This is my eleventh consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
For the past few weeks we’ve been reading about the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. First came the extremely detailed instructions for building it, followed by an extremely detailed description of how it was built. Finally, last week we read a report that included how many people were involved, and the value of materials. By the time we finished the book of Exodus, we knew about every pole, hook, ring, animal skin, thread and more required to build the Mishkan. Regarding its operation, we knew about every artifact, vessel, utensil, and garment, from the golden altar to the High Priest’s underwear.
At least, we thought we knew about every artifact, vessel, utensil, and garment. As we begin the book of Leviticus, we see that sacrifices are more prominent around the Mishkan than perhaps we had realized. (In the Mishkan chapters, sacrifices feature in relation to the ordination of Aaron and his sons, Exodus 29:1-37, with a mere 5 verses, Exodus 29:38-42, about future daily offerings.) And then we might ask ourselves – though, as I noticed while writing an article about the knife in the Akedah (Genesis 22:1-19), it seems that no-one ever has – where among all the implements of the Mishkan was the sacrificial knife?
The plot thickens. From detailed accounts of artifacts in Exodus we move to detailed accounts about animals in Leviticus. We know which species of animal is required for each type of sacrifice; what gender; what age; and what state of health. We know where and when each animal must be killed and, sometimes but not always, who will kill it. We know how it should be cut up and washed, how the parts should be arranged on the altar, what will happen to its blood, who can and cannot eat flesh that isn’t burnt (when that applies), and which parts cannot be eaten. We even know about the smoke that will ascend heaven-ward from the animal’s burning carcass. But we know nothing about the knife that will take the animal’s life.
The Babylonian Talmud (Hullin 17b-18a) and later commentaries discuss in detail what makes a knife fit or unfit for ritual slaughter.
The status of a knife in which there are several notches is considered like that of a saw; and with regard to a knife in which there is only one notch, if it catches, the slaughter is unfit, but if it entangles [mesukhsekhet], the slaughter is fit. What are the circumstances of a notch that catches, and what are the circumstances of a notch that entangles? Rabbi Eliezer said: A notch that catches is one that has a sharp edge on two sides, while a notch that entangles is one that has a sharp edge on one side. The Gemara challenges this explanation: What is different about a notch with a sharp edge on two sides, where the first edge [moresha] compromises the neck by removing the hide and the flesh, and the latter edge rips the simanim; in the case of a notch with a sharp edge on one side too, the sharp tip of the knife compromises the neck and the edge of the notch rips the simanim… (Babylonian Talmud Chullin 17b)
Further from home, knives feature prominently in visual images of sacrifices in ancient Greece. In fact, priests are identifiable by the knife they are holding or the knife sheath they are wearing.
A well-known ancient Greek ritual enactment, sometimes described as a ’comedy of innocence’, narrates a trial to determine who was responsible for the prohibited slaughter of ‘the working ox’. The knife, the only one of the accused unable to protest innocence, is condemned.
But aside from one possible mention in the book of Ezra (mahalafim, Ezra 7:1-11), which more plausibly refers to the comb for scraping the skin from a slaughtered animal, the Bible is silent about sacrificial knives. In other words, in the Bible, knives for performing animal sacrifices — the knife with which Abraham planned to kill his son Isaac is, of course, mentioned in the Akedah (Genesis 22:6, 10) — are conspicuous by their absence.
Conspicuous by its absence until recently at Israel’s pro-democracy demonstrations was the Occupation. There were occasional signs in the thick of the crowd – No democracy with Occupation – and small though vocal groups of protesters gathered at the edges, often criticized, and even attacked, by other demonstrators. But in Jerusalem, at least, nothing came from the stage, and the speakers, Jewish and Arab, avoided the subject.
This silence was understandable. Demonstration organizers were intent on bringing the largest possible crowds, and the divisive subject of the Occupation would undoubtedly alienate many potential participants. But as the weeks go by, the Occupation is becoming increasingly conspicuous by its presence, and, to generalize, demonstrators seem less sensitive about it.
One explanation for this change is Hawara. Extremist settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank are nothing new, but the pogrom in Hawara reached a new level in terms of the degree of violence, the number of participants, and implicit and explicit Government support. Four suspects were detained, but later, a shocking 50 Knesset members, including nine ministers, signed a letter calling for their release. In their eyes, administrative detention, that is, on reasonable grounds but without a specific charge while an investigation is underway, is permissible for Palestinians but not for Jews.
I attended one leftwing demonstration in Jerusalem organized explicitly in response to Hawara. There weren’t many Israeli flags.
But the attack has been forcefully condemned at mainstream demonstrations, and groups who prioritize the Occupation have since reported a significant increase in empathy and interest from other demonstrators.
Another explanation for the increasing presence of the Occupation at pro-democracy demonstrations is the widespread and widely reported reluctance of military reservists, especially pilots, to serve under the present Government. If – when – the State of Israel is no longer democratic and cannot be relied upon to prosecute its own war crimes, they fear possible arrest, trial and imprisonment in other countries. Since such charges are most likely to be based on military action in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, maintaining the Occupation is ever more untenable.
Still on the military front, along with the unwillingness of reservists to serve an undemocratic government, young men and women may well start refusing to be conscripted in the first place. The fear of what they’ll be asked to do and its legal consequences, especially in the Territories, is one factor. Another is intensifying anger and frustration about the gap between secular and mainstream religious young people who spend several years of their life defending their country, and the growing Haredi population, protected as never before by the present Government, of whom no comparable demands are made. No-one buys the claim that Yeshiva and Seminary study is equivalent to military service. But this is not an argument about whether Haredim should be conscripted. It’s a question of how an increasingly volatile West Bank can be maintained by the shrinking percentage of the population serving in the military.
Finally, Israelis may be about to discover what it means to live in a non-democratic country. But as long as Israel is forcing its rule of law on millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its grasp on democracy is in any case slender and fragile. More and more Israelis are coming to understand that even if the Government’s suicidal legal reforms are cancelled tomorrow, upheaval in the Territories could spell the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish State.
For these reasons and more, the Occupation is becoming slowly but visibly normalized at Israel’s pro-democracy demonstrations. This is as it should be. From the perspectives of both the occupiers and the occupied, we cannot afford to let what is, tragically, a defining characteristic of Israel today be conspicuous in public discourse about democracy by its absence.