I feel the need to address Israel from the Bimah this year. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ignore what’s been going on in the one Jewish nation-state, in this, its 75th year, the 50th Anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. But it’s hard to bring a community of Jews closer together and closer to our faith by giving a sermon about Israel at the moment. And Yom Kippur should be a time when we feel closer to each other and closer to our faith.
So, for the sin of getting the sermon wrong on the holiest night of the year, I hope you will forgive me.
I have, as I arrive here, two angels, one sitting on each shoulder.
On one side I have an angel whispering this sort of stuff;
· it’s important to stand together and not create division in our people,
· it’s important to stand up for Israel when there are so many haters out there,
· it’s important to acknowledge the electoral mandates of Israel’s elected leaders and my own decision to live here, in the Diaspora.
and I do know all of that.
But on the other shoulder, I have a real sense of fear. I fear for Israel, I fear for my relationship with Israel, and those of so many of us, both in the Diaspora and in the Land. I fear the loss of a connection that will weaken me, and the Jewish people, both here and in the Land.
So, I’m going to try and take some advice shared by Megan Phelps-Roper in that Ted Talk about leaving the Westboro Baptist Church I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah. She counsels “making the case.” It can happen, she notes, that we assume everyone sees the world the same way we do – and they don’t of course. We do need to set out the argument.
There is, as so many of us will be aware, a row in Israel about judicial reform. And those making the case for judicial reform argue there is an elected majority of Kenesset Members in favour of these reforms and they suggest these reforms are necessary tweaks to the system of checks and balances of the State of Israel. On that basis, they suggest, these reforms should be treated like any other proposed government legislation.
I don’t accept that. The Forum of Political Scientists for Israeli Democracy have a list of 225 legislative bills submitted before the Kenesset. Each Bill raises issues that should concern a Supreme seat of justice in a country. Taken one at a time, each might seem only marginally concerning. Taken together the list terrifies me. There’s Bill 2801/25 which would immunize the Prime Minister from criminal investigation. There’s Bill 25/2881 weakening the Law of Return and the recognition of non-orthodox conversions. There are Bills threaten all kinds of minority groups. And there are many Bills that seem to promote cronyism and corruption and pork-barrel funding of the desires of the settlers and ultra-orthodox extremists on whose support the government relies. And amongst all this are the Bills that limit and politicise the application of the rule of law, not only at the level of the Supreme Court, but up and down the legal system of Israel.
Taken individually each of these Bills deserves detailed discussion. Take the Supreme Court out of that discussion and taken together these Bills transform Israel in ways I find deeply troubling.
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asks Mike in Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises, “Two ways,” he responds. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
I get why members of Israel’s Government feel excited about these reforms. I get that the Prime Minister is excited about a Bill that offers an immunity from criminal prosecution. I get that the ultra-orthodox want more money for their Yeshivot and power for their courts. I even get that the elected members of the Government are frustrated that the Supreme Court bounce back their proposals. But being excited about doing something in one’s own self-interest isn’t the same as doing what is just and loving and good.
I know Israel was founded with a deep commitment to do what is just and good. In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of the State claimed, the country would, “promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets.”
And, if the prophets taught us anything, it is that strength –real strength – comes not from pursuing self-interest and protexia, but from being just and loving and good.
And on the subject of judicial reform, there are very clear prophetic precepts when it comes to matters of judicial appointments and judicial reform. “Place judges at all your gates,” taught Moses, ensure they function independently and without prejudice so they can “pursue justice, only justice.”
And Abraham was, surely, the first model for all later prophets when he stood up against an arguably unjust proposal of God, of God!, demanding, “How can the judge of all the world not act with justice.” Abraham launches a judicial review of God! Actually, Abraham launches not one, but six rounds of judicial review of God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorah. And God accepted each of the six rounds of review because, it could not be clearer, God would rather have God’s own will be vetted for its judiciousness than impose God’s will simply because God has the power to pursue God’s own will.
No Hebrew prophet has ever been recorded sounding impressed by the nature of mandate. Hebrew prophets stand up to Israelite priests – who had a divine mandate – to Israelite Kings – who had a divine mandate. They even stand up to God – whose mandate is absolute. The very determinant of a Hebrew prophet is that they are prepared to stand up to power and say, as Yitro said before Moses when Moses underestimated the value of a good judicial system, לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה. This thing you are doing is not good.
Being in favour of prophetic precepts means being in favour of having people accuse you of misdeed, and doing it bluntly – just wait for tomorrow’s Haftarah. Being in favour of prophetic precepts certainly doesn’t mean you should expect people to be impressed by the size of your crown or priestly vestments or democratic mandate.
If a prophet thinks what you are doing is not good, they will come after you, partly because prophets love justice and hate the mistreatment of those at the margins of society.
But even more than that, if a prophet thinks the thing you are doing is not good, they are going to come after you because they think to err is to bring destruction on the state and its people. And as much as prophets love justice, the thing they really can’t abide is the threat of destruction.
It’s a very religious thing to protest the actions of leaders of Israel when these actions threaten the application of justice and the future of the people and State. We’ve been doing it for millennia. It’s what’s makes being a leader of Israel such a challenge. But it also might be reason that we are still here, millennia later. It might be that the very reason for the survival of the Jewish people is that century after century and unjust bill after unjust bill, the religious leadership of our faith have stood up to speak out in favour of justice, no matter from where the threat of injustice comes.
By the way, the one thing good prophets don’t do is walk away. I mean there is one prophet who tries to run away, but the Talmud pours scorn on Jonah for trying to run away, and God is having none of it.
You aren’t allowed to run away, you aren’t allowed to walk away, not even when it’s such a mess. Not even if you make no claim to be a prophet.
I know I’m no prophet.
But the line in the Talmud is Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze LeZeh, all of Israel is obligated to one another. The State of Israel is the most extraordinary transformation in the hopes and possibility for self-determination of our people in 2,000 years. You, me, all of us here in our British levels of comfort, we can’t walk away from the millions protesting in Israel, asking for our help and saying the level of threat they experience is existential.
That’s why I’ve been at the protests, and that’s why I feel I’ve been pushed right up against the edge of how far I think I, as your Rabbi, should be engaging in these political matters, on this holy night. It’s why I think we should all be protesting. And why I think we dare not walk away.
What to do? read Israelis – if you don’t know where to go, try The Times of Israel, listen to Israelis – if you don’t know what to listen to, my favourite is - The Promised Podcast. [Salon] Give money to Israel, yes we should certainly give money, but think about who we support, check out the kind of Israel they, in turn, support. I’m proud of our Kol Nidrei partner UJIA, but for this more political philanthropy, I’m proud to support the New Israel Fund. Just don’t walk away.
It's 50 years to the day since the greatest existential threat to the State of Israel was launched on this holy day of Yom Kippur. I was two and a half years old. Just about my earliest memory is accompanying my parents to a blood drive held just up the road at St John's Wood United. Packets of blood drawn from the arms of the members of the Synagogues of St Johns Wood were flown out to the front lines of the Yom Kippur War. We came together to support Israel in her greatest hour of need. We didn’t give up then. I’m not in the mood to give up now. This isn’t a day and this isn’t a relationship predicated on giving up.