Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate

Prisoner of Hope

Saturday night, 25 March 2023, Kikkar Tzorfat (France Square) (courtesy)
Saturday night, 25 March 2023, Kikkar Tzorfat (France Square) (courtesy)

On Shabbat, as I said goodbye to friends after kiddush, I added, “See you tonight.” Everyone knew what I meant, because for 12 weeks, our post Shabbat activity involved gathering in front of the the Residence of the President of Israel to call for a halt to the proposed governmental “reforms” to the judicial system governing Israel.

Friends from the States, Toronto and Montreal who now live in Jerusalem. Friends from Yedidya, my Jerusalem synagogue. Rabbinic friends and colleagues, friends who identify as secular, as Orthodox, as Reform and as Masorti. We all knew where we would be on Saturday nights this winter.

Many of us referred to the words of the Torah quoted in the  Haggadah: והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה יהוה לי בצאתי ממצרים “You shall tell your child, on that day: for this purpose the Eternal took me  out of Egypt.” We articulated an awareness that we were standing at an historical moment, in the Jerusalem cold and winter rain for our children and their future.

Why? What brought thousands together in cities around Israel, over ten thousand weekly in Jerusalem and hundreds of thousands in Tel Aviv? These demonstrations were not organized by a political party; they grew from young people concerned about maintaining what they termed a בית משותף – a shared home.

Pesah is also about a בית משותף – a shared home. We gather, even with family and friends with whom we may not always see eye to eye, because we share a common past and a common future. We want to find a way to be together, even when the relationships are frayed or difficult.

You may have noticed that hametz appears in our Torah portion regarding one of the sacrificial offerings. My colleague Zohar Atkins pointed out that “hametz is associated with Pesah, it is actually unremarkable. Bread is typically leavened. It is matzah that is exceptional, as the English prefix un-” implies. We only think about hametz on Pesah, because we dont eat it. We dont possess it. We dont make it. We declare any crumbs to be non-existent. Most of the time, hametz is so a part of our lives we dont even recognize it as hametz. Leavened bread is just bread. Bread isnt matzah that had time to rise. Matzah is the exceptional bread.”

Think of the judiciary as hametz. Most people take it for granted. Most are not attentive to judicial issues. It was not a major issue during the last election. It was only one line in the coalition agreement. But then the proponents of what they termed judicial reform declared that they were moving ahead immediately and forcefully with sweeping changes to the structure of Israeli governance.  Suddenly, it seemed as if everyone — in media and in the street, at Shabbat tables and in living room conversations— was thinking about judicial philosophy, the structure of governance, the balance of power in democracy. Just as hametz is unremarkable until Pesah, so this issue was unexpected.

The gatherings brought old women in wheelchairs and men using walkers, parents with children in strollers and on their shoulders, students, middle aged men and women, and vatikim. Together. The chants  דמוקרטיה (demo-krati-ya) and בושה (shame), the drumbeats and horns were insistent and repeated through each protest, day or night, every week.

Some songs also were repeated. One was built on a  children’s rhyme.  “My hat has three corners” became “לארץ שלי שלוש רשויות” (my country has three governing authorities). Others were deeply nostalgic,  such as Ehud Manor’s אֵין לִי אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת      I have no other country
even if my land is aflame…Here is my home.
I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

Unlike the songs, the speakers differed each week. There were professors of law and political science, deans and rectors of universities, even former attorneys-general and members of the judiciary. They focused on details of the legislation proposed by Yariv Levin and Simhah Rothman of the Netanyahu coalition and the imbalance of power that would result from the proposals being brought before committee and Knesset. Some pointed to the importance of the courts as maintaining the international integrity of Israel and protecting the legal security of soldiers when outside the country. A former Knesset member, born in the former Soviet Union, reminded people that the judiciary prevents the regime from expanding its powers and controls.

There were speakers concerned about possible deterioration in the rights and freedoms for women which have been protected by the judicial system. And in every crowd were women dressed in red robes and bonnets, a take-off on Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid Tale.

Mizrahi Jews who spoke made it clear that they wanted social change and more representation in judicial leadership for Arabian and North African Jews, but that the totalistic changes in the structure of the judiciary was not needed to accomplish this.

I was impressed by the Arab speakers, who also spoke about needed social and legal changes. They felt that the courts had failed their community (a very different perspective from those who advocate for judicial change, accusing the courts of being too pro-Arab), but believed that the proposed changes would make their position in Israeli society worse.

