Mourning temples’ demise on Tisha B’Av, some Jews see parallels to Israel’s democracy

Many American Jews are in mourning not only for the temples, but, they say, for Israeli democracy, which has been badly tarnished.

Thousands of demonstrators block traffic on a highway crossing Tel Aviv, Israel, during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, July 24, 2023. Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key portion of Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite massive protests that have exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

(RNS) — On Tuesday (July 25), four Israeli major newspapers blacked out their front pages in a sign of mourning. The gesture — a one-page ad paid for by a group of high-tech workers — was appropriate for the week’s solemn Tisha B’Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem.

But this year the lamenting that accompanies Tisha B’Av has a new meaning, protesting a law passed Monday that limits the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to overturn decisions made by the government.

Israeli Jews were the first to refer to the new law as equivalent to “churban habayit” — “the destruction of the temple.” Jews traditionally mark Tisha B’Av with fasting and by reading the biblical Book of Lamentations. The day begins this year at sundown Wednesday.

This year, many American Jews will be mourning for Israeli democracy, which they say has been badly tarnished under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nearly all mainstream American Jewish organizations fired off statements of rebuke, if not outright condemnation, for the new Israeli law and for the government that passed it. The tone of many of those statements was uncharacteristically critical.

The American Jewish Committee expressed “profound disappointment,” while the Jewish Federations of North America said it was “deeply pained” by the divisions this law has caused.

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The headline the association of Conservative rabbis sent out read “Conservative Movement Deplores Knesset’s Passage of Bill.”

Gary Rosenblatt, former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York, titled his latest Substack: “The Israel We Know Has Fallen.” 

The new law, seen as the first in a larger plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary, strips Israel’s Supreme Court of the power to overturn government actions it deems “unreasonable.” The right-wing legislators who pushed for the law view the court as antagonistic to their interests — primarily because it has objected to the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank on some occasions.

American Jews, the majority of whom are liberal, are bracing for worse news ahead. “The passage of this bill was a very bad step toward just weakening democracy in Israel,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, chief executive of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “Unfortunately it won’t be the last step.”

Others predicted that the law could cause a permanent rift with younger American Jews, who have steadily grown alienated from Israel. “More and more young American Jews and Jews for whom Israel has been a significant but not total part of their Jewish identity will just walk away,” said Eric Alterman, a historian and the author of “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.” “That could mean walking away from Judaism as well.”

Israel has been an integral part of many American Jews’ core identity. Many revere Israel, seeing it as their spiritual homeland. They pray for Israel’s security during every Shabbat service. They visit frequently and they contribute to various causes financially.

Israel’s descent toward authoritarianism could tear at those attachments. “It significantly accelerates trends that have long been in process,” Alterman said.

But the timing of the law’s passage has given some opponents fodder for longer-term lessons. Jacobs said she planned to hold a webinar on Tisha B’Av in which she will review some Jewish texts about why the temples were destroyed and what it might teach Jews today.

Even though the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and the second by the Romans, the rabbis of the Talmud pointed the blame elsewhere. They insisted the destruction was because of “sinat chinam” — Hebrew for baseless hatred among fellow Jews.

Jacobs said she hoped the lessons of Tisha B’Av might spur a renewed commitment to Israeli democracy.

“If those of us who care about democracy and human rights disengage, then all we’re doing is leaving a vacuum that’s going to be filled by the people who want to keep funding settlements and settlement expansion and who want to keep funding the attack on democracy,” she said. “What we really need to do at this point is gather our energy and prepare to fight what is going to be a very long battle.”

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