and fuel Otzma Yehudit today are not my Zionism. They’re not the Zionism or the Jewish values that the young people and parents from Hevreh explored and soaked in last week while they were in Israel.
So let’s talk about the Israel we know and love. The Israel that I know and love. And if you don’t know Israel, let’s talk about ways for you to get acquainted. And if you don’t love Israel, let’s talk about it. But let’s not cede our seat at the table to those who would pervert the Jewish ideals which formed the basis for the state of Israel. Let’s not call it quits— because the work is far from over.
Back to the Kotel then for just a moment—
As we made our way down through the security last Shabbat, I told the group to gather up before we gave them time to make their way to the wall. This was it. Time for me to somehow bring it all together— to encourage them to have a moment of prayerfulness and connection, and to tell them the truth about this complicated place. We talked about Nashot HaKotel—the Women of the Wall and the advocacy that they, and the Israeli Religious Action Center do to promote greater religious equality in Israel. We talked about the mechitzah—the dividing wall between the men’s side and the women’s side, and about Robinson’s Arch, and about whether the Egalitarian Plaza would ever really come to fruition. The students asked questions- some were in disbelief, some already knew a little bit about it.
And then, with all of that information, all of us, myself included took a little paper, offered up our prayers and gratitude, fears and hopes— and made our way toward the wall.
Friends, that may be the very best that we can do right now: to take in the complexity, to name the places and ways in which Israel has failed to live up to its ideals; to loudly and unabashedly demand better from this holy and complicated place. And then, to keep walking toward it, with love and with hope. To return to that place of truth named in the Declaration of Independence that proclaims Israel to be a place of justice and peace.
Herzl’s Writings – Bifnei Am VeOlam