Rabbi Stanways Thoughts on Israel March 2023

Rabbi Stanway: Thoughts on Israel

Just a few weeks ago, I came back from the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention that took place in Israel.  It was a trip unlike any of the other dozen or so trips I have taken. There was a mood in the country of anger by many (not all) loud Orthodox voices toward the non-Orthodox and, at the same time, resolve and dedication to maintaining Israel as a democracy by the majority of the population.

Israel is in trouble. The present government, under the guise of ‘judicial reforms’ wants to be able to override any decision the Supreme Court makes in favor of its own political ambition.  Supreme Court says ‘Reform Jews need to be supported by the State’? The Knesset can say ‘No!’ LGBTQ protections? Gone. State protection for Arab Israelis? That’s gone, too. Dissenting voices? No, don’t want to hear them.  In fact, the only thing not in jeopardy seems to be the promise that, if these reforms go through, the present indictments and criminal cases against the Prime Minister are dropped.

And on the ground level, there is real ugliness. Coming back from the morning service with the Women of the Wall, an Orthodox teenage girl spit on the Torah we were carrying. Yes, spit on the Torah. Can you imagine? But that’s not all. Burning a Reform siddur seemed like a good idea at the time, as well. It was a taste of Jewish theocracy and a rerun of the post-Hanukah story (but more about that in a minute). This is what too many yeshivas are teaching: the Torah about how to hate other Jews. It is a shame that will be hard to erase.

As I was sharing these thoughts with a friend, he said something that really stuck with me: It’s like watching the past 50 years of work go down the drain. It is going to be hard to defend Israel as a democracy for all its citizens if their voices are forbidden from being heard, if their institutions are not supported by the State and if a Jewish theocracy is established in Israel. But that is the fear.

That is why while I was in Tel Aviv, there was a demonstration of 150,000 people on a very chilly Saturday night. And that is why a couple of weeks later, the demonstrations blew up to 230,000 people. That is about the equivalent of 30 million Americans protesting something. Reservists in the Air Force have refused to train saying that ‘we will not fight for a Jewish dictatorship.’ Consuls have resigned saying that they cannot, in good faith, represent the government.  Some Israelis want to live in a Jewish version of the Taliban. Most don’t.  And that is why there are even Orthodox voices that denounce the government’s actions. That is why on the ‘Day of Paralysis’ the country effectively shut down as a million people (1/8 of the population) went on strike. Even the government was at a loss for words about the effect it had on them. And the government is starting to respond by backing down. This is encouraging. But this is not the end of our efforts.

I am committed to doubling my support to Reform institutions in Israel. This is an affirmation that I support those institutions that carry my values. The Israel Religious Action Center and the Hebrew Union College are two that come to mind immediately.  But supporting local institutions is equally as important.  

On Erev Shabbat, we put aside our concerns for a day and celebrated Shabbat in Shoham at ‘V’ahavat: The Reform Community in Shoham. The joy and the energy, the enthusiasm and the music, and the whole Shabbat vibe was a glimpse at what every Jew of every stripe in every Israeli town can feel. It is what we all ought to feel and we will, as soon as the theocratic Jews step aside.

Jewish theocracies are always a disaster. We have seen it before. Right after the Maccabean revolution (yes, the Hannukah story), the government of the Hasmoneans started to rule and tried to make Israel a theocracy (remember the Macabees saw themselves as Jewish purists and had no problem persecuting others who were not like them).  The theocracy didn’t last long. Court intrigue, murder and revolution and rebellion were the commonplace and everyday events. Kind of like a Jewish Game of Thrones but without the dragons.

The truth is that the present government in Israel is hanging on by a thread of a coalition because promises to extreme Orthodox leaders were made in exchange for their support. So far, they have said Palestinians don’t exist, there will be unlimited building anywhere Israel considers Israel – i.e., in any town in the West Bank, and that anyone who made Aliyah without definitive proof of their Jewish ancestry may be stripped of benefits and even citizenship. Oh, and that no hametz comes into any Israeli hospital during Passover! Somehow that is important to some people. Gevalt!

This is what a theocracy looks like.

It may be tempting to turn our backs on Israel as it would seem it betrayed what and who it was.  But that would be a huge mistake and counterproductive. We do not have to blindly support the government to support Israeli institutions that we believe in. And being loud, speaking our truth and values to the Israeli government until we are heard is now more important than ever. When an ambassador or consul is inundated with letters, emails, phone calls, and so forth, believe me, it is reported back home. And exactly how is Israel going to glean support from non-extreme Jews back in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia, and other areas where liberal Jews are the majority? Their voices are being heard. And it is making a difference. 

I have no doubt that the present government is going to continue trying to impose a vision of Jewish domination over other Jews it sees as not Jewish enough. But it will fail. There are too many Jews who are too invested in Israel as a democracy and our support is absolutely vital to Israel. Today, because of the theocratic actions of the government, Jews are calling Israel a ‘shanda,’ an embarrassment.

But I am not embarrassed. In fact, I am even more vocal of my support for an inclusive, embracing, and democratic Israel. The government of Israel wants to silence any voice it doesn’t like. But since when to Jews keep opinions to themselves? Jews will never stop arguing. They will never stop protesting injustice. They will not become sheep to a theocratic government. That is why this struggle is not yet over. There are still theocrats waiting in the wings to deny every non Orthodox Jew and every non Jew in Israel basic rights. We will not let it happen.

Yes, this trip to Israel was eye-opening. But it was not the celebration of the miracle of Israel that we love to share with our tour groups, and rightly so. But it was a celebration of the promise that Israel can be. When millions of Jews take to the street to say ‘No’ that is a demonstration that the aftermath of the Hannukah story will not be repeated.  When Israelis loudly protest with their feet and their shekels against a dictatorship, the government will for forced to listen. This trip was an affirmation to me that most Israelis are fed-up with a government made up of intolerant bigots. And the government is only 4 months old!

I am thrilled that I went to the Convention in Israel.  It was an honor hearing from members of the Knesset, rabbis, and a former Supreme Court justice. But it was more of an honor and an affirmation about the future of Israel hearing the passion for justice and equity and equality from everyday Israelis. This is the passion that will ultimately save Israel from its theocratic and dictatorial tendencies. And a fire like this cannot be doused. 

Rabbi Cy Stanway