Israeli elections (not a sabbatical update)

(A slight rant – you’ve been forewarned and I know I might not be popular with the views below)…There’s a couple of things that I think we in the diaspora Jewish community have to acknowledge, when viewing the Israeli election results (and more generally Israeli politics). I wrote this before reading Rabbi Creditor’s piece.

The first thing is, for those of us progressively minded who may be dismayed by the results. My friends in Israel who have expressed the feeling of loss in the recent results, principally it seems because they really thought this time round Netanyahu would lose (so psychologically the grief is greater and despondency even more manifest), are entitled to feel despondent about whether the electorate represents their progressive views. There’s no escaping the incendiary views that seemed to win Netanyahu’s likely continuation as Prime Minister. But we in the diaspora are not entitled in the same way. We don’t live there.

By which I mean to say, we can be concerned about the strength of non-progressive feeling (even if there wasn’t a ‘massive’ rightward swing). We can seek to support organisations that more accurately reflect our values and what we seek for the State (and two states), lobbying policy change – after all Netanyahu comfortably presents himself as ‘the’ spokesperson for the Jewish people. But you know what, in my lifetime here in the UK we had years of Thatcher and Tory governments, followed by years of Blair and Labour. I could feel that one or the other didn’t represent me, especially as I reached voting age. But it was the will of the electorate. If I wanted to change the government, I had the option of joining a political party and/or participating in protest and I could cast my vote. If I couldn’t persuade enough people to join ‘my’ cause then it was my problem. Which means, you can be unhappy with Israeli government policy, advocate for change in the political positioning, I can even be fed up with Netanyahu’s woeful record in leadership anywhere but his own power. But if you don’t live in Israel you can’t complain about who was elected. If you want to change the government (as opposed to the policies) then go and live in Israel and participate in the democratic process. If you’re Jewish or even ‘simply’ have a Jewish grandparent you can move to Israel under the law of return, become a citizen, pay taxes, vote as much as you like (which by the way is the other side of the coin to Netanyahu’s offer for French or Danish Jews to come to Israel after the terrible shootings). If you don’t live in Israel, don’t bleat about the choice the electorate has made. That my friends is democracy. And the more we despair the clearer the gulf between the diaspora Jewish community and Israel seems evident.

Now here’s the other thing that many of my close friends and colleagues in Israel might not state explicitly or don’t agree with me about, but for me this is a case for Zionism. This election makes clear, especially having read some moving posts by those articulating a view of politics in Israel, that casting a vote in Israeli elections is making one of the strongest, demonstrable examples of life-and-death Jewish decisions. And I know it’s not just Jews voting (and for that matter there are those directly affected by the election who are unable to vote). Let us, as if it were possible, for a moment not talk about the enfranchisement of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. I’m talking about the reality that day to day Judaism  is no longer, really, about these enormous decisions. It’s about who’s coming to the communal seder, complaining about Jewish leadership, choosing (or not) to join a synagogue, rising antisemitism. But casting a vote in the Israeli elections has clear ramifications for the future of the Jewish people in a way that little in the diaspora can.

Actually, it’s one of the deficiencies of Israeli politicians as I saw it this time round, and one of the deficiencies in Jewish leadership in the world. We no longer talk about visions for the Jewish people and the world in which we live. We don’t say often enough these are the values that I think should be manifested in my community and society and push a conversation around them. Not in specifics. But a vote in Israel, at least in an implicit way, is a way that the Jewish people understand their particular and universal vision and are given the chance to express that understanding – what it means to be Jewish (how to be) and what we want our relationship to the world around us (including our fellow citizens and neighbours) to be.

This year began with a frightening reminder of antisemitism and the threat it poses. As Jewish communities we have in the diaspora, especially in Europe, been faced again with the existential anxiety that merely being Jewish or identifying with the Jewish community can be life endangering. We have mourned again for Jewish blood shed on European soil. That anxiety has been all pervasive in the last three months in communal discussions. Now imagine if that anxiety was every day for decades. That is what hangs over the electorate when the votes are cast in Israel. Being Jewish counts for more than culture or niceties of communal politics. Jewish identity in Israel stands for, at least potentially, the possibility of life and the quality of life for all those who share life on a little sliver of land in the Middle East and all inhabitants of our tiny planet. That is the potential of Zionism. Not the tragic racism, bigotry, theocracy, inequality and occupation which these election results seem to reinforce.

