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A government that uses Torah as a spade to dig with

With Israeli democracy under assault in the name of Judaism, we – rabbis from across the denominational spectrum – are compelled to speak out
Religious Zionist Party head MK Bezalel Smotrich attends the Cohen Benediction priestly blessing at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Zionist Party head MK Bezalel Smotrich attends the Cohen Benediction priestly blessing at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, April 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Why should an organization comprised of rabbis be alarmed about Israel’s new government? No governing coalition has ever boasted so many advocates of Jewish piety. A test of Talmudic knowledge among the newly elected would probably yield impressive results. To judge from the coalition agreements recently signed (they are available for perusal on the website of Israel’s Knesset), unprecedented funds will be directed to the inculcation of Torah values. Surely we should be celebrating this great victory for Judaism. But we are not. 

Rabbis for Human Rights, along with many other institutions and individuals at the heart of Israeli civil society, is sounding the alarm about what Israel’s 37th government is planning. Defenders of Netanyahu’s sixth government say that its detractors are guilty of sour grapes. In the pendulum swing of democracy, they argue, it is important to acknowledge defeat and bow to the will of the electorate. That is the way, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said recently, the game is played. 

If we take seriously the claims and comments of the new government, it is planning to change the rules of the game. Steps will be taken to limit the independence of the judiciary, effect a de facto annexation of the West Bank, put Minister Ben-Gvir in personal charge of Israel’s Border Guard, effect a strident economic policy of deregulation likely to deepen the poverty gap, ensure that ministers under criminal investigation or convicted of misdemeanors can continue with impunity, investigate the funding of organizations deemed to be anti-patriotic (that includes many organizations you may consider watchdogs of decency), place responsibility for informal education in the hands of a man dead set against educating for shared society, roll back recognition of non-Orthodox streams and allow citizens to practice discrimination on the grounds of religious conviction.

It is likely that some of the worst fears of what may come to pass here will be allayed. The Prime Minister will do all he can to persuade international public opinion and centrist forces within Israel that all is under control, and that anti-government sentiment is simply sectarian bitterness, left-wing hysteria or rampant anti-Semitism. While he is busy telling us that things are not as bad as we feared, the process of changing the rules of the political system will probably continue apace. While some extravagant expressions of extremism will be softened, the overall impact of this government – judging by its own pronouncements – will be more intransigent than anything we have ever seen. 

The assault on decency being perpetrated by the new government is not a matter of party politics. It speaks to the essence of the project of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Our organization is acutely aware that this raft of changes is being perpetrated in the name of Jewish tradition. The assumption seems to be that anyone committed to Jewish creativity and Jewish continuity will be in favor of what this 37th government plans to do. The Torah is being used as a spade to dig with. The dismantling of Israel’s noblest dreams is being wrapped in the tallit of Jewish values. 

We are saying as loudly and clearly as we know: we are rabbis from across the denominational spectrum for whom the defense of fundamental human rights for all our citizens is not an obstruction or a disturbance. We believe that an independent judiciary, pluralistic education, social solidarity and resistance to corruption are essential expressions of our Jewish values. It is shocking to consider that such opinions are now considered to be controversial. 

At this time in Israel’s history, there is no time for point-scoring and squabbling. We have no interest in demonizing individuals or slurring communities. We are raising an alarm out of our conviction that when so much is at stake, we are not permitted to look away. When Israeli democracy is under assault in the name of Judaism, it is time to speak out, step up and lean in. 

About the Author
Michael Marmur is the chair of the Board of the Israeli human rights organization, Rabbis for Human Rights. He is also an associate professor of Jewish Theology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.