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Israel’s Judicial Overhaul – A Letter from Rabbi Zemel

July 2023

Dear Friends,

Yesterday’s Knesset vote that strips the Israeli Judiciary of some of its authority to override extreme Knesset measures and to keep criminals out of office was a hard blow for those of us who love Israel. I was distraught until a dear friend reminded me that she had learned from a friend that “Jews don’t despair.” I am more resolute in my support of the Democracy Movement in Israel than ever before.

In the closing pages of his masterful work, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit writes the following:

“And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable. Our play was the most extravagant of modern plays. The drama was breathtaking. But only the end will properly put the beginning into perspective. Only when we know what has become of the protagonists will we know whether they were right or wrong, whether they overcame the tragic decree or were overcome by it.”

Over many years, I have read and thought about these lines more times than I can remember. The protagonists are, of course, the citizens of Israel.

The “tragic decree?”

The Babylonian exile

Imperial Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the second exile

Christian antisemitism

The Spanish Inquisition

Chelmnytsky Massacre

European Pogroms

The Shoah

Centuries of the “tragic decree” impacted the Jewish psyche and left Jews wary of the wider world. How could it not? Zionism was meant to end this. Zionism was a radical Jewish attempt to solve the “Jewish problem.”

Could we create a new Jew and Judaism in our historic homeland that overcame the “tragic decree” of Jewish history while simultaneously embracing the modern world? Could we create a Jewish homeland that was manifestly Jewish but did not mandate Jewish observance? Is traditional Zionism still strong enough to create a forward looking Jew that is able to confidently face and embrace the world?

Yesterday the protagonists in the drama took a huge step away from this Zionist project. In doing so, they are creating an insular Israel that fears diversity within and the foreign world without.

This anti-Zionism that rules Israel today is rooted in two very different yet both relentlessly immoral forms of Judaism that have politically united and seek to destroy Israel’s democracy from the inside. They are ultra-Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Religious Nationalist Zionism.

Both are products of recent Jewish history. They are authoritarian in nature, anti- modernity, and anti-intellectual. In short, the battle in Israel today is between those who seek an Israel governed by Jewish law with no room for non-Jews and with restrictions against women, non-Orthodox, and the LGBTQ community, and those who seek for Israel to be a Jewish form of Western Democracy with liberal values including equality for all and protection of minority rights.

I have said and written before that I am unable to separate myself emotionally from Israel. Yesterday’s vote steels me in my dedication to the protest movement that seeks to bring Israel back from the precipice of its own self-made destruction and restore Israel to what I see as its true Zionist roots.

My friend reminded me: Jews don’t despair. “Od lo avda tikvatee \ I have not yet lost my hope.” The hope for Zionism still beats within me.

This is where I stand.


Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

Stay Informed

I urge you to stay informed on these critical issues. To do so, I highly recommend the following organizations and websites:

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights – I am proud to serve as vice-chair of the Board

New Israel Fund

Ha’aretz – a leading Israeli newspaper (subscription required)

The Times of Israel – no subscription required

Rabbi Eric Yoffie

Rabbi Yoffie spoke at Micah in April. He is the leading American reform rabbi writing about Israel today. I find his insights unsurpassed.

His most current article can be found here: Fundamentalist Orthodox Judaism is Dealing a Death Blow to Israel’s Democracy

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