Comments on the Incoming Israeli Government and our Prayers for the State of Israel

When my oldest son commenced his mature political engagement with Israel, about 10 years ago, in times that seemed complicated then but comparatively innocent now, he used to ask me: What is your red line? When does Israel do something so outrageous that you stop supporting it?

I would invariably reply: nothing. Nothing could shake my support of the state of Israel, the national home of the Jewish people. 

This remains true. The ingathering of Israel’s exiles from every corner of the globe, the rebirth of Hebrew, the flourishing of modern Jewish culture in an ancient homeland, and the physical defense of vulnerable Jews. These are among the greatest achievements of the long history of our eternal people. I hold fast to my Zionism and will never slacken my support of Jewish society in our ancestral homeland. 

But the soon-to-be government is beyond apologizing for. The appointment of racists, fascists and Jewish supremacists as ministers in the government of the state of Israel is a red line no Jew should cross. 

Speaking as an American rabbi, not an Israeli citizen but as a very loving cousin, I feel that we – me personally, our local Jewish community, American Jews and all Am Israel – face a tremendous religious and moral challenge. We must remain in solidarity with our family in Israel, the largest Jewish community in the world. We must vigorously protest the horror show of the government that apparently will guide the Jewish state. 

American Jews have trained ourselves to support Israel and its governments through thick and thin. Not all of us. Some of us take a principled stance against Zionism broadly, for political and/or religious reasons. Occasionally, when red lines are crossed – Lebanon in 1982, or leaving Gaza in 2005 – some American Jews on the right or the left have washed their hands for a time. But in general, during this terrible, endless conflict, most American Jews could be counted upon to stand on Israel’s side. 

But this incoming government – which includes Jewish supremacist, racist, ultra-nationalists in senior positions –  is more than I, personally, can bear. 

I will never cease supporting the cultural, social and spiritual richness of this beloved Jewish society. In fact, given the devolution of Israeli politics, we should intensify our support for Israeli society. We should visit Israel. We should redouble and re-triple our efforts to know our Israeli brothers and sisters. We should support them in their very real challenges. We should redouble and re-triple our personal and financial contributions to the organizations that build on the Judaism we share: a religious culture of kevod habriot, human dignity, for all people created in the divine image. And there are still a great many exemplary corners of Israeli society we should be proud to support and reinforce our partnership.

But we should shun the incoming government.

Let me be clear: This is not about Binyamin Netanyahu. I personally would not vote for him, and I will not feel bad when his petty corruption finally catches up with him. His attemps to legally insulate himself and allies from criminal responsibility is a horrid betrayal of the rule of law. But Netanyahu could be a detestable, but still legitimate prime minister. If he would form a coalition without Kahanists and the extreme racist right, I would support his government, as I have other detestable politicians. That’s democracy.

But Jewish supremacists like Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir do not deserve the cloak of democracy for their anti-democratic, racist, ultra-nationalism. They deserve only contempt. Regardless of whatever ministerial positions they may hold, they deserve no platforms at synagogues, federations, Hillels, or schools. 

Can you imagine attending an AIPAC conference where a hall filled with American Zionists gives Smotrich or Ben-Gvir a round of applause? If that happens … well, let me paraphrase former Rep. Liz Cheney, from the January 6 hearings: “To those who defend the indefensible, there will come a day when these Jewish supremacists will be gone, but your dishonor will remain.”

Members of our community have asked me for something I think they deserve from their rabbi: a liberal, religious, Zionist response to the current situation. I’m not a political expert. I know about Israel the same way you do – by reading and talking to Israeli friends. But I hope I can help our Ansche Chesed community think about this crisis from a religious perspective. 

For this, I turn to the prophet Isaiah [1:10]. We read these words on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, in which Isaiah addresses a Jewish community facing moral ruin:

שִׁמְע֥וּ דְבַר־יְ’הֹוָ֖ה קְצִינֵ֣י סְדֹ֑ם הַאֲזִ֛ינוּ תּוֹרַ֥ת אֱ’לֹהֵ֖ינוּ עַ֥ם עֲמֹרָֽה

Hear the word of the Lord, you officials of Sodom! Give ear to God’s teaching, you people of Gomorrah!  

The prophets knew that members of Am Israel, sometimes can also be citizens of Sodom.

What does Jewish peoplehood stand for? Brutal survivalism, no matter whom we crush or what methods we employ? Did we gather from Europe and the Islamic world to subjugate and trample? Or do we aspire to be “a kingdom of servants and a holy nation?”  

This is a moment to reflect on Jewish peoplehood gone wrong.  Ahavat Israel, love of your fellow Jew, is a precious value. But Kahanists pervert that loyalty. A much greater moral commitment supersedes ahavat Israel: our loyalty to God and to the divine image on the face of every single one of God’s children. 

Almost exactly 60 years ago, on January 14, 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel participated in a conference on “Religion and Race.” (I believe this is where he first met Martin Luther King. Let me note also that I am writing this almost exactly 50 years from the English date of Heschel’s passing, December 23, 1972.) 

