(RNS) — Over the past year, many American rabbis have described Israel’s government as extremist and warned American Jews that it has the potential to undermine Israel’s democratic norms.
But few have called out this government as pointedly as Rabbi Sharon Brous, who in a barnburner Yom Kippur sermon Monday (Sept. 25) accused Israel’s new right-wing government of harboring a messianic agenda that aims to turn the country into a fascist theocracy.
One of the United States’ most influential Jewish clergy, Brous is a co-founder of IKAR, a nondenominational Jewish congregation in Los Angeles launched in 2004 that has grown to about 1,200 families. Those who attended IKAR’s Yom Kippur service, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, applauded frequently during her remarks, which she titled, “This is the Moral Earthquake.”
Brous also spoke about Israel’s politics in terms of a metastatic tumor, saying at one point, “This government’s radical legislative agenda has landed the body on the examination table and it would be a travesty to diagnose a life threatening spinal tumor as indigestion.”
“This was the shofar blast that needed to be heard,” said Jeremy Barnett, a member of IKAR, referring to the ram’s horn blown by Jews during High Holiday services.
Barnett, who sits on the board of an Israeli nonprofit that serves at-risk youth, watched online and called it powerful and inspired. “It was delivered in a clear and loud and trembling way.”
Until recently, American rabbis have rarely criticized Israel, mostly because any critique is bound to offend members who view the country reverently. Many American Jews see Israel as core to their spiritual identity and pray for Israel’s security at every Shabbat service. They visit frequently and fund various causes in the country through charitable donations.
These commitments have begun to waver since late December, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assembled a governing coalition that was anchored by ultranationalist parties. Its first bid was to take greater control of the judiciary, passing a law in July that limits the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to overturn decisions made by the government.
Thousands of Israelis have flooded the streets in weekly protests exhorting crowds against the government and what they see as a grave challenge to Israel’s democracy.
But Brous identified the source of the tumor growing in Israel’s government as the 56-year occupation of Palestinian lands, which many of the government’s ministers believe were promised to Israel by God.
“Many of us have spent years trying not to look,” Brous said of the occupation, in part because Jews feared any criticism of Israel would fuel rising antisemitism. But Jews, she told her congregation, can be victimizers as well as victims.
Brous urged congregants not to disengage from Israel but to divert their funding away from the institutions propping up the occupation and its dream of a greater Israel. Instead, they should invest in institutions and nonprofit organizations that are working to build its democracy and civil society.
“The fact is, there can be no democracy with occupation,” Brous said.
Other rabbis spoke in far more guarded terms on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, rejected calls for American Jews to lobby the U.S. government to intervene in the internal debate going on in Israel.
“I have faith in Israel, its people and its ability to solve tough problems,” he said in his sermon.
Reached on Wednesday, Brous said she spent many sleepless nights worrying about her sermon but ultimately felt passionately that American Jews need to be actively involved in the battle for Israel’s soul.
She said she saw at least two people walking out as she delivered the sermon. But she also said she was encouraged by the spontaneous applause, which she typically discourages.
“I felt that I had to really be very explicit about what I see as the illness at the heart of the rupture that we’re seeing on the streets (of Israel) right now — not to shame and blame — but to try to move us toward a more responsible engagement as an American Jewish community,” Brous said.