This week, Jews around the world will read these famous verses from the book of Genesis (ch. 12) from the Torah portion of the week known as “Lech Lechah”, literally meaning “Go forth!”:
In these verses, in which Abraham receives a call to go to the land of Israel, where he and his descendants are destined to become a blessing to all the other nations of the earth, we are reminded of the destiny of the people and the state of Israel. This people—and this state—are not meant to be only about political, military and economic survival, but we are called upon to be a model people and a model nation, one with a high moral code, which will not only make us special as a people and as a Jewish society, but will serve as a light unto the nations, a beacon of hope for all of humanity.
This is what I thought when I did my own Lech L’chah just over 40 years ago, by making aliyah—going up—to live in the land and state of Israel, with my wife and two young daughters (by now I have 3 daughters, 3 sons-in-law and 6 grandchildren). I left the land of my birth, the country in which I grew up, to go to the land, i.e. the land of Israel, because I sought to be part of the rebirth of the Jewish People in its ancestral homeland after the miracle of the establishment of the state of Israel in my lifetime. From a Jewish and human point of view, I certainly thought at the time that it was a step up, an historical move, even an existential imperative for me. Luckily, my wife Amy fully agreed with me on this!
At first, I thought that I would live on a kibbutz and even looked into this idea seriously. I had spent a summer after high school on a kibbutz and was impressed by the sense of equality and the caring nature of kibbutz society. In the early decades of the state of Israel, kibbutz society—with its very special version of Jewish-Israeli socialism in an intentional egalitarian community—was a model not just for me, but for much of the Jewish world and the international community. Thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish youth and young adults flocked to Israel to volunteer for varying periods of time on kibbutz (including the only current Jewish democratic candidate for President of the USA), where they were inspired by a community which cared for all of its citizens fairly, without economic disparities between rich and poor. Indeed, one can say that the kibbutz culture of caring and compassion was the ethos of Israeli society in its early decades, since most of the leaders of the Labor Movement, which led Israel until 1977, grew up on kibbutzim and brought their communal ethics into the national picture.
Much has changed in Israel since 1977. We have had 42 years of mostly right-wing governments, with the exception of the Labor-led governments led by Yitzhak Rabin from 1992-1995 (which negotiated peace accords with the PLO, the Vatican, and Jordan) and the one led briefly by Ehud Barak, 1999-2001 (which almost negotiated a final status agreement in the summer of 2000 with the PLO) , under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, who presided over the signing of the peace accords with the PLO earlier in the decade. Moreover, in the last disastrous decade of the rule of Netanyahu and his cronies, the government has moved further and further to the right, rejecting any international mediation for peace, and linking Israel’s destiny with the anti-peace policies of President Trump in the USA in ways that have put the peace process into deep freeze.
Netanyahu and his colleagues have recently created the most extreme right-wing block in the history of Israel by continuing to align themselves with recalcitrant and reactionary ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist parties who seek to undermine Israel’s democracy, in the same ways that Trump and his base are undermining American democracy, every day, in every way that they can. Netanyahu and his lackeys were even prepared to get into bed with the most extreme right-wing racist and anti-democratic party in the history of Israel known as Otzmah Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) in order to save their leader from indictments, but fortunately this outrageous Kahanist political party did not get enough votes to make it into the current Knesset (Israel’s parliament).
In addition, Netanyahu like his friend and mentor, Donald Trump, incites against the pillars of Israel’s democracy every day, almost every hour, via Twitter and Facebook and more. He rails against the police, the free press, the courts, and God knows what else, all the time, in ways that insult the intelligence of so many people in Israel. It is no wonder that he got much less votes in the September election than he hoped he would get. More and more people are getting sick and tired of him, as is the case concerning the man who is the most vulgar and anti-democratic president in the history of the United States.
So, I return to my original question: can the people and the state of Israel be a blessing to the families of the world?
I am more sanguine about the people than the state. Our political leaders are letting us down. They are not much of a model for anything lately, like in other Western or semi-Western countries who are run by dictators or quasi-dictators.
But I do find hope in the good works of many people and organisations who are active in a very healthy and hopeful civil society in Israel today. Organisations like the New Israel Fund, the Abraham Fund Initiatives, Kids for Peace, B’mkom—Planners for Planning Rights, The Tag Meir Forum, The Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum, Combatants for Peace, Women Wage Peace and many more (about which I have written on this blog many times) are keeping a flicker of hope alive in an often depressing and desperate situation.
I have been involved –and am still involved—with several of these wonderful groups to this day. In these organisations, one finds the people –Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs — who seek to create a healthy society which can be a blessing to the Jewish people and to the world. These organisations deserve your spiritual and financial support since they are the ones who are creating a society based on the prophetic ideals of justice, righteousness and peace, which are clearly enunciated in Israel’s foundational document, our Declaration of Independence from 1948
“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.”
The call to Abraham and Israel’s Declaration of Independence remind us of Israel’s special nature and destiny in the world. Perhaps Israel’s leaders should go back and re-read these texts. They represent the authentic vision for the people of Israel.