If Arabs Can’t Be Part of a Majority, We Aren’t A Democracy (And Other Threats)

Four thoughts are on my mind this Shabbat:

  1. The balance between the need for extreme measures to protect ourselves against Coronavirus, and the threats to our democracy posed both by Corona related regulations combined with the fact that we don’t have a functioning Knesset.

It would be irresponsible to oppose every measure we would oppose in normal times, and irresponsible to blindly trust those who hold the reins of power

In VaYakhel-Pekudei, our double Torah portion concluding the book of Exodus, we read of how all the previous instructions for building the Tabernacle are scrupulously carried out. The haftarah reading this week is from Ezekiel. Much has been written on the differences between the sacrificial cult as described in the Torah, and as outlined by Ezekiel.  We also read Exodus 12, as next Thursday we mark the beginning of Nissan, the month of our liberation from Egypt and Passover. Here too, we are given detailed commandments.  Some of these commandments are carried out today more or less as they appear in the Torah. In other ways, our celebration of Passover has changed significantly.

Even with God, the Ultimate Authority, there is room for interpretation and the using of our human sensibilities to modify or adapt what came from on high.  This is not a perfect parallel, because this is not a question of trust. Many of us place our trust in God. However, it is an example of not forfeiting our ability to use our judgement. Today, we have the right and responsibility to be on our guard against undo threats to democracy, especially until there is Knesset oversight.  I am thankful that on Thursday our High Court ruled against granting the police emergency powers, and conditioned the use of Shin Bet secret service surveillance technology on a functioning Knesset.  It is clear to me that we need to compromise some of our freedoms in this crisis, but nod without oversight.

One more point. Yesterday, I had not planned on participating in the convoy of hundreds of cars that was making its way to Jerusalem and the Knesset to protest the threats to our democracy, until the police pulled them off the road.  Understanding that this was a dangerous limitation of legitimate protest that did not violate the emergency health regulations, I quickly attached black flags to my car, and made my way to the Knesset. Initially the police, that had eventually permitted the convoy to continue to Jerusalem, “only” blocked the road to the Knesset.  However, they became increasingly violent.  An older man was sent sprawling to the ground, simply for following after officers roughly pushing one of 5 arrestees towards a police car.  I hope that the decision to try to prevent this protest “only” came from the higher echelons of the police, and not from our caretaker government.   Police violence is not new to me.  However, in this context, it highlights how fragile the freedoms we treasure can become in times of crisis. Without extreme vigilance, even necessary compromises to our rights and freedoms can be compromised in ways that will be difficult to restore afterwards.

  1. Many Israelis today are in extreme financial distress. In Exodus 12 we are taught that every family is to slaughter a lamb, put blood on the doorpost, and eat the lamb with loins girded.  However, if a family is too small, two families can share.  We know that in the laws of the sacrifices we will soon be reading in the book of Leviticus, the sacrifices that people must bring are adapted to their financial ability.  Every day we hear of the debates between the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry regarding the impact of health measures on the economy. We here much less about the many Israelis who are now unemployed or on unpaid leave, in danger of being evicted from their homes, falling even deeper into debt, etc.  Some steps have been taken to allow a postponement of mortgage payments, etc. However, this is far from enough.  Without a functioning Knesset and only a caretaker government, we are in fact crippled in our ability to respond.  Again, this is not an exact parallel.  The point is not that we can always adapt decisions about who continues to work and who doesn’t to people’s financial situation. However, especially in times like these, we must remember that even necessary rules and regulations must include the equally necessary safety net for those without the resources to weather the storm.
  2. Ongoing Demolitions. The blood on the doorposts and lintels of our homes in Egypt was to protect us when the Angel of Death passed over Egypt. Our homes today are an essential component of our protection against a potentially deadly virus.  In fact, by protecting ourselves by remaining in our homes, even those of us who are not at great risk are protecting those who are.  It is therefore almost incomprehensible that demolitions of homes built without impossible to obtain permits are continuing both in the “unrecognized” Negev Bedouin villages, and in the Occupied Territories.
  1. The debate as to whether it is legitimate for Israel to make decisions based on a parliamentary majority including the United Arab List renews the debate whether it is truly possible to be both a Jewish and a democratic state. Exodus 12 we are taught that both citizens and non-Jews residing among us are subject to the same laws forbidding the eating of hametz – leavened grains. (12:19) If they do so.  they are no longer part of the community.  On the other hand no-non Jews, other than circumcised slaves, may eat of the Passover sacrifice.  It seems that already in the Torah, there is a question whether non-Jews are part of the community, or not. It doesn’t seem that they could be considered to be citizens.  The right wing block has relentlessly attacked the legitimacy of a government relying on the backing of the United Arab List.  They have tried to explain that they respect the rights of Israeli Arabs, but are opposed to the positions of their chosen representatives.  Although this is factually not true, they claim that MK’s from the United List don’t devote any of their time to the needs of their constituents.

Anybody who is honest, knows that the problem is deeper than this.  From the founding of Israel, our leaders have paid lip service to equality, while often not respecting it.  The Labor party created satellite Arab parties in the early years as a method of getting votes without granting any real power. Over the years we have often heard that important decisions about the future of this country require a Jewish majority to be legitimate.  In private discussions, people tell me that it is not true that a majority of Israelis voted against Prime Minister Netanyahu, because that majority includes Arab Israelis.  The reasoning goes much deeper than opposition to the opinions, or alleged opinions of the party or a particular MK — majority including Arab MKs is not a legitimate majority.  Of course it is legitimate to oppose the positions of the United Arab List, just as it is legitimate to oppose the positions of any other political party. Figuring out our relationship to non-Jews living among us is not any simpler today than in the Torah. However, if it is not legitimate for Israeli Arabs to be part of the decision of who will be prime minister or the future of the Occupied Territories, or other critical decisions we face, they are second class citizens. We must be honest, and say we do not want to be a true democracy.

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, I have heard from police officers and Palestinians that it doesn’t matter whether we are Jewish or Palestinian, right wing or left wing, or secular or religious.  In the face of Corona, we are all in the same boat.  How deep is does this understanding penetrate, and will it be lasting or ephemeral?   This Shabbat we dedicate the Tabernacle, prepare to celebrate the month of our becoming a free people, and the midrash teaches us that our actions brought the Shekhina — God’s Indwelling Presence that our previous actions had exiled — back to earth.  I pray that our actions will create a sacred reality in which we protect our bodies and our democracy, support those without the means to weather this crisis, and embrace a Judaism that embraces democracy.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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