Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

For the first time, Israelis put their lives on the line for democracy

The significance of this week for Israel, the Jewish people and for democracy around the world cannot be overstated. With the caveat that this thing is not over, and with the knowledge that this government will still do anything to enact its autocratic agenda. That the nation came together to defend democracy is unprecedented, a watershed moment. Surveys show a large majority understood the dangers, including many Likud voters. New electoral polls show a marked shift to the center, leaving the current extremist right-wing coalition far short of a parliamentary majority. Benny Gantz, the most recognized right-centrist leader, would take Likud votes that Netanyahu has locked up for a generation.

And that, in the end, might be what moved Netanyahu to flinch – even more than the half million Israelis who spontaneously took to the streets on Sunday night after he canned the defense minister, his “Sunday Night Massacre.” But how could anyone not be stirred by the shutdowns at the airport, on the roads, schools, businesses, military bases and just about everywhere else?

In the 1930’s musical “Of Thee I Sing,” George and Ira Gershwin wrote of how love is sweeping the country…

Spring is in the air,

Each mortal loves his neighbor

Who’s that loving pair?

It’s Capital and Labor!

In Israel, this week, that actually happened. The Histadrut, Israel’s great labor federation, joined with the startup nation’s leading capitalists in shutting down the country after the firing of Gallant. Love wasn’t exactly sweeping the country – no one was sweeping anything – it was a visceral, instinctive response to a common threat. It was fight or flight, and a huge, diverse mass of Israelis chose to fight. It was truly remarkable.

This victory is fragile, but it is real. It will be hard for Bibi to reverse it, because the nation is onto him. He jeopardized his country’s security simply to stay out of jail.

As I was driving home from an event on Wednesday, my music feed played the classic Israeli song, “Al Kol Eleh.” This prayer – it really is more prayer than song – calls on God to protect all that is important to most Israelis.

Guard what little I’ve been given

Guard the hill my child might climb

Let the fruit that’s yet to ripen

Not be plucked before its time.

For the sake of all these things, Lord,

Let your mercy be complete

Bless the sting and bless the honey

Bless the bitter and the sweet.

While the song is often associated with the uprooting of the settlement of Yamit in northern Sinai after the peace treaty with Egypt, its sentiments are shared by Israelis across the political spectrum, people who are fearful that their carefully cultivated fruit trees will be uprooted. For some – Jews and Arabs alike – the song may be speaking about a village / settlement / town, or an orchard or olive grove – or the entire land. Especially in this month of spring, when the fields and forests look so breathtakingly beautiful that a blessing is called for, people walk the length and breadth of a land that is worth dying for, a land they all love – a land that they fear could be taken away.

Passover is a festival both of springtime beauty and national liberation. This month of Nisan reminds us that freedom, like the land, is worth dying for. The ancient Israelites put their lives on the line by smearing the doorposts with lamb’s blood in full view of their armed overseers. As the final plague struck, nothing could stop them from taking to the streets and declaring that they had had enough. Dayenu!

Israelis have fought so many times for their land and for their freedom, specifically the freedom to be a Jewish state. Some say the War of Independence is still being fought. But this was the first time they were called upon to fight for something else: a way of life, a particular system of governance, democracy, that isn’t even native to that land – a Greek import, of all things. But unlike statues of Zeus or plates of souvlaki, democracy is an import that has enabled the state to thrive for 75 years. And while the full promise of democracy has yet to be fulfilled for many Israelis and Palestinians, it still offers the best hope of eventually getting there.

Last Sunday night, Israelis took to the streets en masse and put their lives on the line for democracy. Not for the land, not for Jewish independence, not for freedom in the abstract. But for this particular brand of freedom, a vision of equality, justice and a better life for all its citizens. They are fighting not for the parochial interests of one segment of society, but for all groups, including those who may be in power now but won’t remain there forever.  For Muslims, for Christians, for Progressive Jews, but also for Haredim and Ethiopians and those mentally and physically challenged.  They were fighting for democracy – for eveeyone.  That has never happened before.

Americans have fought for democracy many times, sometimes being duped by an inflated sense of manifest destiny (and the inflated egos of corrupt leaders) into foolish wars of choice.

But what happened this week was pure, spontaneous and desperate, like the American foray into World War Two after Pearl Harbor, the purest American defense of democracy yet, where failure was not an option. The current war in Ukraine has that same feel. This fight on the streets of Israel has clear, definable consequences. Losing it would be a catastrophe for human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights. Losing it means a kleptocracy and corruption will reign. Losing it means severing that sacred bond that unites Israel and the diaspora. Losing it means endangering that precious bond between Israel and America. Losing it means turning the most powerful state in the region into a messiah-crazed, religiously unmoored, politically unchecked runaway train. The fact that it is MY runaway train wouldn’t make it less dangerous. I would have to help stop the dictatorship in its tracks. The prospect is simply unthinkable.

Bless the sting and bless the honey

Bless the bitter and the sweet….

And Bless our precious checks and balances.

Bless the protections of our most vulnerable citizens.

Our courts and parliaments,

Our Jewish values and Basic Laws

Bless our orchards and our human rights too.

Bless our democracy.

For the first time, Israelis were willing to lay down in the middle of a highway and to die for democracy. Not to exit Lebanonfree Gilad or sing a Song of Peace. They rallied for democracy, of all things.

Democracy. De-mo-crat-ia.  It almost sounds home-grown.

And that may be the fight that finally unites them. That unites us all.

Have a bitter-and-sweet Pesach.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. Contact Rabbi Hammerman:
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