In 1976 I was part of a delegation from England attending an international gathering of Zionist student activists. Invited speakers included Golda Meir, Yitzhak Navon, Menachem Begin and the then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Meir Kahana was also a speaker. In those days religious Zionism was just flexing its muscles with the advent of Gush Emumin and the settlement of Judea and Samaria (as Begin liked to rename the West Bank). I clearly remember Kahana’s diatribe and his antics as he very loudly proclaimed his very different understanding of Jewish history and our position among the people of the earth. He was adamant, ferociously so, that the Arabs with whom we shared the Land of Israel had no national identity (his namesake, Golda Meir, insisted on the same) and that they should never be given equal status, even expelled. He insisted that the understanding of the mitzvah “one law for you and for the stranger in thy midst…for you yourselves were slaves in Egypt” applied only to the strangers that converted to Judaism and not to infidels. I remember how the volume of his voice increased from decibel to decibel and how spittle formed around the sides of his mouth as he ranted on. He spoke with so much passion, so much conviction that when he finished there was a stunned silence in the auditorium. And then came the clapping and cheering as half the room stood on their chairs chanting: “Am Yisrael Hai – the People of Israel Live” while the other half sat, heads down in embarrassed defeat. When calm was restored, I took the opportunity; I jumped to my feet and shouted: “What’s the matter with you? Where is the left? Where are the voices of reason? Where are the voices of compassion? Where are the true Jewish voices? Stand up!” Another silence followed and suddenly the other half of the room stood up clapping and chanting: “Am Yisrael Hai – the People of Israel Live.”
Unfortunately, I have been reminded of this incident at increasing frequency since the recent elections and the resulting unfolding of the coming tragedy.
This past shabbat, I heard a Dvar Torah (a sermon) about Jacob’s transition to Yisrael, from a rabbi who heads a Yeshivah in the heartland of Shomron. He took the position that the change of name implied that Jacob was to be no longer a heel, a manipulator, a man filled with fear to the extent that when he heard that his brother Esav was approaching, he divided his camp into two “lest one is destroyed at least the other will survive.” The rabbi said that the new name, Yisrael, was that of the warrior, the one who defeated God and man and survived, that no longer walked bent and weak, but strong and proud, the new Jew, the Religious Zionist who didn’t grovel to anyone. So how come, he asked, did Jacob/Yisrael bow to the ground seven times in front of his brother? What happened to the implacable fighter? Ah, said the rabbi, at that moment Jacob had not yet integrated the change of name, he had not yet officially become Yisrael, that only occurs later in the next chapter when he arrives at Bet-El. So when he is confronted by his brother, he’s still the old Jacob even willing to bow in order to manipulate sympathy or disgust.
While listening, it occurred to me that perhaps the story was telling us the exact opposite. Just before the fateful night of wrestling with a stranger, Jacob divides his camp. The next morning, limping on his wounded thigh he prepares to meet his brother, to confront his past. But what happened to the two camps? No mention is made of them. When Esau finally arrives, and Jacob has done with bowing, and they finish hugging and kissing each other, Jacob introduces him to his family, keeping Rachel, the best, to last. Clearly Jacob is no longer afraid, fearful for his family’s lives. What happened? What changed? A change of name and a wounded thigh. Yisrael can be understood to mean – Straight with God. Jacob must now become Emet, Truth. However difficult that may be, Jacob, in order to become the inheritor of the Abrahamic way must quit being a manipulator and quit being so arrogant as to think that he is always right. He must face his past, recognize the pain he has caused, bow his knee in supplication, and make amends. That is the meaning of “Straight with God.” There is no longer a need for two camps, no longer a need for fear. He has been reassured that he will live and be the father of the nation, but he must be willing to bend his heart in order to be straight. And to remind him of this, a little hint, he is left limping. And to remind us of this, we do not eat of the thigh sinew. “And Jacob came to Shechem whole (shalem).” Which means that he came to Shechem whole in spirit because he was now Israel.
When I first came to live here the population was only three million. There were no traffic jams, no smog, no problem finding parking in Tel Aviv, few private phones, one TV station, and plenty of protekzia. There were also very few kippot to be seen in combat units in the army and most religious Zionists voted Mafdal. Mafdalwas a continuation of Bnai Akiva and the local synagogue; it was quite literally – home from home, hence the brilliance of the name of Naphtali Bennett’s previous party: “Jewish Home”. In those days, one’s political leaning within the party was discernible by the size of the kippa and the angle that it was poised on the head. Back then, wearing a kippa was not synonymous with being right-wing. Back then, wearing a kippa and being an Anglo did not automatically mean that you were right wing, Republican, bigoted, and considered Trump the best thing that happened to the Jews.
At the first opportunity to vote as a free Jew in my own country I searched out for the party that most represented my Weltanschauung – my worldview. Mafdal’s main interest at the time lay in preserving the status quo, keeping the country as Jewish tasting as possible. Status quo has never been my thing (although my brother still loves their music). My doctoral thesis was on far-from-equilibrium-thermodynamics. I looked for a party that cared for people in the way that my Jewish and son-of-a-holocaust survivor values demanded, a party that put “Love they neighbor as thyself” first not last, and where neighbor is not defined in the narrowest of narrow meanings, namely the male Jew next door. The only party I found that seemed in any way to care for others was Ratz and then Meretz.
The new government of today fills me with apprehension. I hear the hands and the voice of Kahana. Being a religious Jew, in fact a religious anything, is not the best recipe for an enlightened democracy. Religious values beat to a different drum and it’s certainly not the drum of compassion and deep inner reflection; it is not the drum of Jacob/Yisrael who learned the hard way about humility, about the dangers of hubris, about the need to be straight with God and bow the knee in recognition that we err, and are responsible, in our own way, for the pain in the world. This, I believe is the message of Judaism. This is the power of Yisrael. And so I call again: Where are the Jewish voices? Stand up and prevent the deconstruction of our enlightened construct that we call Yisrael.