16 Sh’vat 5783 | February 7th, 2023
MBR Executive Committee
The State of Israel... will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture...
(from Israel’s Declaration of Independence)
ְל ַ֤מ ַען ִציּוֹ֙ן ֣לֹא ֶא ֱח ֶ֔שׁה וּ ְל ַ֥מ ַען ְירוּ ָשׁ ַ֖לִם ֣לֹא ֶא ְשׁ ֑קוֹט
For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,
for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still. (Isaiah 62:1)
The MBR Executive Committee has never issued a statement quite like this one. Issuing a statement about Israeli politics is especially tricky for a variety of reasons:
- A consensus about Israel has never been determined by the MBR. MBR rabbis are a diverse group. Just as our members represent many parts of the Jewish theological and religious spectrum, so, too, do we represent many political outlooks. This certainly includes our attitudes towards Israeli politics. We are tasked with finding common ground on our vision of Israel—a daunting task.
- We are well aware that criticism of Israel from the Diaspora always necessitates a certain amount of modesty and tzimtzum. Most of us have not served in the IDF, nor do we face the existential challenges that Israelis confront daily. This self-awareness properly makes us cautious. Likewise, we are aware that our Jewish well-being is bound up with Israel’s, and that our criticisms must stem from a place of connectedness and love.
- Israel is increasingly difficult for rabbis to discuss in their communities. Sadly, what was once supposed to be the ultimate unifier—a Jewish state, a phenomenal event to anyone with any understanding of Jewish history—is often divisive and polarizing. Rabbis who critique Israel risk being excoriated by members of their communities from the political right or left.
Surely, it would be easiest and safest for the MBR to restrain its voice.
Yet the times demand a moral voice from Jewish religious leaders. Israel’s newly elected government threatens to overhaul the very essence of a unifying Zionist vision. Unchecked, the
new coalition includes elements that threaten to undermine Jewish peoplehood, fundamental principles of democracy, Israeli-Diaspora relations, basic tenets of social justice for Israel’s minorities, and any remote hope for negotiation with the Palestinians.
How could rabbis not take a stand?
Therefore, this statement will serve several purposes:
(a) We will seek to define the most overt dangers of the new Israeli coalition as we see it, in a way that avoids overtly partisan politics but asserts consensus principles that we stand for—an Israel that is safe and democratic; that respects Jewish pluralism and works in partnership with the Diaspora; and which rejects violent extremism, racism, and corruption.
(b) We will provide concrete ways for MBR rabbis to express that the current government in Israel is, in many ways, antithetical to our vision of Judaism and Zionism. We will aim to offer rabbis ways to be voices of change and hope.
(c) We will work against trends that seek to detach or reduce the attachment of our communities to Israel. To the contrary, we will call for more Israel engagement, to demonstrate that this extremist government does not represent the pro-Israel sentiments of the overwhelming majority of our Jewish community.
The Urgency of This Moment
In the past, racist ideas antithetical to democracy have been considered out of bounds in Israeli politics. In 1985, the Knesset specifically outlawed racist political parties in response to the odious ideas of Meir Kahane and his supporters. In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that members of the “Jewish Power” party included extremist and dangerous members espousing an ideology that promoted racism and violent incitement.
Thus we are particularly troubled by the present state of affairs. After the November 2022 elections resulted in another closely divided Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu brought some of these elements, once considered beyond the pale, into his governing coalition. These dangerous forces have now been given substantial power. Everyone who is committed to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must hold the government accountable for their rhetoric and deeds.
Some of the most egregious developments from the new government include:
- Removing authority for the Border Police—the security division that most directly and regularly interacts with Palestinian civilians—from the IDF and delivering it to Itamar Ben Gvir, the new Minister of National Security. Ben Gvir has been an adherent of Meir Kahane’s racist ideology since his days in the leadership of Kahane’s Kach and posthumous Kahane Chai movements.
- Delivering the Finance Ministry to Betzalel Smotrich, a radical extremist whose past rhetoric has promoted the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. Smotrich’s portfolio includes the administration of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an extremely worrying prospect.
- Introducing a plan to shackle Israel’s Supreme Court and to ease the Knesset’s ability to override judicial decisions. One immediate effect will be the Court’s inability to disqualify convicted criminals from serving in their posts. The long-term effect will be a radical hobbling of Israel’s system of checks and balances, a crucial hallmark of any functioning democracy.
- Avi Maoz, from the anti-LGBTQ Noam party, has been tapped to lead a new governmental authority over education and Jewish identity. Members of the new coalition, particularly Maoz, have called for a radical reform of Israel’s Law of Return, dramatically narrowing the definition of who may make Aliyah and redefining “Who is a Jew” for the purpose of citizenship. Many members of the Russian Jewish community—not to mention many members of non-Orthodox communities—would no longer qualify for the Law of Return under these proposals.
Assessing this coalition and their proposals based upon their own words and deeds, we deeply fear for the democratic, Jewish pluralistic future of the State of Israel. Our view is that this coalition threatens to: weaken Israel’s democratic institutions; drive a wedge between Israel and a major swath of American Jews; alienate converts to Judaism; endorse a radical version of Orthodoxy at the expense of Jewish pluralism; and elevate zealots with hateful ideologies to positions of significant power.
These concerns are shared by a wide array of voices inside Israel. Respected, centrist figures in Israeli life are urgently calling upon American Jews to share their voices in opposition to extremism. Recently enormous numbers of citizens have been taking to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest what Israeli leaders and jurists have called a danger to Israeli democracy, unity, and the existence of the state itself. These protests are noteworthy for both the depth of their concerns and the political diversity among those who have issued the greatest warnings. Former Likud legal advisors, military leadership, and even the president of the Supreme Court have all raised the alarm: this is a perilous moment for Israel.
