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A Democracy in Name Only

By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

I am writing this letter on March 2. In six days, I will be leaving for Israel to lead our second Micah trip there in this Jewish year (5783). In all my years of traveling to Israel, I never have experienced the level of anxiety I feel today.

I have no fears about my safety or that of the Micah members who will accompany me. My fear is for what Israel has become—an illiberal democracy, a democracy in name only and one that is flirting with theocratic rule.

I am writing this because Jews have inflicted a pogrom on the Palestinian village of Huwara in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. To think that Jews committed murderous violence and then paused in order to daven Ma’ariv (the evening service) sickens my heart. It makes a mockery of prayer.

I am writing this because I am reminded of the question that the great Rabbi Harold Schulweis asked after Baruch Goldstein, a graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush, murdered 29 Muslims in a mosque in Hebron while they were at prayer. “Where was he in the yeshiva the day they taught ‘Thou shalt not kill’?” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17)

I am writing this because the Passover story is a universal story. Our master story is a story of slavery to freedom. It requires the commentary “in every generation, we must look at ourselves as if we, too, were newly freed slaves.”

I am writing this because Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. knew our Jewish story when he taught his Torah with such pearls as, “No one is free until we are all free” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In short, I am writing this because just as I am unable not to love Israel, I cannot not write this letter.

Maybe by the time you read this, Israel’s gruesome government will have fallen—or the massive demonstrations opposing this Jewish fascist regime will have prevailed. If so, my words are wonderfully unnecessary and for that we can celebrate our Passover with joyful songs and the singing of Hallel.

If the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has fallen, you need read no further.

If not, we are in a dark period of Jewish history and we must oppose this government with all of our heart, soul and might.

The leaders of Israel today are like those who worshiped the Golden Calf as Moses was atop Mt. Sinai. They are idolaters of the worst kind. They have scorned the notion of devotion to an invisible God who hates theft and murder, covetousness and deceit. They worship the idol of blood and soil. They are happiest when they are praying in front of the Western Wall, while denying Jews of whom they do not approve, the right to pray as they freely choose.

Blood? They hate conversion to Judaism and don’t trust anyone’s Jewish status except their own.

Soil? They throw innocent Arab citizens from homes they have lived in for generations, replacing them with Jewish thugs who care not one whit that people have been rendered homeless. They worship a delusion of a “Greater Israel,” taking as truth and prophecy the fantasy of a biblical metaphor.

The fantasists of Greater Israel do not understand the very essence of either biblical or rabbinic Judaism. They are true idol worshipers.

For our ancestors, the temple mount, where God’s house was built, was the foundation stone of the entire world. The Hebrew term is Even Ha-Yasod.

All of creation is said to have emanated from that rock. It was the place that linked heaven to Earth. It is where the Heavenly God had his earthly residence. It was the place of connection and security—the foundation of existence. (This is the genesis of our song Al Shlosha Devarim/On Three Things.)

The survivors of Jerusalem’s destruction—those who witnessed the burning of the ancient temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE—literally had the foundation of their existence torn from beneath them.

They questioned how they could live. How would the world go on? To what could they cling that would give them safety and stability? The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was, for our ancestors, the end of the world. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the greatest sage of this era, reminded the survivors of the great teaching of the earlier sage, Shimon Ha-tzaddik.

Shimon Ha-tzaddik, who lived four hundred years earlier—in the time of Alexander the Great—had taught that God did not live in any house or temple. The temple was simply a symbol of divine presence. Even Ha-Yasod, he explained, was a metaphor.

The world, Shimon Ha-Tzaddik taught, stands on three things: Torah, the book that holds our story; avodah, prayer, the search for a God that lives in each and every open human heart; and gemilut hasadim, acts of love and kindness that we do for others

These are the essential lessons of Torah. This is what Moses received at Sinai.

The fascist government in Israel today is making a mockery of all that Judaism has ever been. Its leaders are ignorant of one of the central lessons of Judaism: the world stands on love and kindness to all others. Instead, they have embraced a destructive idolatry and called it Judaism. In doing so, they are destroying the Israel that was given to them and making our world a dangerous place.

I am writing this because at Temple Micah, on Passover and Shavuot, we celebrate a Judaism that sings out, with pride, Shimon Ha-Tzaddik’s great lesson.

We must fight the idolaters in today’s Jerusalem now, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. This government cannot stand. For the good of Israel. For the good of Judaism. For the good of the world.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of the Vine.

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