Last night, I heard Prof. Jonathan Sarna give a lecture on Democratization in American Jewry in the years following the Revolutionary War. He explained, using a couple of fascinating examples, that in that period of time you start to see the waning of the authority of the synagogue, and the Jewish community more generally: break-away shuls, a Kohein marrying a widowed convert against the wishes of the shul leadership, and a learned individual finding halachic solution to issues involving the excommunication of intermarried Jews, against the wishes of the kahal.
During Q&A, someone asked about the relationships of the break-away shuls to the organizations from which they departed. Prof. Sarna explained that, in time, exterior threats would cause these groups to come together. I’ve heard a similar explanation about the relationship of the Hasidim to the Mitnagdim after the haskalah. The modern example given was an Orthodox Rabbi sitting on the bimah of a Conservative shul in Boston during Cast Lead, claiming that differences between them needed to be put aside when Israel was threatened.
I understood his point, but the example made me cringe. I remember there being some level of objection from within the Jewish community, even during Cast Lead, and it pains me that the best example for the uniting of Jewish community is around a mythic threat to Israel (which is not to say that I approve of rockets, either). It being erev Yom Yerushalayim, I’m also reminded of the mythic existential threat from ’67, but I digress.
Israeli democracy is under siege, and it’s no less stark than that. For years, the peace groups in Israel have been warning that occupation cannot co-exist with democracy without one eventually strangling the other. It is no longer a theoretical argument.
Sure, in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa bubble, life feels as free as in any Western country. But the rising nationalism represented by fanatical groups like Im Tirzu and the moves by the government to unleash its own power from the watchful gaze of Israeli human rights groups are changing the very nature of the country. The idealism of Zionism has long since been surpassed by the cynicism of conflict and that makes the ground fertile for the continuing erosion of civil and human rights.
This is not just about how Israel treats the Palestinians, or even its own Arab citizens. Coupled with the ongoing problem of the disproportionate and anti-democratic influence of ultra-orthodox segments of Israeli society, the erosion of rights is a dynamic that threatens every Israeli.
And a call to action, related back to my inital point:
In the 21st century, if Israel is to survive, it will only be because the new meaning of pro-Israel is not trumpeting Israel’s shaky democracy, but defending and strengthening that democracy, making it the strong fabric Israel’s founders thought it would be. That requires ending the occupation and allowing Palestinians their freedom, but it also requires true equality – in practice not just on paper—for all of Israel’s citizens, freeing Israel from the grip of the rabbinate, and strengthening its courts and NGO communities.
Are there Jewish leaders willing to be truly pro-Israel?
Yaroni hits exactly on what bothers me about the example of unity during cast lead. As demonstrated, I think, by ta’anit tzedek, the Jewish community is not in fact united around Israel’s treatment of the people in Gaza. As a matter of fact, I view those promoting the fast as “truly pro-Israel,” according to Yaroni’s definition, and those of whom Prof. Sarna made mention as clinging to the old model, and defending Israel’s government, no matter how troubling or unjust their actions. Yaroni articulates the point I was trying to make at the end of my last post much more eloquently. I come back to the same question – how to we educate and inspire more American Jews to live up to Yaroni’s challenge?