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“I Am in Israel. Here is What I See,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

January 6, 2023 | 14 Tevet 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

I am in Israel. It is 2023 in January.

I boarded the plane on January 2 with a book by Amos Oz called Dear Zealots. I thought it might come in handy.

I also stepped in to the plane carrying the worry of many people who wrote and spoke to me of their anxiety about Israel. Many have wondered what will become of Israel with this new government filled with many more extreme members, fanatics even, than the past five of Netanyahu’s coalitions. The previous ones placed Netanyahu as balancing both the right and left. The amount of racist and biased rhetoric already expressed is cause for alarm. As the journalist and author, Matti Friedman, remarked in Tablet Magazine, “The Netanyahu government is the most politically extreme, the most morally corrupt, and the most contemptuous of good governance in Israel’s history. We have known governments with extremist elements, governments rife with corruption or incompetence. But not all at once and not to this extent.”

I didn’t leave my despair at home either. My heart has been heavy with uncertainty about how this government would behave as ministers voiced their intentions to shatter core values and to chart a different course that would lessen respect, compassion, and dignity for the many populations that make up Israeli society.

When I arrived, I did what most people do. I asked the cab driver who happened to also be a tour guide what he thought about the election. He had many opinions to share and since we were stuck in traffic, I heard them all. “Finally, we have a leader,” he instructed me, “someone who could deal with inflation and high prices.” He asked me if I knew how much real estate now costs in Israel. His disappointment with the previous administration was not difficult to surmise. He reminded how Netanyahu had saved Israel from COVID because of his ability to secure vaccines for practically the whole country. (Well, not everyone!). I asked him if he cared about the unethical behaviors of some of the ministers, their fanatical views and their desire to dismantle protections under the law. “Not really,” he shared.

When I closed the door to the cab, that would be the last voice from that perspective I would hear on my trip so far.

I am here in Israel for a week as part of the Hartman Rabbinic Leadership Institute. Though the theme is not the election, it is woven throughout every conversation. How could it not be? We have discussed whether this is an irreparable pivotal moment for Israel that turns it away from the North American community.

Members of this new government have already blatantly expressed that the fate of Israel does not depend on the reaction, feelings, or concerns of North American Jews.

Yet this does not mean that we should stop caring.

We need to condemn certain behaviors and attitudes of those who make up this government. It matters to us who live outside of Israel. It matters to the future of the Jewish people. And perhaps more importantly, it matters to the strength of Israel and its relationship with Jews all over the world.

There are those who may support Israel regardless of what the government does. And still there are many others troubled and still committed to Israel’s presence and existence. We need to know that there is so much more going on beyond the government: good, important work between Palestinians, Arab, and Jewish Israelis that bring people together. There are myriad organizations involved with peace and tikkun olam. We cannot forget that a country exists on many levels with many citizens doing the necessary work to improve and strengthen its foundational elements.

This is why I won’t give up on Israel, even as I strongly disagree with the direction of the newly elected government. The numbers of votes also reveal something important. For every person who voted for this government and the coalition formed by these parties, there is another person who voted against it. It was a very close election.

David Grossman, beloved Israeli author, received the prestigious Eramas Prize in 2022 for his literary artistry in the way he has expressed the theme of that year’s prize, “Mending a Torn World.” In his acceptance speech he offered a way forward:

“…If only I could say that the results of the recent Israeli election express…humanistic, egalitarian, moral stances. They do not. Nevertheless, I remind myself again and again that there are still many people in Israel for whom despair is not an option. For whom apathy or escapism are luxuries they cannot afford and do not want. We are still here…our values and beliefs were not defeated, and they are more crucial than ever before.”

So may it be.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher