The Israeli election this week resulted in a victory for Benjamin Netanyahu, who is dependent on the support of the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party to take power. Learn more about the election results here. Here are responses written by some of our rabbinic team.
The first I heard about the results of Israel’s elections was an email from the Freddie Krivine Initiative which brings children together from every background: We shall not give up on our work! That was enough to tell me all the rest.
That vote, and other world events besides, made me turn urgently to Emily Dickenson’s poem
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
We need hope; we need it to land like a familiar robin on our outstretched hand and hop down into our heart.
The stirring Psalm recited through the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holydays concludes with the repeated instruction
Hope in God; be brave, make your heart strong, and hope in God (Ps. 27)
The rabbis taught that every repetition in the Bible has a purpose. The point here is that to have true hope we need to work at strengthening our heart with everything which inspires us.
So these are some of the things which motivate me. The first is people. Three secondary school boys came to my home for lessons yesterday. The first two said ‘COP 27 is going to be a disappointment, like COP 26.’ ‘Only partly,’ I replied, wishing I disagreed more. But the third said something different: ‘I’m in a local group which plants trees, clears weeds and improves paths. I go once a month with my father. The sustainability committee at my school has got rid of plastic bottles.’
So the first message I tell myself when I feel low is ‘Stick with people who’re doing good. Find them, follow them, keep them in sight.’ That’s how I felt at Parliament for a launch of the Walking Inquiry into Immigration Detention. Here were people, some who’d been detained themselves, who listen to asylum seekers, walk together, act together, and who’re determined to keep going until they right the wrongs of the system.
That’s why, regarding Israel, we must speak out for the dignity of all people, condemn racism clearly and specifically from wherever it originates and support everyone working for a respectful, pluralist society.
Fortunately, across the world there’s no shortage of people from every faith and walk of life whose purpose is to do what’s good, and who’re passionate about it. I try to go where I can learn from them. They strengthen my heart.
My second source of hope is the world’s beauty. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about love. My wife and I saw a deer trapped in a fence. She’d misjudged the height of the top wires and caught her hoof between the strands. She hung upside down, her head on the turf. I tried to speak gently as I wedged the wires apart and watched her limp off, her leg sprained but not broken. ‘She’ll rest in the woods. There’s food there, and water,’ Nicky said.
How can one not love our fellow creatures, our companions on this earth, especially when they don’t harm us? That’s my second source of hope: the sheer preciousness, the vulnerability and wonder of human life and all life, inspiring us to work for people, also animals, trees, nature itself which needs our urgent engagement.
‘Od lo avdah tikavetnu, Our hope has never ceased…’ runs Israel’s national anthem, expressing the secret of Jewish, of all human, resilience.
Our hope may never have ceased, but few of us can honestly say that it’s never even faltered. That’s when we need to nourish that hope and, fortunately, as Emily Dickenson concludes in her final verse
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
I recently watched a satirical news show which had the misfortune to be filmed immediately after Liz Truss’s resignation, but broadcast a few days later. The host could only apologise, lamenting that the rapid newscycle condemned his broadcast to speculation and irrelevance. I have been warned. The news cycle event of massive importance for us, in the very midst of which I am writing, is the Israeli election. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar ben Gvir represent a politics of extremist and objectionable hatred which, masquerading under a banner of ritual-religiosity, threatens to hold a balance of power in the new knesset.
Smotrich has a long history of inflammatory and hateful rhetoric towards Arabs, Muslims, the LGBT community and non-Orthodox Jews. The Board of Deputies have made it clear in the past that he is not welcome in the UK. Ben Gvir, who hangs photos of Baruch Goldstein in his office and explicitly supports terrorist organizations, is perhaps the more frightening thug of the two.
I hope, by the time you read this, history will have shown this to be a moment when Israeli society flirted with the politics of bile before rejecting it. If, as seems troublingly possible, you are reading this in a new era, in which Kahanist politicians have assumed cabinet office in Israel, we must not allow our loyalty, love and regular prayers for Israel and its inhabitants to blind us to the moral failure such an election would represent. The values of Ben Gvir and Smotrich are antithetical to the values of Masorti Judaism. I rarely get to quote so approvingly from editorials of The Jewish News, but this time I find myself in firm agreement:
“If Bezalel Smotrich or Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Britain as ministers, some of us might be tempted to overlook their views and welcome them as representatives of the State of Israel. Some may even encourage the British government to do the same. We must stand against that.”
This week we begin reading the narrative of our nation’s founding family. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all figures of diplomacy, who struggled through the difficulties of neighbourly relationships between Jews and non-Jews in the Ancient Middle East. Each of them made more progress through strategies of tolerance and love than through strategies of hate and suspicion. Writing, nervously, on Tuesday afternoon – I pray that their descendants will remember the wisdom of their ancestors, and pay heed to the better angels of their nature.
I believe that Shuls should be a safe space for a range of political opinions. I also believe that Shuls should be a safe space from the world of political opinions. Usually. I’m sorry to feel the need to speak against democratically elected political leadership both in this country and Israel.
I feel the need to share a deep pain regarding the general election in Israel. I am proud that Israel has the courage to be a democracy, but ashamed of the votes cast in favour of the ‘Religious Zionist’ party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. The ‘Religious Zionists’ look set to receive enough votes to make its leaders key cabinet-level power-brokers in the incoming Israeli Government. They have both said and done enough for me to consider them inflammatory racists. They are dangerous in their ability to draw anger towards Arabs for their own political gain and dangerous in their ability to ‘confirm’ the worst suspicions of those who would wish to portray Israel as a racist country. True religious Zionists would strive, as the Declaration of Independence called for in 1948, for Israel to, “promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; uphold[ing] the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; guarantee[ing] full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture; safeguard[ing] the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions.” This week’s vote makes it harder to claim that the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence still articulate the efforts of Israel’s incoming government. That is a terrible failing.
This week, also, I found remarks of our Home Secretary this week, on the ‘invasion on the South Coast,’ deeply unwelcome. That these comments came in answer to a question about the functioning of the Manston Asylum Processing Centre makes it worse. That a young woman at Manston felt the need to write a message to “journalists, organisations, everyone” placing it in a bottle to hurl over a fence, has chilled me, as a Brit, and as a Jew, a descendent of immigrants to this country. I want Britain to have a compassionate and well-run asylum processing system, in accordance with national law, international human rights obligations and a moral sense of who we, as a nation, would wish to be. I stand behind the comments of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, “It is disgraceful to see a government minister repeating the language of the far-right, and referring to people fleeing conflict and torture, including child refugees, as an ‘invasion.’ To many British Jews, such appalling language is sadly familiar. In 1938, the Daily Mail condemned “the way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring into this country.”
Our response to these failings of leadership must be a firming of resolve and a willingness to give of our own time and resources to strengthen the voices and the claims of compassion and decency in these febrile times. If you share my discomfort, please tell others – post these, or other words on social media. Write letters. Take positions of courage. And please find opportunities to support those working to support these claims of compassion and decency, both in this country and abroad. There are plenty of agencies and non-for-profit heroes out there – 89% of Israeli society, of course, declined to support the ‘Religious Zionists’ of course. It’s my honour to support the New Israel Fund who do so much to strengthen civil society in Israel.