In his speech, Heschel proposed that the conference should more appropriately be called Religion or Race: “To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” 

Especially when racism is woven into religion, Heschel continued, people commit the unforgivable sin of implicating God in their hatred. This can only be called avodah zarah, idol worship.: “Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol… Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy.”

Yet this blasphemy, this hillul Hashem, this desecration of God’s name, is exactly the stance of the party that dares to call itself “Religious Zionism,” and will take senior slots in the ruling coalition. 

Ben-Gvir was personally convicted of support for a terrorist organization, Kahane Hai. He infamously decorated his home with a photo of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. He and Smotrich have been accused – if not formally charged – of more direct personal involvement in right-wing terrorism. 

Each has favored deporting Israeli Arab citizens, whom they regard as a fifth column. They threaten the “traitorous” organizations, like the New Israel Fund and B’tselem, who stand for human rights. They favor relaxing IDF rules of engagement, so that soldiers may shoot Palestinian demonstrators even when they do not pose mortal danger. They favor the death penalty for all “terrorists.” But for them, anything a Palestinian does is “terrorism” and anything a Jew does is “self-defense.” 

And now Smotrich is poised to take over as Finance Minister, with expanded control over the West Bank and Ben-Gvir to become Minister of Internal Security, essentially in charge of the police. (Let us not also forget the revolting appointment of Avi Maoz as Minister of Jewish Identity, a platform from which he has promised to vigorously persecute LGBT Israelis and liberal religion. Forgive me, but I can only address two shandas at once.)

Ben Gvir’s career has been as a lawyer defending Jewish terrorists. True, everyone deserves legal representation. But he notoriously defended the man who would be convicted of a 2015 firebomb attack that killed a West Bank family of three, including a toddler. 

Perhaps the ugliest episode concerning him dates from that time, shortly after that attack. Ben Gvir held a press conference to criticize harsh police treatment of his client. Then, a short time later, in the very same hall, he danced at a wedding of his client’s friends, at which the guests waved guns, toted mock Molotov cocktails, gleefully singing – emending a Bible verse about ancient Philistines – that they would take vengeance against “Palestine.” They demonstratively burned and stabbed pictures of the young victim of the bombing, Ali Dawabshe, age 3. You can find the video online. 

Let us be maximally fair: Ben Gvir said he did not know what was in the picture the other guests were destroying.

I must take a pause, and not make this worse than it is. “Religious Zionism” received only about 11 percent of the vote. The dysfunction of the Israeli system gives small parties outsized influence in forming coalitions. Fascists exist in Israel, but so do human rights advocates, civil society builders, peace educators, and religious pluralists. We should be their closest friends. I read reports that mass anti-government protests are in the offing. I hope that comes to pass. I hope I get to visit and join the march.

But this government is beyond awful. It deserves whatever small protest we can offer from afar. Here is mine: 

For the time being, in the Sanctuary services, we are replacing the standard prayer for the State of Israel with Psalm 122: “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.” We will pray that there be peace and serenity within Israel for all who live under her authority. 

Some have suggested to me that the standard prayer makes sense as is: Why not implore God to send “Your light and truth to Israel’s leaders, ministers and advisors?” They surely need it. 

But I do not pray that this government succeeds. I pray that Israeli society succeeds. And I pray that this illegitimate government fails, and that its Jewish supremacists crawl back under their rock. 

I have always loved the phrase in the standard prayer reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, that the State of Israel is “the first flower of our redemption.” It is not the complete redemption, but its first beautiful blossom. For the time being, I cannot say that.

This is not about whether I personally disagree with the government’s policies and priorities. This is also not about respecting the results of democratic elections. Sometimes democratic elections produce anti-democratic results. 

This is about the Klan, a Jewish Klan. This is about areas of the occupied territories that already resemble Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1963. When Smotrich and Ben Gvir take office, that will get worse. Is this what you want to see in the national home of the Jewish people? 

My friends who take a dimmer view of Zionism believe that this grim turn was all but inevitable, baked into the cake of an ethnic nationalism that would inevitably devolve into supremacist aggression. I mourn that our moment is what it is, but I do not agree. 

I know that Zionism, including authentically religious Zionism, has the resources to turn from hatred to love, from brutality toward pursuing justice. I invite to this conversation Moshe Unna, a leader in the religious kibbutz movement and Knesset Member from 1949-1965 from the bygone, once moderate National Religious Party, who wrote: “Humanity is born in the image of God. This is the Torah’s teaching. Therefore, anyone educated in the Torah and commandments must be bound to treat the members of other nations in a humane way.” This remains the only way. 

Since I gave you Isaiah’s rebuke, let me close by returning to that same Haftara and giving you his comfort, and the promise that penitence is possible: “Though your sins be crimson, they can yet turn snow white. … Once again you can become the city of righteousness, the faithful capital. Zion will be redeemed with justice and her penitents in righteousness [1:18, 26-27].”

I remain an unshakably loyal lover of the Jewish national project. As long as Kahanists sit in power, I will support Israelis and Israeli society but oppose the government of the state. I look forward to supporting a future one. במהרה בימינו/bimhera v’yamenu, may it come soon in our days.