Todd Berman

Israel at 75 – time for us to talk to each other

We find ourselves amid the “Zionist high holiday” season. This week the Jewish people commemorated the victims, survivors, and heroes of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, and next week Israel remembers those who fell building the country on Yom HaZikaron, followed by celebrating the 75th year of Israel’s independence on Yom HaAtzmaut.

Some suggest that we regard these three days as part of a continuum from Passover’s redemption through Lag Ba’Omer loosely connected to the failed anti-Roman Bar Kochba rebellion, through Yom Yerushalayim celebrating the return of Jews to Jerusalem after the Six Day War, all the way to the holiday of receiving to the Torah on Shavuot. It seems like every week is another holiday or commemoration. Teaching in a Gap year yeshiva program, we have almost as many holiday events as classroom days during this period.

Over the past few months, in addition to anticipation of reaching the 75th milestone, tension permeated the air in Israel. Mass protests erupted by those opposed to the new government’s proposals to reform the judiciary. Both sides waved Israel flags as if declaring themselves absolute loyalists to the State as they see it should be. Counterprotests and incriminations by both sides filled the streets and social media feeds. These protests, in which I also participated, dominated the mood in the country. They demonstrated the deep divide in Israeli society and the differing visions various Israelis have for the future. In more than thirty years of living in Israel, through wars and controversial governmental actions, I do not recall a divide as widespread or as acrimonious.

Passover, which should have offered a respite from the political debates, was marred by missile strikes and terror attacks murdering several in Israel, including a mother and two daughters from my neighborhood, Lucy, Maia, and Rina, Dee hy”d. Despite our ceasing to pray for rain on the first day of Passover, rains came during Lucy Dee’s funeral as if the heavens were crying with the entire Jewish people. The dark clouds presented an appropriate backdrop for unfathomable tragedy. A family of seven on Seder night instantly became a family of four. What should have been a family hike in central Israel became a nightmare. Jews, Israelis, and foreigners joined with what seemed like the entire Jewish people in mourning the senseless loss of life. Hundreds if not thousands of Israeli Flags held aloft by Jews on all sides of the political divide waved on the road as the remaining members of the Dee family made their way to the cemetery in nearby Kfar Etzion.

The mother and daughters have joined the martyrs of the original pre-State kibbutzim in Gush Etzion, slaughtered defending the settlements against the Arab Legion and local Arab militias in 1948. After surrendering, the Arabs rounded up and murdered the survivors of the battle. The massacre occurred on the fourth of the Hebrew month of Iyar, one day before David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel. After the massacre, the area fell to the Jordanians. Not until 1967 could Jews return to their homes and rebuild the site purchased in 1927 and developed in the 1940s. With the swift victory in 1967, Jews returned, rebuilt old settlements, and created new ones, including Efrat, my home and the home of the Dee family.

Our homes are the continuation of the building that started with the return of the Jewish people to our homeland in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Efrat exists because Kfar Etzion was created by religious Jews as part of the mostly secular Zionist movement moving back to the Jewish homeland. Like Passover, which lead to the return of the Jews to the land of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and his family, Zionism remains the great project liberating my people from 2,000 years of wandering.

To celebrate the achievements of political Zionism dating from the 19th century and the State of Israel over the past 75 years, many organizations scheduled massive events. The Jewish Federations of North America will hold their General Assembly (G.A.) in conjunction with Keren Hayesod, The Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization at the Tel Aviv International Convention Center. At the same time, World Mizrachi, in partnership with other Orthodox organizations worldwide, will host “The World Orthodox Israel Congress” in Jerusalem.

According to their website, Mizrachi and the 50 other partnering organizations decided on Jerusalem because “there is, of course, no better place to create this than Israel, the center of the Jewish world, and Yerushalayim ir haKodesh, the city which symbolizes Jewish unity.” I greatly respect my colleagues at Mizrachi and the other organizations participating. Full disclosure, I will be participating. Yet, something doesn’t sound right regarding Jewish unity. It seems that the definition of Jewish people here focuses on Orthodox organizations.

The same problem of framing can be seen in the G.A. A glance through their list of speakers leads one to believe that few Orthodox individuals are involved. Except for Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President/Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone, no other well-known Orthodox personalities seem to appear. The Federation movement, almost by definition, claims to represent the entire American Jewish community. The lack of Orthodox voices speaking in Tel Aviv is surprising.

The split between the Orthodox communities and other Jewish communities is familiar. Political Zionism arose as primarily a secular movement rejected by most of the 19th and early 20th-century European Orthodox leadership. Some Orthodox Jews influenced by thinkers such as Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and others joined in the project of building the country and founded programs such as Mizrachi and Bnei Akiva. But the traditionalists were a small minority of the founding Zionists. All Jews, secular or religious, owe the Zionist movement thanks for laying the foundations of our country. 

