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‘We will guard and protect you’: Our forgotten promise to Israel

Why are so many of us – rabbis, backpackers, politicians, with their recklessness during a pandemic – willing to endanger the extraordinary Jewish life we've built here?
A man surveys the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2020, following the government's orders to shut down markets in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A man surveys the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2020, following the government's orders to shut down markets in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Twenty-something years ago, after a year’s sabbatical in Israel, when we had decided that we were going to stay and make Aliyah, it came time to tell my colleagues in the States. One of them, a committed Zionist, sounded perplexed and said, “You know, Israel’s about to go into a recession.”

Of all their responses, that’s the only one that I still recall, because it struck me as so utterly absurd. Israel was actually not about to go into a recession, but that was the least of it. What left me speechless was the implication that people move to Israel because Israel should serve them. My wife and I hoped, of course, that we would find a welcoming society and a healthy place to raise our children (a hope that Israel fulfilled beyond our wildest expectations), but that was not the primary motivation for our move. We moved in part because we wanted to participate in the unfolding of the greatest Jewish story in 2,000 years, but we also hoped to help. We wanted to contribute something, in some small way, to the extraordinary project called the Jewish State.

A week ago, on Friday afternoon, as synagogues in Israel were shuttering and some were conducting Kabbalat Shabbat online, I joined the livestream of the shul I try to go to on Friday evenings, and was moved beyond words. In that sense, it wasn’t that different from being there; perhaps the most meaningful moment of that evening, as is often the case even when I’m there in person, was not strictly liturgical, but rather a song that we often sing. It’s Natan Alterman’s Shir Ha-Emek, a lullaby to – believe it or not – the Jezreel Valley. Alterman wrote the song in 1934, coincidentally the same year that Hayim Nachman Bialik died, essentially bequeathing to the younger Alterman the role of Zionism’s poet laureate.

Shir Ha-Emek is an Israeli classic, a simple but moving poem, a love song to the Land of Israel, to the land that the pioneers of those days adored unabashedly. The entire poem is beautiful, but the line that never ceases to move me is when Alterman – a devout secularist like most of his fellow pioneers back then – prays for the land that he loves:

Tevorach artzi ve-tihulal, mi-Beit Alfa, ad Nahalal.
May my land be blessed and praised, from Beit Alfa to Nahalal.

The line moves me, often literally to tears, because it is as if Alterman, the secularist, is simply unable to contain himself; he finds himself praying to the God he probably didn’t believe in. So raw, so powerful, is his love for the Land that he cannot help but pray on its behalf.

When he wrote that poem in 1934, the twenty-four-year-old Alterman could have had no premonition of how horrific European Jewry’s end would be. He could not have been certain that a Jewish state would rise and could certainly not have imagined the triumphalism that would sweep the Jewish state in June 1967 and which would still reign when he died in 1970. If anything, he was in love with an idea, a vision, a prayer.

The underbelly of Israel’s phenomenal success since Alterman penned those words is how easy it has become for us to forget the fragility of what which we have wrought, of which Alterman could only dream. Our sense of impregnability, our belief that we are indefatigable and undefeatable – the same sense that had Israel in its grips in the years before the Yom Kippur War came close to ending Israel’s existence – is everywhere. These days, most Israelis are being fairly compliant with the government’s strict instructions for everyone to stay inside, but as is now well-known, not everyone is.

In defiance of government pleas, Haredim have held mass weddings with hundreds of men dancing in tight circles, leading police to make a few arrests. The stories abound.  Perhaps most egregious, even as the government begged Israelis not to gather in public, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau rejected the call to close synagogues, insisting that they remain open. There is evidence that a third of Israel’s coronavirus patients visited synagogues in the days before they took ill, but the government has decided not to take on the religious establishment, and numerous rabbis are flaunting the government’s pleas not to gather. Many of these rabbis, of course, are heirs to the tradition of religious leaders who, early in the twentieth century, declared Zionism an abomination, and urged their flocks not to associate with anyone who was a Zionist. The horrors of the Shoah muted their objections somewhat, but it is clear, their ability to deny clear evidence and dire warnings remains intact.

