Let’s talk Israel. Before that, a bit of personal background. I first visited Israel in 2001, as a freshman college student on Birthright Israel. When I returned home, I declared an international relations major (along with philosophy), focusing on the Middle East. I also returned to Israel to study at Tel Aviv University and then when my program finished, I moved up the road a bit to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I briefly returned to Syracuse to finish college, then returned again to Israel to begin rabbinic school. After my mandatory year of study was up, I applied for a summer job in Israel, returning to America just in time to begin class in Cincinnati. Since leaving then, I’ve returned multiple times. I’ve spent more than two years there and have returned fairly often. This is all a way of saying that I’ve loved my time there, that I have found great meaning in being there, and I hope that others will be able to experience something similar.
At the same time, I’m distraught at the state of Israeli politics. The problem isn’t just a normal run of the mill distaste for the nastiness in politics. Rather, it’s because the current government includes people with a terrible history as well as proposals that run counter to my values. Let me present to you a case in point, Ithamar Ben-Gvir, a member of the governing coalition.
He had hanging in his living room until recently a portrait of Baruch Goldstein. You can Google Goldstein and find out more, but the short of it is that he was a terrorist. In 1994, Goldstein went to the Cave of Macphalah, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and opened fire, murdering 29 and wounding 125 Palestinians.
He sees his party as the successor to Meir Kahane, who advocated the forced expulsion of all Palestinians. Ben-Gvir says the only difference between him and Kahane is style, though he also says he’d only expel those who aren’t “loyal.”
He threatened to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin before Yigal Amir assassinated him.
He has proposed legislation prohibiting sexual relations between a Jew and a non-Jew.
He proposes annexing the West Bank, but not granting citizenship to the Palestinians who live there, which would cement into law a version of apartheid and running counter to democratic fairness of one person, one vote.
He is a convicted criminal – his crime was supporting terrorism.
Even the IDF, which has mandatory service, wouldn’t let him serve.
We sometimes talk about religious fanatics and think of places like Iran or Afghanistan. Well, Ben-G’vir is a racist, xenophobic, terrorist-sympathizing, Jewish fanatic. He’s the Israeli version of the Taliban or Ayatollah. And now he is the minister of national security, overseeing, amongst other things, the police.
Loyalty comes in many varieties. We can be loyal to people, to a country, and we can be loyal to our values and ideals. Sadly, sometimes these come into conflict. A country that I have many wonderful memories in has chosen to go down a path that I can’t support, and no one should. I’m beyond disappointed. I’m devasted. I once defended Israel publicly - it’s near impossible for me to support Israel’s direction now.
So what does this mean? Well, a few thoughts - we can’t downplay the significance of the current Israeli government. Nor can we ignore or downplay that the current Israeli government was elected - and the electorate knew what they were signing up for. At the same time, the current Israeli government doesn’t own Israel. They have been selected for a temporary period of time. They do not represent the past and people can work to convince voters to help make sure they won’t again be elected. So, I’ll continue to encourage people to visit and learn about Israel, it’s history as a country, and the history of the Jewish people there. But I’m also saying that I oppose the current government there, its policies and its values.
For now, I turn to the title of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, hope. Hope that Israel will embody the highest Jewish and democratic values, values that first attracted me and so many others to support her. I have hope for the future. My hope doesn’t come from a wish, or a prayer, but rather that if enough people - especially Israelis - come to see how dangerous and destructive this current path is, that they will turn away. Israel has the resources to do so, including in the words of its own Declaration of Independence, which says, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL 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…”
So, I am not giving up on Israel, but neither am I a supporter of its government and its policies and proposals. Whatever small voice I have, I will use to advocate for those values that Israel originally dedicated itself to - freedom, justice and peace.