We are heartened by these protests and stand in solidarity with them.
It is also a time of danger because of the well-documented rise in antisemitism in the United States. It is surely true that those who hate Israel, and those who seek to delegitimize Israel’s Haredi/Ultra-Orthodox parties have long sought complete control over Jewish religious life in Israel. Without a countervailing voice in this coalition, the government dangerously presents the prospect of their complete dominance over marriage, divorce, and conversion for all Jewish Israelis, as well as equal accessto the Western Wall.
existence, will point to these political actors as proof that all expressions of Zionism are racist. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced by their distortions any more than we can permit the name of Zionism to be co-opted by those with hateful ideologies. Whether on college campuses, social media, or in the halls of Congress we believe that defending Israel necessarily involves confronting all forces that endanger it, from within or without.
We believe it is the special responsibility of Jewish leadership to protect the unity and diversity of the Jewish people, and to support the democratic, unifying and tolerant Zionism that built the state 75 years ago. We must not allow these challenges to go unanswered—by virtue of love for our sisters and brothers in the State of Israel and our commitment to klal yisrael.
Our Refusal to Disengage: Guidance for Our Rabbis
We believe that this moment demands more Israel engagement, not less. For most of us, Israel is too fundamental to our 21st century Jewish identities to cede it to the zealots. From the perspective of klal yisrael, Israel is the largest Jewish community in the world, and therefore the well-being of its citizens is essential to us, as we care about Jews everywhere. And from the perspective of social justice, we are determined to act for democracy and freedom wherever exploitation, hate, and racism rear their heads—including the Jewish state. For these reasons, we cannot remain on the sidelines.
We therefore encourage MBR members:
To engage with and support more than ever the plethora of Israelis who are pushing back against these measures. We are inspired by the Israelis of diverse political points of view who are objecting to the extremism of the coalition.
We will amplify our support of the many organizations that are promoting Jewish pluralism, religious freedom, social justice, coexistence, and a Jewish religious vision in Israel that is contrary to the coalition’s extremism and narrowness.
To articulate this vision of Israel more clearly and forcefully than ever, especially in pluralistic Jewish organizations (such as CJP, JCRC, and national Jewish groups) and Zionist groups (such as the American Zionist Movement, Hadassah, the World Zionist Organization, and events such as regional marches for Israel). We must hold those organizations in which we are stakeholders accountable, and to not allow them to slip into passivity or inaction when it comes to this government’s egregious excesses.
To focus on specific policies, statements, and actions in our criticisms— to avoid any appearance of contributing to the de-legitimization of Israel or Zionism.
To be in regular contact with the Israeli Consulate in Boston—Israel’s official representation in our community—to share dismay about specific Israel policies, including: any attempt to alter the Law of Return; the expansion of the powers of the Chief Rabbinate; assaults on Israel’s democracy, including the authority of the Supreme Court; and any racist or similarly offensive statements or actions by leaders of the coalition.
- To assert that democracy is a Jewish value and a pillar on which Israel is established, and to teach the ways in which democracy is linked with the Torah’s vision of self-rule.
- To refuse to invite or host extremist members of the coalition in our synagogues, communal events, conferences, and conventions.
- To teach and emphasize texts from our tradition—from the Written and Oral Torahs, as well as texts from modern Zionist history and literature—that assert the vision of an Israeli society that is rooted in: the common good, the recognition of the inherent dignity and human rights of every individual, the rejection of zealotry, and freedom from religious coercion.
- To not be endlessly negative, but to positively articulate our vision of what Israel and Zionism can and should be. Towards this end, it is imperative that we celebrate Israel’s upcoming 75th Anniversary with commemorations that express love and excitement for Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments. We will not be intimidated, nor will we relinquish the pro-Israel position to the extremists.
We hope that with this statement MBR members can be empowered to advocate for an Israel that is democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive of all Jews—positions that should transcend politics of right or left.
We are far from alone: many non-partisan Jewish and Israeli organizations have voiced concern about the anti-democratic nature of the new coalition. Of particular note:
- CCAR: Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement on the New Government of Israel
- Rabbinical Assembly: RA Condemns Bill to Undermine Israel’s High Court; RA Rejects Calls to End Recognition of Masorti-Conservative & Reform Conversions for Aliyah
- World Union for Progressive Judaism: WUPJ Statement on Formation of New Israeli
- Government; a statement endorsed by Reconstructing Judaism
- ADL: ADL statement on the Formation of a New Israeli Government
- JCRC Boston: Statement Following the Elections in Israel
- Israel Democracy Institute: The Case for a ‘Constitutional Truce’ in Israel
- World Zionist Organization Vice Chair Yizhar Hess: Diaspora Jews Should Protest If Israel Amends Law of Return
We recall our Sages’ warnings that because of the obstinacy and radicalism of zealots, Jerusalem was destroyed (Gittin 56a).
And we are deeply aware of the Talmud’s admonition: “Those who had the ability to protest the members of their own household and did not are considered liable for the sins of their household.” (Shabbat 54b)
We adopt this statement and call to action not out of defeatism, but rather from our deep concern and abiding love for Israel. While the membership of the MBR embraces a diverse range of religious and political ideologies, modern-day Kahaneism and its racism are antithetical to our Torah and our Zionism. We are determined to engage more deeply than ever with those who uphold Israel’s Declaration of Independence, those who oppose racism, and those who support a democratic and pluralistic Israel.
Approved by the MBR Executive Committee, February 7th, 2023