Is their commitment to public worship more important than the state that gives them the freedom to express their religious devotion so unabashedly? They apparently think so.

To be fair, it’s not only the religious community that is intoxicated with the sense of security Israel has provided. When hundreds of young Israeli backpackers were stranded in Peru, Israel dispatched an El Al plane to pick them up and bring them home. It was a great story for a couple of days, until the Israeli press revealed that many of those same people whose lives Israel might well have just saved refused to sign agreements to go into isolation upon arrival in Israel. The parallel is obvious – so confident has Israel made them feel, that they have no sense of obligation to the very state that rescued them.

The attack on statehood by parts of the religious community and by groups of irresponsible young people would be bad enough, but it is made all the more worrisome by what some 600,000 Israelis who participated in a digital demonstration Saturday night are calling an attack on Israel’s very democracy. This was no right-left or religious-secular divide. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, who is religious and tends to the political right, went as far as to call Likud’s actions “nothing short of an attempted coup d’etat.” The left-leaning secular Yuval Noah Harari, the internationally acclaimed Israeli author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, similarly wrote an op-ed in Israel’s daily, Yediot Achronot under the title “Yes, this is what an attempted coup looks like.”

Worry about the erosion of Israel’s democracy began when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that the government would permit the Shabak, Israel’s Security Agency, to use technology developed to combat terrorism to use cellphone data to track those ill with the virus and perhaps those who had come into contact with them. The invasion of privacy was obvious, but many of us were willing to live with it so that Israel does not turn into Italy.

At the same time, though, many Israelis noted (and the Supreme Court subsequently agreed) that in a properly functioning democracy, there needs to be parliamentary oversight over such broad powers given to a security agency. The problem is that Israel doesn’t really have a Parliament, since no government has been formed since the third elections.

Then matters got more ominous. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party and its larger bloc, which with the Arab parties included in the math won a slim majority, planned a vote to replace Yuli Edelstein, who for years has served admirably as Speaker of the Knesset, but who, in the eyes of some, has now become a Netanyahu hack. So Edelstein, who was certain to lose that vote, summarily shut down the Knesset, ostensibly because of the coronavirus, a claim that few believed. It was ugly politics at its worst, a decision that it is better to have no parliament than a parliament that would replace him.

Netanyahu, in the meantime, proclaims that he has reached out to Blue and White to form a unity government. Yet he insists at the same time that if Blue and White pushes to replace Edelstein, then unity talks will be over. The Prime Minister, in other words, is both urging Benny Gantz to join him to “save Israel” from becoming a “Titanic” like other European countries but insisting at the same time – even though he did not win the election – “my way or the highway.” He is simply ignoring the elections we just had.

The myriad details and intricacies of what is actually a complex parliamentary power play are too complex for this space, and as Haviv Rettig Gur has noted, there is plenty of blame to go around; no one in this saga emerges looking good. The bottom line, though, is simple – Israel is facing one of the gravest threats it has known in its seven decades of independence, and its ostensible leaders are so committed to their personal political interests that they cannot even form a government that might both tackle the health crisis and protect Israel’s democracy and its citizens’ basic democratic rights at the same time.

It is, at the end of the day, precisely the same story as the religious community not cancelling synagogue services and backpackers refusing to go into isolation – only here instead of rabbis and young free spirits, it’s purported political leaders. The result, though, could well be the same. One sickness does not rule out the possibility of another; Israel could stumble under the coronavirus, at precisely the same time that its democracy begins to fray. (Is anyone foolish enough, by the way, to assume that the Mullahs in Iran are not watching this carefully, wondering when Israel will be soft enough for them to do what they’ve long wanted and threatened to do? It’s worth taking a moment to imagine what life here would look like if the medical system was collapsing under the weight of corona, and then the missiles started flying….)

