Rejecting an invitation for Jewish unity

Israelis are desperately searching for outstanding leaders who can develop our economy, build a just society and make peace with our neighbors.

By GIDEON D. SYLVESTER
November 15, 2012 12:07
Graffiti reads: Price Tag Migron

Price Tag 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

Jewish unity is one of our most highly prized values.

It’s urgently needed in the State of Israel, so there was great celebration when the leader of Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home Party) invited all the other religious-Zionist parties, from Meimad on the left to Kahanists on the right, to join them on a single ticket for the Knesset elections.

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“How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together!” (Psalms 133:1) However, their warm embrace was immediately and emphatically shunned by Rabbi Michael Melchior, the leader of Meimad. He declared that while he had not yet determined whether to throw his hat in the ring and with whom, one thing was for sure: He would not accept this invitation.

Why such a churlish response? I decided to investigate.

A rally to mark the 18th yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir Kahane was advertised on the Web. (The cheery song accompanying the ad – “Kahane Was Correct!” – was so catchy that I found myself humming it all week. I was happily singing it to myself as I drove into the gas station until I found myself eyeball to eyeball with the petrol attendant, Muhammad.) On the appointed day, I made my way to the rally.

Brightly colored clothes hung on a rail in the entrance to the hall. For just a few shekels, one could buy a T-shirt inscribed with the words “Price Tag” – a celebration of the brutal attacks carried out on innocent Palestinians, their farms, cars, churches and mosques.

For those looking for something more cerebral, there was a bookstall that included books about the country’s minorities, such as Meir Kahane’s They Must Go. There were also more exclusive items available, such as Baruch Hagever – a literary tribute to Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who massacred 29 innocent Palestinians at prayer in the Cave of Machpela.

Our gracious hosts welcomed us into the packed hall; they apologized for the seedy setting, explaining its special significance as the venue where Kahane had held his rallies and a place of particular purity – the only hall in Jerusalem where no Arab sets foot.

Then the teenage Kahanists came forward for a presentation. If their numbers seemed disappointing, we were told that this was not the whole picture.

There were plenty more, but regrettably they could not be with us that evening because they were being held in Israeli prisons.

When Kahane’s right-hand man, Baruch Marzel, took the stage, he modestly hushed the audience’s cheers.

“I don’t deserve this,” he said. “Don’t applaud me until we have expelled every last Arab from Hebron.”

Similar statements were made about removing Arabs from the center of Jerusalem. And so the evening dragged on, with a succession of speeches in which refugees were lampooned, Arabs threatened and Israeli politicians mocked.

When ultra-nationalist parties hold rallies across Britain, the British public reacts angrily. Their demonstrations are met with counter-demonstrations in which with protesters chant, “Racist scum off our streets!” When racism entered Britain’s soccer stadiums, footballers of all teams united to create the “Kick racism out of football” campaign. Sadly, when such racists come to Jerusalem, we celebrate them as part of the religious-Zionist consensus, and barely a whimper of protest is heard.

ALL OF us are influenced by the company we keep, and so the Rambam warns that we should choose our friends carefully, making sure they are wise and gentle people. We should avoid the wicked, so as not to learn from their ways. If we cannot keep them at bay, then we must flee to caves, thickets and deserts rather than join their path (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot, Chapter 6).

Whether or not National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari and his Kahanist friends team up with the nationalist religious parties, Melchior is correct to stay far away from any party that even entertains the idea of forging alliances with shoddy, racist platforms, and so should the rest of us.

The country’s national religious movement may appear similar to modern Orthodoxy in its modern appearance and its commitment to Jewish law and the State of Israel, but there are significant differences.

Whereas modern Orthodoxy combines total commitment to Halacha with a liberal outlook, the national religious community’s leadership has developed an obsession with militant preservation of the Land of Israel to the exclusion of many other core religious values.

Take a look at any one of the many halachic guides for soldiers. While you will find many valuable chapters dedicated to ritual observance in the military, there is barely a word about the religious and moral aspects of military patrols and warfare. Likewise, the fact that refugees literally freeze to death on the cold winter nights in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park is a matter of total indifference to most of our national religious leadership. When did you last hear a rabbi call on the community to help? ISRAEL NEEDS to maintain a strong and resolute army to defend our borders against implacable enemies, and there are legitimate discussions to be had about the policies it should follow. This is not our issue here. Our concern is the huge difference between a responsible defense policy carefully constructed by our democratically elected government, and vicious, random acts of racism committed by Jewish terrorists.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor recently pointed out that traditionally Jews have fought against racist ideologies and policies. The question is whether that was just the self-interest of persecuted Diaspora communities, or a principled stand in line with Jewish tradition.

Now that Israel is a nuclear power with a Jewish majority and a strong economy, the test has come.

It’s not good enough to show how well we are doing in comparison to some of the vilest rogue regimes in the Middle East. We cannot content ourselves with making inspiring speeches about the righteousness and compassion of the Jewish people or by pointing to the extraordinary growth of beautiful and charitable Jewish communities. I, too, take pride in Israel’s achievements, but if we want to measure the moral climate of any society, we cannot be satisfied with seeing how it treats its own; we have to examine how it treats “the other” – its minorities and its weakest members.

When I worked as an adviser to deputy minister Melchior in the Prime Minister’s Office, we regularly discussed the future of the State of Israel and the policies of our department. As a new immigrant who had just served as an Orthodox rabbi in London, I was brimming with zeal for the religious Zionist community. I viewed myself as a liberal, but I was also convinced that support for religious Zionist ideals and their communities should form the backbone of government policy.

The secular Jews and the Arab advisers who worked in the department had radically different ideas, which they would express at departmental meetings. I would sit there bursting to argue with them, but mercifully my Hebrew was too weak, so perforce, I kept quiet. My silence lasted long enough for me to realize that running a country is very different from leading my own synagogue community. A synagogue is a voluntary association whose members opt in and accept the religious path of the community and its rabbi. Israel is a nation-state that must care for all its inhabitants, including the 20 percent of its citizens who are Arabs.

Otherwise it is a racist country.

RELIGIOUS JEWS who are sensitive to these issues feel disillusioned and isolated in the national religious community. Sensing the lack of a compelling moral mission, many abandon their religious beliefs altogether, dropping their observance at the portals of the Left, which has by default become the moral conscience of the nation. This is the failure of the leadership of the national religious movement.

Israelis are desperately searching for outstanding leaders who can develop our economy, build a just society and make peace with our neighbors. Religious politicians must lead the way in protecting the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, campaigning for better education and demanding honest and transparent government. These values cannot be promoted by those who forge alliances with far-left-wing parties that deny Israel’s legitimacy, nor by those who ally with extreme right-wing parties advocating racist policies.

When my rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder of Meimad, stood for election in 1988, he was asked in a television interview which ministry he would ideally like to lead. Everyone expected that he would opt for the Religious Affairs Ministry. Instead, he suggested the Health Ministry, because there he could improve the welfare of Israelis and show that health, too, is a Jewish issue.

When religious Jews show ethical and moral leadership, we bring credit to the name of the Jewish people, admiration for our faith, holiness to the world and security to our homeland. If religious parties have any role in our times, this is surely their raison d’etre.

The writer is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel and directs the education program for the Jerusalem branch of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Judaism and Human Rights.


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