By Leah Garber
Winter arrived late in Israel this year, making a grand entrance like a guest of honor. The winds are stormy, rains wash the streets, and the northern mountains are colored with the beauty of purifying snow.
Indeed, the weather has adapted to the stormy winds in Israeli society.
Since the most recent elections, the country is in turmoil: The right versus the left; the winners versus the disappointed; Netanyahu’s supporters versus his opponents.
Every Saturday night, tens of thousands of concerned citizens crowd the squares of major cities to call for the preservation of democratic values—the cornerstones and moral infrastructure underlying the establishment of the State of Israel, the world’s only Jewish democracy. Among them are scores of business and professional leaders—economists, lawyers, academicians, high-tech innovators, doctors, and others—who express their concern and appeal for dialogue amidst the rush to legal reforms. Meanwhile, President Yitzhak Herzog busily mediates among the parties, reflecting sincere concern about the way these reforms are being so urgently legislated and the consequences such unprecedented change in the basic laws of the country will have on its citizenry.
The current, 64-member coalition of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the most right-wing and religious coalition in the country’s history, is united by more than divides it, and therefore, has no fear of a significant threat to governmental stability in the coming years—making the haste for extensive reform unclear.
The Jewish world is anything but indifferent to these recent events and doesn’t view them as a momentary whim. Rather, around the world, Jews are repeatedly expressing their concerns and raising questions. What will be the consequences of proposed reforms on relationships between Israel and the greater Jewish world? What will the reforms mean for weighty issues in the Jewish State and identity of the Jewish people? For conversion powers, the Law of Return, gender segregation, and resource allocation to non-Orthodox and secular institutions? The list goes on.
There is no doubt that the justice system needs serious examination and a refresh around its legislative authority and vice versa. However, the broad public concern—including from many who voted for one of the ruling parties—is not solely about the need for reform, but also about the sweeping scale of proposed reforms and, most especially, about the speed with which the process is moving forward, all with no attempt to address the concerns repeatedly raised by professionals, experts, and other citizens.
This unrest comes just as the State of Israel, the most impressive achievement of the Jewish people in modern times, prepares to celebrate its 75th year. The extraordinary Zionist enterprise, built with blood, sweat, and tears, is based on the Declaration of Independence. In the absence of a constitution for the country, the Declaration of Independence is a document whose importance and relevance extends beyond its value a founding historical document.
On a sunny afternoon, Friday, May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, executive head of the World Zionist Organization and soon to be the first prime minister of Israel, convened leaders of the Jewish people in Tel Aviv, where they signed a declaration of intent that pronounced, among other things, that the State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; will foster development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; and will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture to all.
Seventy-five years later, Ben-Gurion and the founding generation look down at this great and magnificent creation with enormous pride. The achievements of the State of Israel in every field and in all ways are exceeding expectations. The nation’s builders gaze at us with joy and appreciation, watching as their life’s work bears fruit. And yet, approximately half the country’s citizens currently protesting proposed reforms wonder how much tolerance the founders of the nation have and for how long they will continue to look with satisfaction upon us from above.
I don’t view the madness of the last few weeks as the end of democracy or the end of the State of Israel as we know it. Throughout history, the Jewish people have known greater controversies and faced significant internal challenges. We are not divided into the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel; rather, we went to the polls time after time to elect one Israeli government, and today that government represents approximately half the country’s population.
To my dear friends overseas who may be concerned about the future of this land, I assure you, the unifying factors are greater than the dividing ones. The values of democracy and the Jewish cultural identity of the State of Israel are stronger than any politics, as evidenced by initiatives between and among Jewish communities worldwide; the Zionist vision; and the record number of visitors who are destined to experience Israel in all its beauty in this festive year of Israel@75.
Two weeks ago, nearly 170 JCC leaders gathered at Mifgash: Executive Leadership Forum in Atlanta, Ga. To mark Israel’s 75th anniversary, we invited Professor Gil Troy to speak, and above all, to reassure and share words of reason and proportion about Israel and its relationship with the Diaspora in the future. He did not disappoint, concluding his remarks with this: “We are brotherly people, not identical twins but brothers”.
Our winter storm will pass. In a few days, we will collect branches and debris the wind scattered; we will drain the flood waters and look to the sky for a glimpse of sun between the clouds. The political storm will pass too. It may take longer, but when it does, we will pick up the broken pieces and repair the damage—all the while standing firm and adhering to our steadfast belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
No matter the weather or the political climate, the State of Israel—and the Jewish people—remains true to principles of compassion, extending aid to those in need, near and far. At a Mifgash session focused on leadership in times of crises, Alex Budnitsky, executive director and CEO of the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, N.Y., said: “We are helping [Ukrainian] refugees not because they are Jewish, but because we are.” Here in Israel, we are united in aiding those among us affected by the newest wave of terrorist rockets from Gaza and the countless victims of the earthquakes that have taken the lives of tens of thousands (as the toll continues to rise) in Turkey and in Syria. The latter is an enemy state, whose innocent citizens, victims of a devastating natural disaster, are, like each of us, human beings created b’tzelem Elohim | in the image of the Divine. We pray that all of those touched by this tragedy find the resources, comfort, and compassion they need, and may the region swiftly begin to heal. Through our own acts of tikkun olam and compassion, may we be worthy of days, as detailed in the Book of Judges, in which the land was quiet for 40 years.
Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.