The demonstrations in Jerusalem always included mitzvah observant Jews who spoke in the language of Torah. Some were Haredim, others from the national religious sector and settlers from Judea/Samaria. They pointed to ways that the legal system had both helped and hindered their communities. Often, they emphasized the importance of listening to those who disagreed and the need to find compromise and common cause to retain the unity of the country.

The signs at the demonstrations were personal and notable, some clever in Hebrew, often drawing upon Tanakh or liturgy: “truth, justice and peace shall be judged in your gates”, “I have placed guardians on your walls”, “to be free in our country”, “Zion shall be built with righteousness”, “I have no other Country”, “there are judges in Jerusalem”, “Judaism and democracy in one word”.  Irwin Cotler said that the sign that touched him the most was “Democracy is in our soul.”

Last weekend was a מה נשתנה moment. From Thursday night to Monday night, there was a back and forth between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Gallant. Gallant was concerned about the impact the reaction to the legislation was having on military and security forces. When he called for a halt to the proposals and the need seek consensus, the word spread through the crowd of thousands. Hope.

But on Sunday, Bibi discharged Gallant. Although he hadn’t acted against ministers who spoke of destroying Arab towns, although he hadn’t addressed a minister who said that there was no Palestinian people, although he hadn’t stopped a minister who supported settler violence, the Prime Minister fired the Defence Minister for saying he was deeply concerned for the security of the State of Israel.

Already concerned about the approach of Ramadan and potential violence, already concerned about the nuclear advances of Iran, already aware of the potential loss of American, Canadian and European support, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets.

The street action continued on Monday morning. For the first time since the British mandate, the business council and national labour union declared a national shut down. Universities announced closures. Josette and I were at the airport when all flights were delayed because of the layout action. Eventually, our plane took off,  one of only three to depart Ben Gurion during the nation-wide strike.

Later that day, the Prime Minister called a halt to the legislation and agreed to have representatives of the various political parties enter into negotiation  mediated by the President of Israel, Yitzhak Herzog. While welcome, this could have and should have happened when originally proposed by the President.

Remember, the judiciary is like hametz, you dont think about it until you do. Long ago, Isaiah already linked hametz and justice. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.    Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Relieve the oppressed (the word is hamutz).
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.  (Isaiah 1:17)

This conflict exposed clearly the fault lines in Israeli society. And the conflict is far from over. The demonstrations will continue along with the negotiations.

Dahlia Scheindlin, whose father taught me Hebrew and Arabic poetry at JTS, wrote:  “The protest movement views the independent judiciary as the citizensbest defender of individual rights, equality, civic and even progressive values. These democracy crusaders are secular or mildly religious; they voted for left, center and center-right parties; many even support peace with Palestinians in some form.  Supporters of the governments plans believe that the Court interferes with popular votes and conservative social values by upholding the rights of LGBTQ, women, Arab citizens of Israel; or when the court issues a decision constraining Israeli settlement or requiring military service [or basic educational standards] for Haredi communities.”

Aron Heller, whose grandfather, Mickey, was a lifelong member of our congregation in Toronto, wrote:  “The political wedge issues in Israel are no longer questions around Palestinian statehood but rather the independence of the courts, good governance and plain decency. …Israels political map is now defined mostly along identity lines, with the ultra-Orthodox, nationalist settlers and working-class Mizrahi voters on one side (the red” Israel) and the wealthier, mostly Ashkenazi, educated class of the coastal Tel Aviv and Haifa regions on the other (the blue” Israel). …Israel now finds itself hopelessly polarized along numerous societal fault lines: religious and secular, rural and urban, educated and not, traditional and progressive, hawks and doves.”

Despite all this, I still hope. I am drawn to the words of Zekhariah, who called the people of Israel אסירי התקוה- prisoners of hope. And to the words of the haftarah chanted on Shabbat Hagadol, where Malakhi says that God will restore the heart of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents. Reconciliation is possible.

I also return to an image and a song that I saw and heard repeatedly at daytime demonstrations in front of the Knesset and in nighttime protests in front of the homes of the President and Prime Minister. The image I hold is of hundreds, thousands of Israeli flags, waving proudly, held by young and old, by people who had long finished their military service and others who know that the IDF is ahead of them, waving with great patriotism and hope. And the song, which closed every protest, every demonstration, every gathering, a hymn for which people stopped talking and stood in respect…

You probably know the words and the hope….

We all sang Hatikvah.

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
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