Letter from Israel 5784

              I’m sorry I’m not with all of you this Rosh HaShana but I have been given the privilege of spending it in Israel.  This is being written a couple of days before the beginning of the chag and preparations here are well underway.  It is wonderful to be in a country where Rosh HaShana is a national holiday, a country where almost everybody you meet says “shana tova” to you. 

              Just like in the United States, I frequently find myself saying that we are re-living the opening line of Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  I am one month older than the State of Israel and it has been part of my life since we were both fourteen years old.  When I first came here, there was no highway larger than two lanes, the population of the country was the same as the population of Brooklyn and the average Israeli was considered middle class if she or he had a little motor on their bicycle.  Today, Israel is one of the richest (and most expensive!) countries in the world. Its population is about the same as that of Sweden, although the inhabited part of the country is about the size of Connecticut.  Much of the computer technology that operates your car and much of the internet comes from here.  When I first came here in 1962, I lived in a small farming village not far from the sea and north of Tel Aviv.  Now I live about two miles from there in a complex built on an artificial peninsula built into the Mediterranean and nearby are massive buildings for computer scientists with names like Microsoft, IBM and General Motors on them.  In a few years we’ll have our own subway stop on the massive transportation system being built for metropolitan Tel Aviv.  That’s the good news.

              The bad news is that, in so many ways like the United States, Israeli democracy is in danger.  In some ways, Israeli democracy is superior to American democracy.  There is no gerrymandering here because there are no individual voting districts for parliament.  Judges are selected by a panel made up of members of parliament from both sides, other judges and members of the bar association.  Election day is a holiday so everyone can vote.  But, like the United States, Israel has a significant portion of the population who are extremists and,  because of the parliamentary system, Netanyahu needs their votes to stay in power – and stay out of jail.  One of the strengths of Israeli democracy is that there is a separate Ministry of Justice and Attorney General.  The Attorney General’s job is to keep the government honest.  In the past the Attorney General has convicted and imprisoned a president of Israel and a prime minister, as well as a minister of justice and other leading politicians.  I’m still waiting to see that happen in the United States. But as the far right parties have become increasingly important to maintaining the current Israeli government in power, they have taken more and more actions to reduce democracy.  First, Israel passed a law (in violation of Israel’s declaration of Independence which requires equality of religion, sex, and ethnic groups) making the Jews legally more powerful than other religions.  And Judaism to them means only orthodox Judaism.  Now they have passed or are trying to pass a series of laws that would make the parliament have the power to select judges and would seriously limit the power of judges and the attorney general to enforce the rule of law.  Essentially, they are claiming that the rule of democratically-elected officials is superior to the rule of law and therefore, more democratic.  In my opinion and the opinion of many other Israelies, this would be the tyranny of the majority.  The first of these laws are now before the Supreme Court, which held a hearing on it just yesterday.  The Court will probably rule that the new law is unconstitutional (Israel has an unwritten constitution like Great Britain) but the question we are all asking is will the Netanyahu government accept the decision of the court?  They refuse to say.  I’m sad to say that, if Netanyahu & co. refuse to accept the decision, whether Israel will remain a democracy will be left up to the army and the national police force.  That is a distinct possibility and many of us here in Israel have been discussing this for months.

              It’s also the best of times and the worst of times for the Palestinians.  In many ways it’s the best of times for Israeli Arabs who are, of course, also Palestinians.  If you get sick in Israel you have a 50/50 chance of being treated by either a Jewish or an Arab doctor or nurse.  Israeli Arabs have similar education rates and family sizes to their Jewish compatriots.  But the vast majority of violent crime in Israel is Israeli Arab vs. Israeli Arab.  There is certainly still discrimination against Arabs in business and especially in housing.  But, on the other hand, the other day I had to go to my local hardware store.  I didn’t realize until they started talking to each other that most of the employees were Israeli Arabs.  In most cases they are indistinguishable from Israeli Jews.  Some of the girls wear head coverings but nobody cares.

Where the real problem is, is in the occupied territories. Their government is thoroughly corrupt.  Most Israeli soldiers serving there are conscientious and serve honorably.  Some of them are just plain brutal.  In addition, Palestinians have to deal with the brutality and violence of the Jewish settlers in the west bank – frequently the same people who are “leading the charge” for radical right policies in the government.  Much as I applaud the Abraham Accords, the fact of the matter is that the one group in the region who gained nothing from them are the Palestinians.

              So, what can we as American Jews do?  The first thing is to stop giving money to organizations like AIPAC that have become nothing more than mouthpieces for the Netanyahu government.  The Israel where the people who built this country has gone out in the streets in the tens and hundreds of thousands every week for the last thirty-nine weeks – including old guys like me and my friends, soldiers, air force pilots, high tech workers, etc.  They need your support.  When Netanyahu or representatives of his government come to speak in the United States – get out there and demonstrate against them.  Give to causes in Israel that you believe in.  Israel is a rich country and doesn’t need our money but the people and the organizations fighting for democracy need our money and our support.  And it works.  When Netanyahu tried to fire the Minister of Defense, mass demonstrations stopped him.  More relevant to American Jews, when it was discovered that this whole far-right plot to turn Israel into another Hungary was hatched by an American Jewish organization called “Kohelet” people demonstrated in front of the Philadelphia home of its chief financial supporter and he withdrew his support.  May I also suggest giving to an organization of which I am Chair in the United States, the American Friends of Beit Morasha.  Our two main programs in recent years have been an educational program for the Israel Defense Forces that teaches Israeli soldiers to apply Jewish values to their actions in the military.  Our other main program is promoting understanding with non-Jewish communities both in Israel and the Middle East.  That includes everything from running a beit midrash (house of study) for rabbis, imams, priests and ministers to learn about each other’s religion to joint programs in Morocco and Dubai studying each others’ religious texts and practices.  For more information on our organization please go to our website at www.bmj.org.il/en/.

I would also suggest visiting Israel. As we say when greeting somebody arriving here, “welcome home.” You will be amazed by this incredible country built literally on the sand.  The things we read about in the Bible are local history around here.  And you will be safe.  The average Israeli lives seven years longer than the average American and violent crime rates here are a tiny fraction of what they are in the Unites States.

              Why is this important to us as American Jews?  I’ll leave you with one factoid – I will be attending services at our local synagogue in Kfar Saba.  I will not have to give them my name in advance, I will not have to be checked by a security guard at the door, nobody in the synagogue will have a “panic button” to summon the police.  We are protected as citizens of Israel by the Israeli Army.  All across the world outside of Israel, Jews have to take the precautions I just enumerated.  This is the only Israel we’ve got and we need to defend it as a democratic refuge for the Jewish People.  Shana Tova.