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Israel just had a bad week

The challenges that face world Jewry seem almost overwhelming. Time to drill down on what we know to be true.

Herzl is weeping. An illustration from a photo of Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, circa 1897. Photo illustration

Herzl is weeping. An illustration from a photo of Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, circa 1897. Photo illustration

(RNS) — In 1948 — the same year Israel was born — a South African writer named Alan Paton wrote his classic novel “Cry, the Beloved Country.”

It has been many decades since I have thought of that work of literature, but lately I have been thinking about how its title is appropriate.

I have two countries I call “beloved” — the United States of America and the state of Israel. And, for both of those beloved countries, I cry.

I cry, because those nations face the same danger to their democratic ideals.

At this point, it is clear former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returning to power in Israel. His far-right bloc of parties will probably win enough seats to create a coalition government. That coalition will include multiple Haredi Orthodox parties, as well as the Religious Zionism slate of two parties, led by the far-right extremists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

I cannot overstate the danger that Israel, the American Jewish community and Judaism itself face.

Itamar Ben-Gvir is a racist.

  • He believes in the discredited radical anti-Arab and xenophobic rhetoric of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League in New York in the 1960s and then made aliyah.
  • He venerated Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 opened fire in the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 people and wounding 125 Palestinian Muslim worshippers.
  • He had threatened to assassinate former-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and in 1995, Yigal Amir did precisely that.
  • He supports passing a law that would make sex between a Jew and a gentile illegal.
  • Ben-Gvir was considered so dangerous, he was forbidden to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. That is the most stunning condemnation you will ever find of him and his ideas.

For the past almost five decades, those of us who are Zionists and who love the state of Israel have been battling the lie, which the former Soviet Union created, that Zionism is a form of racism. The United Nations adopted that libel.

On Nov.10, 1975 — 47 years ago next week — Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stood before the international body and said: “The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

And now, Israeli voters have brought to power a party that cynically contradicts Ambassador Moynihan, politicians who would give pitchon peh, an open mouth, to the critics and the Israel-haters who now get to crow: “You see! We were right all along!” 

Moreover, Israeli voters have made life that much harder for American Jewish kids on the college campus, who face growing anti-Israelism that has morphed into antisemitism.

Life has just become exceedingly more challenging for Jewish and Israel-based communal organizations. There is now a pressing need to interpret and re-interpret the American Jewish connection to Israel. 

I fervently hope none of these organizations will give a platform to Ben-Gvir and his ilk. There is no need to do so and there is every need to deny him a microphone.

But let us be clear — both to ourselves and to our critics.

What Itamar Ben-Gvir supports is not Zionism — by no stretch of the imagination — according to any reading of Zionist ideology.

More than that, his ideas violate Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Or, let me put it to you this way. Itamar Ben Gvir is to Israel what Marjorie Taylor Greene is to America.

For those of you who are fans of Superman comics, Itamar Ben-Gvir is Bizarro Zionism — nothing more than an ugly distortion of a heroic ideology.

So, let me offer you two messages today — two distinct sermons.

The first sermon is the sermon that an Israeli rabbi — of any flavor — might give tomorrow morning.

The text is this week’s Torah portion. Lech Lecha. Abram and Sarai had started their lives in Ur, at the southeastern point of the ancient Fertile Crescent, in ancient Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq — and they had moved northwest along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Haran, in present-day Turkey.

It is there God says to Abram, whose name will be changed to Abraham: “Go forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house … to the land that I will show you.”

As soon as Abram and Sarai arrive in the land of Israel, what do they discover?

V’ha-Canaani az ba-aretz. “But the Canaanite was then in the land.”

Abram and Sarai didn’t just show up and find an empty land. No, they found a land with Canaanites.

One of the ancient, alternative names for the book of Genesis is Sefer Ha-Yashar — the book of the upright and the just.

How did it get that name?

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin was the head of the famed yeshiva of Volozhin, one of the greatest centers of learning in the Jewish world. He taught that the reason why Genesis is called Sefer Ha-Yashar, the book of the upright and the just, is that the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — strived, in everything they did, to be yashar, upright and just, with the Canaanite residents of the land.

This was no leftist American rabbi. This was the founder of one of the greatest yeshivot in Jewish history.

In its racism and violent xenophobia, Israel’s radical right wing nullifies not only Zionism. It also nullifies traditional Jewish ideas. I know of no responsible or mainstream interpretations of Jewish texts that would support Ben-Gvir’s racism.

But, the second sermon — the sermon that an American rabbi, this American rabbi — would give to an American congregation.

Right after Abram and his family arrive in the land of Israel, something happens. There is a family crisis.

Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. The Canaanites and Perizzites were then dwelling in the land.

Abram stayed in the land of Canaan. Lot went to the Jordan Valley, to the Dead Sea, to the city of Sodom. Abram and Lot split. This is the first act of division in Jewish history — the cellular mitosis that creates Jewish history.

But what happens next? Abram engages in a war, and during the war, a king takes Lot hostage. It was the first Jewish hostage crisis. 

What does Abram do? There is no great affection between Abram and Lot. It is fair to say Abram loved Lot; he just didn’t like him very much.

And yet, Abram rescues him. Even though it was a shlep — as in, all the way north to Dan, which is in the Golan — and way beyond, well into what is modern-day Syria, north of Damascus.

Why? Because as Abram said: Ki anashim achim anachnu. We are brothers and sisters.

This is why we do not abandon Israel. The Jewish love for Israel is not contingent on its government, just as our love for America is not contingent on its government. Recall the Hasidic story in which a man comes to his rabbi and says, “My son has gravely disappointed me. What do I do?” To which the rabbi replied: “Love him more.”

I am prepared to love Israel more — yes, despite this disappointment. 

The Israeli pop song, “Ein li eretz acheret,” “I have no other country,” puts it this way.

I have no other country

even if my land is aflame

Just a word in Hebrew

pierces my veins and my soul —

With a painful body, with a hungry heart,

Here is my home.

I will not stay silent

because my country changed her face

I will not give up reminding her

And sing in her ears

Israelis have no other country to go to, and Israelis have no other country to live in. We can respect and applaud Israel’s vibrant democracy and still bemoan the choices Israeli voters have made (as many of us will say next week about our own elections).

Yes, Israel has “changed her face.”

Not for the first time, and not for the last time.

What is the role of American Jews and those who care about Israel?

In the words of the song — “To keep on reminding her” — of what she was supposed to be and of what she still can be.

If you want to become part of the solution, do me — and Israel — a favor.

Donate to an organization that believes in your values — in co-existence and justice. Like, for example, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism or HIDDUSH, Israel’s preeminent organization for promoting religious freedom, run by my dear friend Rabbi Uri Regev.

Be part of the solution.

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