The results of the recent Israeli elections led to a victory (in terms of Knesset seats, though a virtual draw in terms of votes) for the supporters of Netanyahu. His largest and loudest partner, Religious Zionism, has broken up into three factions that claim to speak in the name of Judaism. The Religious Zionism faction supports settlements, illegal outposts, and the economics of bullying. Jewish Might is a neo-Kahanist faction that supports the use of greater force against Arab citizens of Israel, asylum seekers, and Palestinians in the PA. Noam, the most extreme of the three factions, is particularly active in persecuting the LGBT+ community.
When this is the face of political Judaism, alongside the Haredi parties, it is hardly surprising that many of my friends – Israelis and Jews from around the world – feel that they have had enough of Judaism and of Zionism. If Judaism and Zionism are as represented by Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz, they argue, we would be better off swearing allegiance to a universalism that fights for democracy and leaving Judaism to the right wing.
In my opinion, this is a mistake. There is an alternative, and it is more important now than ever. The alternative is to insist on a different kind of Judaism and Zionism. This isn’t a new invention, but the mainstream of biblical and Jewish values over the generations. In response to the militias of organizations like Lehava and Jewish Might, who sing “may your village burn,” we must bring Abraham, who struggled with God to make sure that the penalty imposed on Sodom and Gomorrah was not an unnecessary collective punishment, and to ensure that innocent inhabitants of these cities would find refuge.
In response to those who hold Arabs and asylum seekers responsible for all the ills of Israeli society, we must return to the 32 biblical mentions and commandments concerning the need to protect and love the stranger. The Torah expects us to show empathy to strangers among us: “You know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” This commandment is repeated more than any other in the Torah – more than the commandments to observe the Sabbath or to believe in God. The reason is that this is a litmus test for any human society. When we gain power, what will we do with it? When we regain our sovereignty after two thousand years, will we defend the strangers among us, those we control, and those who seek asylum? Or will we use our power to harass, persecute, blame, and despise them?
The attempt by the Jewish supremacist right wing to weaponize Judaism and Zionism in order to attack anyone who refuses to fall into line with their fake patriotism is nothing new. This is a well-known practice of violent and dangerous right-wing forces throughout history. I grew up in Ashkelon in a religious, right-wing, Mizrahi family, and it was always clear to us that decency comes before the Torah.
We must defend ourselves and we are not afraid to use force, but it is always the last resort. Waving pistols in the air, declaring hatred for the LGBT+ community, or insulting Arabs were alien to our Sephardi heritage and our Judaism. We understood that using power and control over another people damages ourselves. Even those who believed and continue to believe that the occupation is necessary (a position I disagree with) can see that it is causing corruption. The bitter fruits of occupation are fed to us daily by leaders who speak of God and Zion while they crush the shared infrastructure of life that is the only foundation capable of ensuring long-term prosperity in this Land we hold dear.
It is time now to discover the full cart of caring Judaism and Zionism. We will not bow down in the face of the sword of Judaism waved over everything that built this Land, from the Torah to the Declaration of Independence. We stand strong and firm with our own Jewish and Zionist flag. We are determined, and together we will win.