Which party we each voted for is irrelevant here. This is not about partisan politics. What matters is that there’s a state, and a democracy that enshrines our right to vote – and whether we care enough to protect both.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea for those rabbis, backpackers and politicians to take a few minutes to review some basic Jewish history, for they desperately need a reminder that sovereignty is hardly the natural setting in Jewish history. If anything, Jewish independence has happened rarely, and has never lasted very long.

The first instance of Jewish sovereignty lasted about 82 years. It was only under King David that the Israelite tribes united in a meaningful way and were able to hold their enemies at bay. David ruled for 40 years, the Bible tells us, and his son, Solomon, ruled for another 40. Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, however, had ruled only two years before the tribes split over taxes, the centralization of religious worship in Jerusalem and other long-standing grievances between the tribes, a split that ultimately led to civil war, and then to destruction at the hands of Assyria and later, Babylonia. That was the last time – ever – that the majority of Jews lived in the Land of Israel.

Though some Jews (with the tribes gone, they were no longer the Israelites) returned to Judea some seventy years after the southern kingdom fell, they were hardly independent. They were a vassal state, at best, living under foreign rule, which was sometimes less harsh, sometimes more. It was the Maccabees, first under Mattathias (in 164 BCE), who rose up to try to make Judea independent again, but they were not immediately successful. The victory we celebrate on Hanukkah occurred years later and was a victory of ridding the Temple of the Seleucids – but that was hardly independence. Independence did not come until Yohanan Hyrcanus – whose grandfather, Mattathias, had launched the revolt almost thirty-five years earlier – declared independence in 129 BCE.

How long did the second period of independence last? That depends on how you define it, but by the summer of 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey had conquered Jerusalem. We know the stories of the infighting among the Jews from the Talmud, from Josephus and more. Rome was a mighty power, but consumed by their infighting, the Jews had no chance. They crumbled and were exiled for almost 2,000 years. This time, independence had lasted a mere 66 years.

Until 1948, then, in their thousands of years of history, the Jews had had an independent “state” for only a total of 148 years, once for 66 years and once for 82. Now, in the middle of our third shot at independence, we’re 72 years in. This time, too, there are enemies crouching at the gates. This time, too, we’re taking our sovereignty for granted. This time, too, we could eventually lose it if we don’t begin to revere what it is that we have.

This past Friday night, the second Friday night of online Kabbalat Shabbat, the rabbi of another of our shuls related that he’d performed a wedding earlier that day. There were only twenty people there, the maximum the police would allow, with two officers stationed nearby to ensure that people kept their distance from each other. At the point in the ceremony where normally the hundreds of people who would have attended the wedding would have sung, the rabbi, the couple and their very few guests were stunned to hear themselves enveloped by the singing of people they didn’t even know, Israelis of all sorts, religious and secular, joining from their porches in celebration. The woman police officer, the rabbi said, began to cry.

There have been wondrous stories of people helping each other throughout the world these past weeks, as well there should. But it ought not escape our attention that there is but one place on this planet where religious Jews and secular Jews all speak Hebrew, all know the liturgy well enough to join in with the couple, are part of a kind of Jewish unity that only Jewish statehood provides. No one who has ever been here can imagine, even for a moment, that Jewish life anywhere else can approximate what has been built here.

And so many of us are willing to risk that? So it seems.

As I reflected on that extraordinary story the rabbi had told, I was reminded, suddenly, of an entirely different line from the Alterman poem that we’d sung on Friday night a week earlier. Here, Alterman isn’t praying for the Jezreel Valley he loved, but rather is speaking to it, and is making the valley a promise:

Numah emek, eretz tifferet; anu lecha mishmeret.
Drift off to sleep, my valley, land of magnificent beauty; we will guard and protect you.

If only.

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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