Zionism is more than a romantic dream. It is the expression of a people’s identity. The opportunity to be and to become. The expression of a vision of a minority for the global society. No longer is Judaism bagels and bar mitzvah. It is values and vision. That’s what we have lost sight of I think. We obsess over us and them politics. We see shadowy figures of millennia of Jew hatred lurking at every street corner. We fight over communal politics and authenticity. We plutz over synagogue membership. We throw lavish Bar Mitzvah parties and go to our lovely cultural events. We have become blinkered and unimaginative. And we the leaders, preachers and speakers have fallen into this short sighted trap. It is time to speak again about visions and values, over and over until we’re heard, about turning our oldest gift of prophetic imagination into action.

Rant over, now back to giving some tzedakah (charity) to the organisations in Israel that share my progressive values and trying to support my friends who live in Israel who are at a loss for where progress towards peace, equality and justice will come from.

Advocating inclusive dialogue & shared responsibility: Yachad and the Zionist Federation

Last Shabbat, we read Ki Tissa (including the golden calf story) and we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of Lotte – here is my sermon:

Lotte, your davar Torah was a tough criticism of Moses and Aaron. According to you, Aaron is a crowd pleaser who leads without example and Moses is too quick to be angry. You definitely don’t pull any punches in describing Moses and Aaron and their failings; the way they and the Israelites are not exactly covered in glory as they build the golden calf. It may have been one of the first times in Jewish history that the leaders of our communities did not exactly give the impression that they were good at their task. But let’s not give our rabbis and lay leaders too much of a hard time…yet.

There is a section in the Babylonian Talmud, in a part known as Ketubot (Marriage Contracts) which discusses the responsibilities of men in various jobs to their wife and family. Sages, we are told, have their own responsibilities, with an expectation that they should not go off and study and become so consumed by their scholarly life that they forget duties at home. Unlike the Catholic church, rabbis have never been expected to live celibate lives.

There is, in this section, a series of stories that reflect rather poorly on rabbis (which my friend and teacher Dr Moshe Lavee first taught me at the Leo Baeck College): they forget their homes, or what their children look like, some travel away for up to 12 years. The series begins with Rav Rechumi:

“R. Rehumi who was frequenting [the school] of Raba at Mahuza (situated on the Tigris) used to return home on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he was so attracted by his subject [that he forgot to return home]. His wife was expecting [him every moment, saying.] ‘He is coming soon, he is coming soon’. As he did not arrive she became so depressed that tears began to flow from her eyes. He was [at that moment] sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him and he was killed.”

I’m not going to give you an extended commentary on this story, but note that the one day a year Rav Rehumi returns home is Yom Kippur – a day not noted for its personal intimacy. He becomes consumed in his studies to the neglect of his wife. On only one day he comes back each year and he forgets and it’s not exactly an inauspicious day – it’s possibly the most important ‘date’ in the calendar – pun intended.

We must not, lest you think I’m some kind of believer the non-natural occurring, read this story as a ‘true’ event, but rather a figurative warning to all: One tear, a single drop from the eye of one’s beloved brings downfall and destruction. Yes, leaders beware, if you become all consumed in your high and mighty duties, you might become unmoved by the human story, even of your own family.

Lotte, I thought of this story because it’s been in the news recently and because of your Torah portion. The links to your Torah portion because there are some direct comparisons we could make – a man travels up a mountain to receive Torah or on to the roof ecstatically studying Torah and tarries there for longer than is acceptable to those he leaves behind. The outcome is a shattering of worlds – the children of Israel build the Golden Calf and the forgotten wife’s tear brings the world crashing down. There is a critique of both those up high and those down below – if you’re gone for a long time, don’t give the impression you have deserted your duties; if you’re waiting below remember that your actions could have far reaching and long term effects.

But I said that there had been a news story that reminded me of this story.

