Defend Israel’s Democracy

Israel is on fire from within and from without.

From the outside it continues to face lethal terrorist attacks and the specter of an increasingly emboldened and nuclear Iran.  From within it faces something which has long been simmering but has now found voices of legitimacy within the current ruling coalition.

I mourn the deaths.  Their numbers increase.  Two young brothers, Hillel and Yagel Yaniv, were recently murdered when traveling to their home.  Elan Ganeles, an American who had made aliyah, was also murdered.  He was on his way to a friend’s wedding.  Rockets are fired from Gaza at Israeli towns.  Terrorism continues.

Israel responds with force.  Its soldiers kill terrorists.  Its police continue to thwart planned attacks.  Fierce fighting was reported in Jenin.  Settlers rioted in the town of Huwara.  They burned hundreds of homes.  A Palestinian was killed.  Sameh Aqtesh.  I grieve over the deaths of innocent Palestinians.

During these riots, Israeli soldiers rescued Palestinians from their burning homes.  Their commanding officer called the settlers’ rampage a pogrom.  Most Israelis condemned the violence.  Israeli leaders speak out against the settlers’ actions.   Bezalel Smotrich, a cabinet minister, said Israeli forces should burn Huwara to the ground.  He later retracted his words.

I mourn the desecration of my faith.  The rioting settlers, wearing tallises and kippahs, with burning homes as their backdrop, paused to pray the evening prayers.   I have little patience for those who offer justifications by suggesting such examples are rare and that our enemies’ actions are far worse.  The Jewish rioters find encouragement among its current cabinet ministers.  As long as even one example persists, I will speak out.

I vow.  We must remain forever on guard against Palestinian terrorism and the murderous antisemitism that foments it.  We must also remain forever on guard when such violent hatred emerges from within our own Jewish faith.

And yet the struggle against terrorism and Israel’s external enemies has been the nation’s lot from its very inception.  It has miraculously persevered against those who wish to destroy it.  Israel has rarely, if ever, faced a similar struggle from within.  Never before has it faced such internal divisions and most especially a ruling coalition whose ministers abet such violence and who wish to undermine its founding democratic principles.

The measure of a vibrant democracy is found in its protection of dissent and minority voices.  While judicial reforms are perhaps warranted, it would undermine the State of Israel’s founding democratic character if a simple majority of Knesset members could vote to override Supreme Court decisions.  Some have suggested a compromise to these proposed reforms and have urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to accept a threshold approaching two thirds to overrule the court, but he and his coalition partners have rebuffed compromises.

Israelis are protesting.  On every Saturday evening, for the past nine weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have gathered to protest in Tel Aviv, as well as other cities and towns.  More recently, air force pilots and IDF officers have voiced their dissent.  Some have even begun to refuse to participate in training exercises.   Prominent business leaders have joined the protests.  Take in the pictures of these demonstrations.  They are a sea of Israeli flags.  The protestors are devout Zionists who love their home.

For Israel to maintain its democratic character it must preserve a check against majoritarian rule.  The only mechanism that currently exists within Israel’s system is the Supreme Court.  This is why this fight is so very important.  The State of Israel was built on both Jewish and democratic values.  It is this democratic value which binds America to Israel.  And it is these two values which continue to summon American Jews’ devotion to the Jewish state.  AIPAC, the defender of Israel’s democracy, falls silent.  We must instead speak out.

Last week, in preparation for Purim, we read about our arch enemy, Amalek, who attacked the Israelites from the rear.  His name is infamous within our tradition because he attacked the weak.  We are commanded: “Remember Amalek!”  This is understood to mean that we must be on guard against those who might attack us.  Rabbi Ethan Tucker, however, suggests that the command could instead be directed inward rather than outward.  Remember Amalek so that you do not become like Amalek.

And this week we read about the Golden Calf.  We often see this episode as evidence of idolatry’s dangers.  I prefer to read this story about the human tendency to lose our way.  So soon after the revelation at Mount Sinai, the people lose faith.  Moses has left them to commune with God.  Without great leadership, they quickly lose sight of their founding principles.  The people forget the miracles.  Are their sacrifices to the calf, their celebrations and dancing, riotous?  They follow the temptations of the crowd.  They lose sight of their purpose.

Raise your voices in defense of Israel’s democracy.  This is about our love for Israel and our concern for its very character.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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