In a few days, the Jewish world will mark the first day of the month of Elul, known as the month of mercy and forgiveness. It is the month leading us into the holiness and sanctity of the high holidays.
Through the month, many will blow the Shofar each morning—a reminder to transcend the mundane, to shed petty daily acts and concerns, to leave them all behind and rise above to an inner search, one that is a personal and collective reflection. One that will hopefully lead us to be better, both as individuals and as a people.
Israel, our homeland, the land of the Jewish people is the backbone of our collective being, and actually is doing not too bad.
Yes, the physical being is consistently threatened and challenged, but we have somehow fashioned a way to live and strive regardless of constant threats.
Our homeland’s mind is doing great, better than ever, with record numbers of world winning prizes and awards for great achievements. We are the startup nation on so many levels.
Israel’s heart has never beaten as powerfully as it beats now. We reach out to the world whenever there is a need, repairing it. We spread our light by example unto the nations, our brightest of lights.
However, our soul is hurting, suffering from severe symptoms of schizophrenia. Our multiple identities keep pulling us in different directions.
The month of Elul’s inner reflection was never as needed as it is now. Elul gives us an opportunity for figuring out who are we as a people, our identity, and where we are heading.
Last month the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a controversial law: “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” This law is an important one. It aims to define the nature of the state of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In principle, this law should be our beacon, lighting our way with pride, vision and clear purpose about why we founded this state, and what are our goals. This important basic law should be memorized by all, pledged by all as Americans pledge to the flag daily, with honor and respect.
Should have been our beacon, could have been our guiding light. However, sadly, a deeper look at this law reveals one of the most divisive laws the Knesset has ever passed.
Since the vote affirming it, the nation-state law has hijacked Israeli discourse here, and Jewish discourse around the world, leading to protests and demonstrations.
The law is controversial not for what it says, but for what it does not.
One of the sections referring to world Jewry—in my mind one of the most important parts—states that the “Jewish State will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to their Jewishness or their citizenship. To act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the State and members of the Jewish people, and to act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”
All that is good and fine, but I would look to see how these aspirations for Jewish peoplehood and mutual responsibility apply not only overseas, within the diaspora, but rather right here, in our collective homeland. How the Kotel, a piece of wall from the great Temple, built for us all—representing the aspiration of our unity—reflects the essence of Jewish peoplehood.
Strengthening the connections, the ties between the State of Israel and world Jewry are a basic value, core to our identity, yet it must be reflected throughout, within Israel, on this holy ground of the Jewish state, and beyond, in the diaspora. It must transcend our political, cultural and denominational divisions. It is our joint commitment to one another, demonstrated so many times before, for our sake of unity and stability. This is who we are.
Who we are is a people mature enough to celebrate that amazingly, we are still here. Our existence is miraculous, yet we must acknowledge and respect others among us.
But sadly, this law puts at risk the very delicate yet critical balance between the state’s Jewish character and its democratic one.
Israel’s commitment to “equality for all its citizens,” as stated in its Declaration of Independence, is the notion that all Israeli citizens, Jews, Arabs, Christians and others alike will be treated with equality, each having the same social and political rights. This foundation of our democratic state, the only one in the Middle East, complements Jewish values, adds contemporary meaning to our eternal ethics, and offers a modern-day application that fits in so beautifully with ancient, forever-relevant Jewish values. However, this very foundation of Israel as a democracy was not included in the new law.
On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion read from the Deceleration of Independence: “The state of Israel will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets;”
Ben Gurion knew how to weave our Jewish values and heritage into the task of leading a new state, thus assuring its foundation would be accepted by all, cherished and respected by all.
We already have a National Law; it is this very May 14, 1948 Deceleration of Independence. It lasted for 70 years and will last forever if we only learn to rise above miserable politics to the greatness we can.
I am a proud Zionist, passionately in love with our Jewish homeland, yet I cry for this new rip in our identity, so unnecessary, so harmful, and so weakening.
Yet at the same time, I do not believe this new law is an apartheid law—not at all. I refuse to fall into political traps, from right or left. Yes, I criticize major sections of this law, but I will not equate it as one fitting dark regimes long vanquished. To be balanced is to require fair judgment on all levels.
As the month of Elul will spread its spiritual presence, as the days get shorter and mighty winds blow summer’s dust away, as we begin to meditate on forgiveness, and as we awaken from past year’s dreams into reality, we should aspire to be worthy of our Jewish State and treat it with the respect it deserves, as our Hebrew prophets have taught us.
Leah Garber, Vice President. Director, JCC Israel Center