My body is back from Israel, but not my head and heart. ‘Don’t turn away at this critical hour. Stay by us. Know that there are many Israels; decide with which you stand.’ That’s the key message I was given in this time of danger, when both Israel and the meaning of Judaism are at stake.
I’ll describe elsewhere the amazing UK-bound rabbinical students gathered at the Conservative Yeshivah to share their learning, spirit, values and devotion to each other.
I’ll say little of my half marathon, the guide dogs I met, and how in the last metres I looked the wrong way and carelessly, idiotically, ran into a road, was missed by a bus by 3 inches, am lucky to be alive and must say the blessing ‘for the unworthy to whom God does good.’
No: I’ll focus on what’s seared in my mind from meeting after meeting. Forgive me; I must write more than usual.
De-mo-crat-ya; the chant from the demonstrations doesn’t leave me. No one gave Israel’s present government the right to tread down those principles, which, beyond the word’s literal meaning of ‘power of the people,’ are the essence of democracy: the supremacy of justice and law, equality, freedom of conscience and expression, respect for minorities. ‘I’m terrified,’ a gay activist tells me. These values are at risk not just in Israel but in many lands.
Everyone I know is there, right, left and friends who don’t go to demonstrations. The speakers are well-chosen: leading women, an Arab Israeli, a senior academic, an ultra-orthodox rabbi. As they name the wrongs of the proposed legislation, the chant turns to ‘bushah, bushah, bushah, shame, shame, shame.’
There’s power and hope in these demonstrations, which keep going, growing, can’t be ignored.
I pick up the sticker ‘Democracy and Occupation cannot Coexist.’ ‘You can’t dissociate this from the occupation,’ says orthodox rabbi Alon Goschen-Gottstein, who created the Elijah Interfaith Institute, as we walk through the lanes of beautiful Yemin Moshe. Injustice knows no green lines and crosses back over separation walls.
I sit with scholar Dror Bondi, raised among settlers with the belief that ‘God is Jewish,’ until, spiritually troubled, he encountered Abraham Joshua Heschel’s ‘any God who’s my God and not your God isn’t God.’ Is it conceivable, he writes, that in a Jewish state the high court of justice should not be above and independent of the government, just as in times of monarchy the king was subject to the Torah’s law ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue?’
Israel’s crisis is political, but it’s also about the nature of Judaism. Now more than ever is the time to uphold the spiritually, morally, culturally, rich and courageous Judaism whose God is the God of all, against a nationalist, literalist narrowing down. For Judaism’s reputation is on the line.
I go with the New Israel Fund and Ir Amim to the valley flowing from the Old City to the Arab village of Silouan. Below, donkeys graze sweetly in a model biblical farmyard. But it’s part of a land grab led by El Ad who’re also behind the cable-car project and a bridge across the valley to dominate the neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a conversation years ago with the CEO of a nearby Palestinian hospital: ‘You’re an intelligent people,’ he said, ‘And I’ve been a peace activist for years. So what are you doing trying to force us out? What consequences will this have?’
I hadn’t thought of as animals as political. But next day I’m in the West Bank with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Torat Tsedek (Torah of Justice). His car stuck in mud in the rainswept hills, he documents settlers calculatedly grazing their sheep on undisputedly Palestinian land. He phones the police and army; when we leave, they haven’t yet arrived: ‘By the time anything happens the sheep may have eaten all the produce…’
Arik, who has extraordinary physical and moral courage, has been attacked many times. At the trial of the seventeen-year-old who held a knife to his throat, he pleaded that the young man not go to prison, saying “We must honour God’s image in every human being.” About those words Professor David Shulman, author of Dark Hope, Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, wrote: ‘Out of the 613 mitzvot the Jews are meant to perform, this one stands out. Its existential priority, in the awareness of a person like Arik, speaks to the old tradition of Jewish humanism that I knew from my grandfather and my parents.’
We love our country and look after it for everyone, say the leaders of The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel when we meet to discuss partnership with Jtree over planting shrubs and trees round wetlands project. But the proposed legislation will remove all safeguards over nature, allowing virtually unlimited ‘development’.
‘Stand by your principles, but meet everyone,’ says my dear friend Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum. Day and night, she works to get people together: ‘Our society’s torn apart. We must hear each other if we’re to heal. She’s bringing women leaders, Jewish, Hasidic, Druse, Muslim, Palestinian, Christian, right-wing, left-wing, west bank, to listen to each other at Bet Hanasi, the President’s House. ‘I don’t compromise on principles,’ she says, ‘But we must hear one another; it changes hearts.’
‘I’m hopeful,’ says a friend who’s senior in Israel’s bank: all the financial institutions, at home and abroad, all the high tech, is telling this government to stop. So are high officers in the army and air force, whose lives are constantly on the line for our country.
The current government stands on three dangerous pillars: militant settlers, who don’t want to be held to justice by the courts; ultra-orthodox who don’t want equality for women or different branches of Judaism, or to serve in the army; and corrupt leadership at the highest level. It’s also supported by many who, often with reason, have long felt hurt and unheard.
Facing it are millions deeply devoted to Israel who seek to uphold the true meanings of democracy, groups from right and left, countless NGOs, people practising chesed, tzedek, ve’emet, lovingkindness, justice and truth, people who risk their own and their children’s lives for a country so often wrongly attacked, hated and defamed. Alongside them are millions of Jews and non-Jews abroad.
Time and again I’m told: Say to your community ‘Stand with us. Tell them there are many Israels; tell them to choose carefully which ones to support. Use your influence. We need you all.’
The demonstration in Jerusalem falls silent, then everyone sings Hatikvah together: ‘Our hope has not ceased, to be a free people,’ free for everyone. It is deeply moving.
Jonathan Wittenberg is the Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism and New North London Synagogue.