More and more, the divide has been not only religious but also political. In the United States, the only other large center of Judaism, most non-Orthodox Jews support the Democratic Party. In contrast, most Orthodox Jews supported the GOP and President Donald Trump. In Israel, the present governmental reforms, which split the nation, also divide on religious groupings. Orthodox affiliates are three of the four parties comprising the Knesset that pushed for reforms. Those protesting the reforms are primarily non-Orthodox. Many liberal movements push for a two-state solution, including giving up parts of the West Bank. In Orthodox spaces, many, if not most, support settlement in Judea and the Shomron. Even the terms used indicate the religious-political divide. Our visions are misaligned both religiously and politically. The different locations of the conventions only highlight this divide. Of course, these generalizations are broad. Prime Minister Netanyahu will address the General Assembly. Only a few years ago, the program took place in Jerusalem. Many Orthodox thinkers reach out to their non-Orthodox colleagues. But in general, the split is clear.

So what do we mean by Jewish people? 

Unless we find ways to speak to each other with dignity and respect, we face the dire consequences of creating a Diaspora-Israel divide and two completely disconnected communities.

The rabbis of the Talmud relate that after a harsh split in the rabbinic community, Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch of the high court in Israel, found himself on a ship in a stormy sea.

Rabban Gamliel stood on his feet and said: Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that neither was it for my honor that I acted nor was it for the glory of the house of my father that I acted; rather, it was for Your honor, so that disputes will not increase in Israel. In response, the sea calmed from its raging. (TB Bava Metzia 49b)

The message of the Talmud is critical. Disagreement can rip the Jewish community apart like a ship tossed by a storm. We need to find a way to talk to each other, not sail past each other.

The recent political protests, while demonstrating the robust nature of the Israeli State, have created a rift that only partially healed in the wake of the recent tragedies. Israel, for its part, needs to remain vigilant to the enemies who are all too ready to capitalize on any sign of weakness. Iran is already making moves to support Hamas and Hezbollah and trying to reach out to Saudi Arabia. Antisemitism worldwide is spreading again. Israel declared “for the first time in our history of exile,” in the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “[that] Jewish blood is not free for the taking.” (Fate and Destiney p. 31) It must remain a haven and beacon of freedom for every Jew. Our divisions must not define who we are.

When the Federation or Mizrachi speak of the Jewish People, in Hebrew, “Klal Yisrael,” they must speak in terms that spread beyond parochial or political positions. Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that, on the one hand, we must define,

the unity of the Jewish people as a community is based upon the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life as practiced by us – a Torah existence. What ties the Yeminite water carrier in the streets of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Boston? A uniform Orah Hayyim, the Shema YisraelShabbatKol Nidrei night, the Seder night, kashruttefillin

So Jewish communal-religious practice unites the Jewish people. But it’s not limited by practice. He goes on to argue that,

We are unique not only in our way of life, but also in our historical transmigrations and in our paradoxical fate. … No Jew can renounce his part of unity, which is based upon a fate of loneliness of the Jewish people as a nation. Religious Jews or irreligious Jews…all are included in one nation. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot pp. 144 ff)

We are a people in two ways – by religion and by the shared community. For many Jews, religion functions to bind us together. However, for many others, the historical-communal aspect brings us together.

During Passover, the Israelites became a people – God’s community of priests and a holy nation (see Exodus 19:6.) Rabbi Isaac Hutner suggested that the command to be a holy nation preceded receiving the Torah and defined the national aspect of the Jewish people. (See Pacha Yitzchak, Channukah 1) 

The various commemorations: remembering the Holocaust, honoring the fallen, celebrating the creation of the State, and unification of Jerusalem, remind us that we are one historical people. On Shavuot, we finish counting the Omer and reach the top of the Holy mountain to receive the Torah. To be sure, all Jews read the Torah in their own way. But these days, from Passover to Shavuot, with all the events in between, can and must serve as an opportunity to heal the nation and bring us all together. With the 75th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, we have much to celebrate and much to be thankful for. Israel, which in recent years has become a point of disagreement among Jews, must somehow serve as a meeting point for our people, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. 

The rabbis, in a midrash, suggest that the souls of all Jews, born or to be born in the future, were present at Mount Sinai. (Tanchuma Nitzavim 3:1) The tragedies and triumphs of the past and the present can help make the people whole again. The rabbis further declare in a Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:2:10) that the Jews came to the mountain “as if one person with one heart.” The time to see each other as part of the same national tapestry is now. Perhaps next week, the coming together of so many Jews from around the world to celebrate Israeli independence can start a dialogue so we can again be like one person with one heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.