David Ben Gurion’s idea of a Jewish state was informed by Isaiah’s vision of Israel’s destiny as “a light unto the nations.” A majority of contemporary Israelis want the state to have a Jewish character. As we reach the close of Elul, the month of introspection that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, dark events in Myanmar beg the question of whether the Jewish state is fulfilling its aspiration to be a light unto the nations, and calling its character into question. For as Myanmar commits grave atrocities against its Rohingya minority, Israeli companies continue to arm the regime, with the active facilitation of the Israeli government.
The Rohingya have suffered systematic discrimination and marginalization for decades. A 2016 UN report established that they endure torture, kidnappings and disappearances, summary executions, and rape at the hands of Myanmar’s military, all of which are categorized as “crimes against humanity.” Over the last few weeks, in the wake of an attack by Rohingya rebels, the regime unleashed a vicious military operation that has forced over 300,000 people to flee their homes. Over 170 villages are now deserted. Rohingya refugees report decapitations of babies and children, massacres and rape, and photographic evidence suggests a scorched earth policy that has reduced entire communities to ashes.
A petition before Israel’s High Court calling for the cessation of arms sales to Myanmar has been opposed by the Defense Ministry, which argues that this is a “diplomatic” situation over which the Court has no jurisdiction. When MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) raised a parliamentary question on the subject, Defense Minister Avidgor Liberman proclaimed that Israel follows “the entire enlightened world, that is the Western states, and first of all the United States, the largest arms exporter,” and that Israel maintains “the same policy” as the US and complies with “all the accepted guidelines in the enlightened world.” But it is a matter of public record that both the EU and the US have imposed an arms embargo on Myanmar.
Liberman’s invocation of “the enlightened world,” with which Israel is decidedly out of step on this issue, resonates tensely with David Ben Gurion’s vision of a “a light unto the nations.” And yet as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we traditionally consider our merits and fate, when we are prompted to ask ourselves who we are and what we should be, our country is facilitating atrocities that our strongest allies refuse to enable.
Yet the biggest recent news among Israeli religious parties, who present themselves as guardians of the state’s Jewish character, was the expulsion of a Shas MK Yigal Guetta for attending his gay nephew’s same-sex wedding two years ago. Not a word has been heard from them about Israel facilitating the slaughter in Myanmar. While any mention of public transportation on Shabbat is shouted down as an attack on the Torah, when the Jewish state provides arms to murderers of children, they are silent.
Make no mistake, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism on their own have the power to bring down the government. They, along with the National-Religious Jewish Home party, could demonstrate moral leadership and inform the Prime Minister that they will not sit in a government that facilitates the murder of children, mass rape, and the destruction of entire communities, as doing so is an attack on the Torah. Netanyahu would then face a choice: join “the enlightened world” in its embargo, or face elections at a particularly inopportune moment marked by investigations and indictment. Those most ardently committed to Israel’s traditional Jewishness could begin 5778 by demonstrating that Jewish values can bring secular and religious Jews together. They might stand with Zandberg and unify us to express the principle that a Jewish state does not aid and abet crimes against humanity.
Rabbi Avidan Freedman, an educator at the Shalom Hartman High School for Boys, is circulating a letter addressing this situation. It has already been signed by Rabbis Benny Lau, Shai Piron, Michael Melchior, and numerous other heads of communities, yeshivot, and midrashot.
Freedman argues: It cannot be that a state established according to the vision of Israel’s prophets would aid such a regime. The people of Israel is currently at the height of ‘the month of mercy and forgiveness,’ as we seek mercy from the Lord of the World, ‘His mercies over all His works.’ Our sages taught us that we must take responsibility: ‘as He is merciful, so must you be merciful.’ As educators and leaders of communities following the way of the Torah, that ‘its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace,’ we cannot remain silent as the State of Israel helps the slaughterers of the world to slaughter…. [We] call on the government of Israel to order an immediate cessation of military exports to Myanmar, and to implement legislation that will ensure that never again will we sell weapons to states that commit severe crimes against humanity, so that we may aspire to the great vision of Isaiah, ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’
If we are going to be a Jewish state with the power to express Jewishness in the world as we never could in the Diaspora, a state defined by ethical commitments common to religious and secular Jews, this issue at this moment in this season offers us an opportunity to define ourselves. We must demonstrate that our national endurance and renaissance do not only serve our own needs, but have resulted in a state that embraces the obligation of our highest ideals, one that actively aspires to be “a light unto the nations.”