By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
Within hours of the Kenneset passing a deeply divisive ‘Jewish Nation State’ Act something utterly baffling happened in Israel.
A Rabbi was arrested, in Israel, for the crime of celebrating a marriage between two Jews according to Jewish law. Yes, you did read that correctly.
Rab Dov Haiyun is a Masorti Rabbi, leader of the oldest Masorti congregation in Israel. He was arrested at 5:30am and taken for interrogation for the crime of celebrating a Jewish marriage in Israel – that’s another law passed by the Kenesset. Not that it’s the police-officers fault. As Rav Haiyun said, “Unfortunately, the nice young policemen serve as tools for the ayatollahs in Israel,” More on this absurdity by clicking below.
Now, I love Israel. I recognise Israel’s remarkable accomplishments, achieved under levels of stress I can barely fathom. I even recognise the power of these Israeli ayatollahs comes from the ballot box – in the country in which they live and I don’t. I know that whenever any of us, Jews living outside of Israel, and rabbis even more so, take up a verbal-cudgel to oppose the actions of the Israeli state a little of the love we all have for Israel gets chipped away. But this is unacceptable.
Worse than that, there is a connection between this offensive, frankly antisemitic, abuse of my colleague and the Jewish Nation State Law which formally enshrines the Jewish nature of Israel in language that the non-Jewish minority and its allies feel to be deeply exclusory. The connection cuts to the very heart of the nature of democracy. Etymologically, a democracy is a society where power is exercised by the populace – which is fine. But the true essence of democracy is the management of power; who gets to vote and crucially how the power of elected representatives is constrained. The treasured epithet, ‘being a democrat’ is not awarded simply to those who win elections. Hitler was elected. So was Hamas. So too – without wishing to overplay any similarity – are the current elected leadership of countries stretching from China to Russia, Hungary Turkey…
Democracies are not characterised by the wielding of power by the majority, but by the constraining of the power of the majority. True democracies constrain the powerful because treating difference and disagreement as sacred is the only way to ensure all members of a democracy thrive – not just the ones who agree with the views of today’s elected leader. It’s a vital thing to care about not just because times change and wheels spin round, but because no-one is ever, truly, fully in agreement with anyone. We are each unique. We all have our differences and peculiarities. Our uniqueness and peculiarities are the sources of our humanity. No human should ever cheer for any political or communal body that seeks to suppress difference. We might find that our difference is the next to be suppressed. Moreover, it is only through the encounter with difference that growth and development are ever possible. The deepest task of a democracy is to protect difference, not suppress it.
I’m proud to be a Masorti Jew – one who privileges complexity, nuance and disagreement – above uniformity. I’m proud to be Rabbi of this community – which models exactly this behaviour – even if we sometimes take longer to move than a more autocratic community might. I’m honoured by the support of our membership for this approach to communal life. We need to stand ever more firmly, waving a flag for the values of a space created for this truly democratic approach to the common life.
And somewhere in all of this, I’m frustrated that I feel I have to say this, today. It’s the eve of the 9th Av – the marking of our previous destruction caused by ‘Sinat Chinam’ – pointless acts of hatred. I want to respond to our history with a call to acts of ‘Ahavat Chinam’ – but this is, already, too long a missive. If you are still reading. Thank you. Please consider assenting by coming this Saturday evening for our 9th Av commemoration, jointly with Belsize Square Synagogue (at NLS, learning from 9:15pm, service at 10pm). Come to fold these pains, frustrations and the battered hope of our people ever more deeply into our souls.