It was about three weeks ago that Dr Ruth Calderon, a new member of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) for Yesh Atid, delivered her maiden speech. Yesh Atid was a new party for this election and did incredibly well. Calderon has a PhD in Talmud from Hebrew University and is someone who has a wonderfully nuanced insight into the discourse within our sacred texts. As someone pursuing a PhD in a similar subject it was a particularly moving speech. The speech is powerful because of the palpable tension (you have to watch it on youtube), but also its substance.

Calderon began her speech by producing a volume of the Talmud, Tractate Ketubot. The one I mentioned earlier. Calderon delivered a remarkable speech teaching a text, Lotte the story that I just told to you, that moved the other Knesset members from her personal life, her connection to Zionism, academic life, religion and politics. One thing she said might seem unsurprising, to paraphrase: within political leadership it is vital to recognise that in this world sometimes both sides are right and, crucially, a sense of isolated responsibility can lead to disaster. In other words, if we both have a sense of responsibility for the same thing we should be extremely careful to avoid any wilful ignorance that we are alone – that is the way of destruction.

She described what she learns from this story:

“I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings. I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that, both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home…Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding.”

Calderon has a particular take on the story that, I think, was intended to create a dialogue in the Knesset and in Israel and it is that interpretation and expansion of its meaning that I think will speak strongly to members interested in thinking and talking about Israel. My experience of the conversation with members in many Liberal synagogues (not just at the LJS) about Israel is one that is deeply concerned for the present difficulties and the Jewish and democratic character of the state. At the same time, I talk with people who are eager to consider a better future for all Israel’s inhabitants and at peace with its neighbours – two states for Israelis and Palestinians in secure and negotiated borders is hardly radical. Frequently the anxiety I hear is that this vision feels, at times, desperately distant. It’s not that everyone in our community has to have the same opinion; just that if you share and uphold our Liberal Jewish values you are welcome to take part with us, listen and contribute.

Actually, I still have a strong memory in the last Liberal synagogue where I worked of being accused (by a visitor) of the sin that I was an enemy of the Jewish people. What horrendous thing had I done? In line with the value of open and considered engagement that I hold to be central to Liberal Judaism, I had hosted a conversation with a former high profile member of the Knesset whose views did not fit with those of my accuser. I was reliably informed that I was giving succour to antisemites – on the threshold of the synagogue where I then worked.

So Lotte, we return to leadership. If my information is correct, the person accusing me was, at the time, a prominent member of the Zionist Federation. He wasn’t a member of the synagogue, he was a leader visiting another community and he attacked me – his head was far up the mountain oblivious to me. That’s the same Zionist Federation in the news this week for excluding an organisation from joining its membership called Yachad. Yachad, a relative newcomer to the UK scene, is an advocate for Israel and for peace – frequently offering an outlet for Jews who want to be critical of the State of Israel and constructive too. It is, avowedly Zionist. So why its exclusion from the Zionist Federation, the ‘umbrella organisation for the Zionist movement in the UK’? It is unclear and they are protesting.

Yachad should probably be thanking the Zionist Federation (ZF) for its vote to reject them. They’ve received some important publicity in light of the vote and their supporters will not be swayed in their commitment to Zionism or Yachad. But then again, and here’s why this makes me think of your Torah portion this morning Lotte, the vote just goes to show the best of UK Jewish leadership–full of backbiting and recriminations: a superbly alienating world for our meagre community. Lotte you probably have many friends and family in our congregation who aren’t even Jewish and are wondering ‘why is this important’? Well it’s an example of, I think, the danger that Dr Ruth Calderon warns against in her speech. A speech to fellow leaders. A speech to civil leaders not religious leaders.

It goes to show that all leadership is perpetually in jeopardy of falling into the trap that Calderon describes: “…often in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that, both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumi, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home.”

Jewish communal leadership is a marvellous thing is it not?! That’s why Calderon’s words of dialogue were important in defining an inclusive way to talk about how to build the future. It’s that or the idiotic and childish accusation that I’m an enemy of the Jewish people. The question for leaders today is surely where you situate yourself in these paradigms: inclusive dialogue – awareness of a shared sense of responsibility, or exclusion and rejection.


NB – Some of the materials used in this sermon were also used in my piece in the Jewish News on 7th March 2013.