The current heat waving scorching Israel is not the only temperature on the rise. With the Tisha B’Av fast day approaching, the temperature of the Jewish people’s collective memory is ramped up to boiling point. The pain of exile, of oppression, of being always a stranger and no where at home is re-enacted through a series of incremental mourning rites, through the Tisha B’Av fast, and through the public reading of Jeremiah’s Lamentations. Lamentations – one of five Biblical scrolls read on a variety of holy days throughout the annual cycle – is traditionally held to be Jeremiah’s testimony of the Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem culminating in the first Exile in 586 BCE. It is a searing dirge describing the violence of foreign invasion, occupation, and the catastrophe of a free people banished to walk the earth as destitute refugees. Jeremiah decries the public corruption of the Judaean leadership, the failure to protect the rights of the weakest of society – the immigrant and outsider, the widow, and the orphan – and the deliberate ignorance encouraged to sweep harsh realities and bad news out of the public eye.
Two thousand six hundred and eight years ago, Jeremiah warned the Judaean leadership and the people of Israel about impending catastrophe.
Ongoing protest and widespread public outrage – have been focused for the last six months on protecting Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Unlike the First Temple period, there is no invading army at the walls of Jerusalem today. The marauders are a democratically elected Israeli government; a coalition that includes hardened ultra-nationalists who would be welcomed in contemporary Hungary and Poland, territorial messianists, Jewish supremacists, and ultra-orthodox clerics who have no qualms about avoiding their most basic responsibilities to take part in the defense and building of the State of Israel. They flaunt a narrow majority as if they are the only legitimate voice in Israel.
This week the parliament of the State of Israel struck a blow against the Scroll of Independence, against Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state. In an already flawed democracy, the Israeli government passed a law severely limiting the power of the court system to provide oversight and supervision on government action, including decisions on policy, budgets, and appointments in government ministries and the civil service. With this decision, the Israeli government decided to take a step away from democratic countries like Britain, France, and Germany. With this decision, the Israeli government stepped closer to embrace an illiberal majoritarian model more closely resembling countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey.
In Biblical times, Jeremiah – like most prophets – was a lone voice facing a leadership who feared dissent, and a public who preferred good news and happy endings. Today, the voices warning about the extremely dangerous path championed by the current Israeli government are not lone voices crying out in the desert. They are tens and hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens. They include many of Israel’s foremost figures in security, in business, in high tech, in the legal world, in medicine, in education, and in academics. In March 2023, taking a bold moral stance, President Isaac Herzog condemned the government plan: “It is wrong, it is oppressive, it undermines our democratic foundations. And therefore, it must be replaced with another plan, one that has consensus, and immediately…. There is one choice: travesty or a solution. If you choose the path, you have gone down until now, chaos will be on you. History will judge you. Take responsibility immediately.”
Former President Reuven Rivlin, himself a central figure in the Likud party throughout his political life, participated in a mass demonstration outside of the Knesset the evening before the parliament voted on restricting nearly to elimination the reasonableness clause. With great emotion, Rivlin read from Israel’s Declaration of Independence and added his significant voice against those arguing that majority rule is the essence of democracy:
“Even 120 MKs cannot change the State of Israel as the Jewish state in which there are equal rights for all citizens… Even if 120 MKs suddenly come and say, ‘The State of Israel will not be democratic,’ it won’t help them. The State of Israel was built as a Jewish and democratic state – no less Jewish than democratic, and no less democratic than Jewish.
Members of the Knesset from the ruling Likud party and their coalition partners have decried critics and political opponents as purveyors of doom, as agents of despair, and as spoiled elites only seeking to protect their own privileges. Government ministers and parliament members have desecrated the parliament speaker’s podium by heaping abuse on protesters injured in scuffles with police and by water cannon volleys. Like the priests and false prophets who sought to silence Jeremiah and repress his message; they prefer to shout insult and opprobrium rather than consider the consequences of their actions. When the vote itself was over, and the coalition succeeded in passing this dangerous law marking the beginning of Israel’s retreat from democracy, coalition members preferred to pose for self-congratulatory selfies to mark their victory over the people and State of Israel. They did not even have the simple sense of decorum to pretend to respect voices of opposition and criticism, and the tens of thousands standing outside the Knesset fearing a slide towards an authoritarian Israel.
A popular slogan usually employed by the nationalist right in Israel declares, ‘A Long Road Does Not Scare the Eternal People.’ I was pleasantly surprised that tens of thousands of Israelis walking from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem chanted that same call, reclaimed that same sentiment. Tens of thousands of people – veterans of Israeli’s wars, parents with babies in strollers, students, doctors, people who voted left, right, and center, political activists and people inspired by a basic patriotism to protect their homes – all walked together in the roasting heat because this struggle is a campaign of ‘no-choice’, a struggle of ‘ain breira.’
Israel on Tisha B’Av 2023 is not a dictatorship. However, the Israeli government seems to be doing everything in its power to ignore the sound advice of gatekeepers, patriots, friends, and well-wishers and to walk us closer and closer to a broken military, a failed economy, a normalization of prejudice and racism, and a dim tomorrow.
With all that said, and with the tremendous pain that I hear from so many neighbors, friends, and colleagues – I return to the sights and sounds of the July 2023 March on Jerusalem – a pilgrimage for the Scroll of Independence. Between the chants and cheers and blowing of horns; one song stood out for me – an Israeli classic that I first learned at Camp Tel Yehuda when I fell in love with Israel as a teenager – “Suddenly one arises in the morning and feels that they are a nation, and they begin walking, calling out ‘Shalom’ to everyone along the way.” The protest movement and the March on Jerusalem are a public awakening that the struggle for a better future for all of Israel demands ongoing attention and work. Our walk as a people is not yet over. The Jewish people’s memory is long, and it was that memory that the Zionist movement translated into the determination to ‘be a free people in our own land.’ What we have achieved in the last seventy-five years – including all the flaws, failures, and challenges – are ours. May the pride we possess in what has been achieved be the engine driving us to repair all that is still undone. We will not surrender to despair. The struggle to build an Israel worthy of its citizens and the Jewish people around the world will continue.
Remember Jeremiah’s call to all who will continue the struggle for a better tomorrow for Israel – “They will fight against you but they will not vanquish you…” (Jeremiah 1:19) I remain hopeful that a mending of Israel can take place if all parties come to recognize that the passions that divide us – are also expressions of a commitment to a common heritage and future. Zealotry is the road to Exile. Lasting victory comes when dialogues thought impossible are nurtured into possibility.