A recent survey of North American Jews found – to the shock of some – that many non-Orthodox American Jews felt that they have more in common with their church-going liberal Christian neighbors then with secular Israelis. Interestingly, it was Jewishness, not necessarily Judaism, which came between these Jews living an ocean apart.
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“We know we ought to feel a connection, but we often live by different values,” a friend commented to me.
Recently, I have felt the same way toward the Religious Zionist community. I consider myself a Religious Zionist. My support, love, dedication and advocacy for Israel stems from a religious practice and observance that leads to my worldview. However, as part of my Religious Zionist outlook, I see the Zionist vision as only being completed when it paired with a robust democracy, not threatened by it. When Israel’s democracy is under attack, our Religious Zionism mandates that we speak out, just as it would in reaction to its Jewish character being threatened. In fact, as a Religious Zionist, I would maintain that Israel cannot be a Jewish State without also being a Democracy.
But the threat to Israeli democracy is more than a threat to the freedom of the people.
I’m not only referring to the so-called NGO bill. We also hear a constant drumbeat against progressives, liberals and even the President of Israel as foreign “plants” and traitors, notes that sound too eerily familiar to those that have incited violence, and even assassination, before. We see the rising tide of hatred against Arab citizens of Israel: according to a recent poll, 36 percent of Israeli Jews see Arab citizens as “enemies.” In the West Bank, Jewish extremist attacks on Palestinians go largely unaddressed by Israeli authorities, and settlements continue to mushroom, making achieving a viable two-state solution more and more difficult. These are traits of a sick democracy, of a society at war with itself.
As Zionists, and especially as progressive and Reform Jews, this concerns us deeply. Democracy isn’t just a political system or a Western ideal. It is a necessary component of our one beloved Jewish State.
A core value explicit in our tradition is the idea that all people are created B’Tselem Elohim, in the image of God. While according to Jewish tradition, Jews and non-Jews have different responsibilities in this world, we are all created in the divine image, and are thus all equal before God. Democracy, a system which is rooted in the same belief – that all people are equal under the law and in their right to representation – best exemplifies these values. When the foundations of democracy crack and people, whether Arabs or Jews, are denied their rights as equal human beings before the law, basic Jewish values are simply eroded.
Further, our aspiration for Israel is to be an Or LaGoyim, a light onto the nations, as both a democratic and Jewish state. We bare a responsibility not only to ensure the rights and representation of minorities under a democratic system, but to provide moral leadership to the world. Here, we have often done so, from the Civil Rights Movement to the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and including our pro-Israel advocacy.
Israel remains the bastion of liberal values in the Middle East, from LGBT and women’s rights to its independent Supreme Court and free press. According to our tradition, we have a responsibility not only to treat each other and our neighbors as equals, but to act as an ethical example. Attempts like the NGO bill hurt Israel’s international legitimacy and reputation. Erosion of Israel’s democracy not only threatens those who live there, but casts a dark shadow to the nations.
So, when Knesset members propose bills that suppress the voices of essential members of civil society, or insist that full transparency only be required by some, then we see the deterioration of democracy and of our ability to fulfill our responsibilities as Jews. We see the unraveling of the fabric of Israel as an ethically Jewish and democratic state. Without action from our Jewish community, both here and there, it’s a threat that will only grow. Some are guilty of proposing and supporting such problematic legislation, but all of us are responsible. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh---all of us are responsible for the rest of us.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was recently ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.