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Here is what’s really Jewish about a Jewish state

No, it's not a flag, an anthem, or even a capital
Members of the LGBT community and supporters participate in a protest against a Knesset bill amendment denying surrogacy for same-sex couples, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on July 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Members of the LGBT community and supporters participate in a protest against a Knesset bill amendment denying surrogacy for same-sex couples, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on July 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The question that the “Nation-State Bill” was meant to answer – What is Jewish about the Jewish State? – received a fine reply this week, although not in the language of the law that the government barely managed to pass. The Judaism of the “Nation-State Bill” is a shallow and mean thing, reduced to a flag, an anthem, a star on a map marking Jerusalem as our capital, and a sour insistence that Hebrew is Israel’s only official language, and the Jewish holidays its only official holidays. Criticisms of the law generally made the case that it reflected too shallow a notion of democracy in a Jewish State. That’s true, but it may be that what bothered me most about the law was its too-shallow notion of Judaism in a Jewish State, which it summed up as a bunch of symbols, a plot of land, and ability to muffle non-Jews. There has got to be more to it than that.

A better answer to the question, What is Jewish about the Jewish State?, was on offer last night in Rabin Square, at the huge demonstration for LGBTQ rights. The rally followed a day of protests around the country, including a general strike by LGBTQ workers around the country, spurred by last Wednesday’s 59-52 Knesset vote to extend the country’s surrogacy laws to cover single women (and, by extension, lesbians), but not single men (and, by extension, gay men). Asked why the events were planned for Tisha B’Av, the traditional Jewish day of fasting and mourning over the destructions of the ancient temples, LGBTQ leaders explained that the day matched their message. The rabbis taught that the Temples were laid waste because of “senseless hatred,” and their struggle was against the same thing.

Addressing the 100,000 demonstrators, Yael Dayan said:

Today is the end of Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, and I am here to call upon you to prevent the destruction of the Third Temple. The Third Temple is not in some messianic future, it is not on the Temple Mount, it is not at the Wall…. The Third Temple is Israel’s Declaration of Independence. … It speaks of equality, justice,… human rights, community, progress, fairness, education for all, courts… Freedom of expression is the Third Temple. … The Third Temple, which has existed for seventy years, is the Israel of all of us. Of minorities, of asylum seekers, of families of gay and lesbians, of the right of everyone, and especially tonight of gay men, to hear from their child the word, “Abba.”

Yael Dayan, who at nearly 80 wore an oxygen tube and spoke from a wheelchair, has watched the queer community become stronger and more fully accepted over the past decades; a quarter of a century ago, it was she who chaired the first Knesset subcommittee on LGBTQ rights. She has watched as the country grew stronger and more accepting, for instance witnessing her father, General Moshe Dayan, the second child born on the first Kibbutz in Palestine, negotiate as Foreign Minister a peace with Egypt that, just a couple of years earlier, few thought possible.

The answer that Dayan, and the rest of us in Rabin Square, proposed to the question, What is Jewish about a Jewish State? was this. A Jewish State is a state that sees in Tisha B’av not just a memorial to an ancient tragedy caused by ancient hatreds, but a chance to reflect, together, on today’s hatreds. It is a state that seeks to take the deep Jewish tradition of family, and adapt it to a time, ours, when our notions of family are wider than our grandparents’ notions, and theirs. It’s a state that tries to learn something from Jewish history that coaxes from us our chauvinisms, rather than indulge them.

You can disagree with Dayan’s notion of what Tisha B’Av is for, and her notions of what Judaism and Jewish history teach. But, accept them or not, it is hard not to see that her ideas are more serious – morally, spiritually, intellectually – than just a flag, an anthem, a capital and the stipulation of which language we, as Jews, do not speak. We got a lesson this week about what it means for Israel to be a Jewish State; it came not from the Knesset, but from Rabin Square.

About the Author
Noah Efron hosts TLV1's "The Promised Podcast" (http://tlv1.fm/content/full-show/promised-podcast/). On the side, he teaches history & philosophy of science at Bar Ilan University, and has served on the City Council of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. You can lavish him with praise or scorn at noahjefron@gmail.com
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