Posted on July 26, 2023
Tonight, we begin the commemoration of Tisha B’Av. This day is without a doubt the saddest on the Jewish calendar, as we remember the destruction of the first and second Temples. In recalling these tragic moments from Jewish history, one of the messages that we take from the day is not that our downfall came about because of external forces, but rather that we were the ones who sowed the seeds of our own destruction. The first Temple was destroyed because of grave sins committed by the people, and the second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred (Talmud Yoma 9b).
It is a sad irony that in the week when we remember the destruction of the Temples and the ending of Jewish sovereignty, we witnessed the first destructive piece of the judicial overhaul legislation passing the Knesset (Israel’s Government), preceded and followed by mass demonstrations a
midst real fear of what the future will bring.
The Government would claim that having received a majority in the Knesset they have the right to pursue the platform they were elected on. The opposition claim that the policies they are pursuing will effectively lead to a dictatorship, with no one and no institution able to stand up to the Government to oppose unjust legislation or protect Israel’s minorities. Many of Israel’s friends in the international community and in global Jewry have spoken out in objection to the reforms, urging the Government to negotiate a compromise that might be acceptable to all strands of Israeli society.
For those of us who fear for Israel’s survival as a democratic state, the vote on Monday night felt like it might potentially be the first nail in the coffin. The Government voted to end the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to reject Government legislation on the basis that it is unreasonable. The reasonableness doctrine emphasized the importance of policies being just, equitable, and considerate of others; as such, it was seen as a protection against Government excess and a way to safeguard minority groups. In the aftermath of the vote there have been widespread protests, strikes from major sectors of Israeli society, and IDF reservists have said that they will not show up for duty. And now the legislation that limits the Supreme Court’s power is being reviewed by that very Court, setting Israel up for a legal crisis.
Over the last few months, I have been asked, as Rabbi and as an Israeli citizen (through my mother I have an Israeli passport) to share my thoughts on the current situation in Israel. In my March sermon and in many of those conversations I have tried to see the silver lining to this very dark and ominous cloud. I celebrated the way in which so many groups have been motivated by the urgency of this moment to take to the streets and to protest to defend Israel’s future and to stand up for what they believe in. When Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, called for a pause of the legislation, warning that Israel’s security was at risk, I hoped that he might be the one to pull us back from the brink. And on a personal level, I have shared about my family in Israel who attend protests not just on a weekly basis, but several times a week, as they seek to protect the country that we love.
On Monday evening and into Tuesday it was hard to find any cause for optimism. While the Government might claim that they are removing the reasonableness doctrine because an elected Government should be able to pursue the policies it deems necessary, we know all too well that democratically elected Governments can rapidly descend into dictatorships. When the majority is allowed to rule unchecked it is always the minorities within society who suffer. My uncle shared a compelling cartoon, which essentially asked: why do they want to cancel the reasonableness doctrine? And answered: because they want to do things that are unreasonable. This is the very real fear in Israel today (and I will add that given some of the despicable figures in Netanyahu’s Government, it is a real and justified fear).
Throughout my life, we have been warned about the threats to Israel’s survival that exist beyond her borders – the dangers of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and others. While we focused on these external threats we failed to learn the lesson of Tisha B’Av that our destruction has never really come about because of others, but always because of our own internal divisions and strife. Jewish history offers a cautionary tale about what happens when we turn on each other, when we cannot follow the principles of justice and mercy, when we allow the voices of hate to drown out the voices of love.
It is hard to offer an optimistic message at this moment, and it is hard to know what we should be doing as Diaspora Jewry to protect the Israel that we love. In facing this moment, I think there are a few suggestions that I would make:
Tonight, we will mark the day of Tisha B’Av and we will remember the destruction of the first and second Temples; but one lesson from our history is that neither destruction was the end of our story. We are, and have always been, the people of Hatikva – the hope. We have always believed that things can and will get better; we have always believed in our ability to make a difference in this world; we have always recognized our power to define our own destiny. This is a dark moment for the State of Israel and by extension for the Jewish community wherever we might live – but we have experienced dark times before and we have overcome them. At this moment, and particularly on this day, we must learn the lesson of Jewish history – our downfall has always come from our internal divisions and never from the outside. I pray that we can overcome this moment of division, I pray that we will find a way back from the brink, I pray that Israel will survive as a Jewish and democratic state for all of her citizens.
And while there might be little reason for optimism:
Kol od balevav penimah, nefesh yehudi homiyah, ulefa-atei mizrach, kadimah, ayin letziyon tsofiyah. Od lo avdah tikvateinu
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, with eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion. Then our hope will not be lost.
With hope that better days lie ahead.
 As a refresher, the coalition Government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came to power with plans to restrict the power of the Supreme Court and in its place to elevate the power of the Government. As a country, Israel has no written constitution, and so practices have developed over her 75 years of existence to establish checks and balances within the system and to protect Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic principles.
While Prime Minister Netanyahu leads a coalition of 64 out of the 120 Knesset members, it is important to recognize that the parties he represents failed to get a majority of the popular vote. Israel’s electoral system meant that with 48% of the vote the governing parties received 53% of the seats, and in Israeli terms a solid majority. From the outset it has been clear that the proposed judicial reforms have been opposed by massive swathes of Israel’s population. Protests have taken place on a weekly basis to object to the erosion of Israeli democracy, growing with the sense of urgency and threat that Israel is facing. And a fundamental expectation of Israeli society has come under threat as groups of Israel Defense Force reservists have said that they will not show up to duty while the legislation proceeds.