October 9th, 1973. The invasion had been on for three days already and the situation was dire. Already she had ordered preparations for the use of nuclear weapons but that was not all Prime Minister Golda Meir would do to save her country. She also issued another plea directly to the leaders of the West for supplies to replace those that had been lost. The Soviets were resupplying the Arab states, would the Western powers do the same for their ally?
Only in DC was there a positive response. Secretary of State Kissinger, who had quietly been advocating for limited American support, was able to convince President Nixon to begin Operation Nickel Grass which saw over 20,000 tons of materiel sent to Israel.
This support, added to the grit and determination of Israel’s leaders and fighters, snatched victory out of the jaws of what seemed would be certain defeat.
We remember the Yom Kippur War on this, its 50th anniversary. And we do so as Israel faces perhaps an even greater crisis of existence. For at just the same time as miraculously, relations with the very same Arab states that sought to destroy Israel half a century ago are now at the warmest and strongest place yet, Israel’s very identity as a Jewish and democratic country is at risk.
As Zionists, Israel is dear to our hearts and what happens there always feels as if it is happening in part to us. Yet as American Jews, certainly for myself I can speak, the attitude has always been “we are not on the front lines” and so we can’t comment or act as Israelis must given that they live it every day.
My friends, this can no longer be our attitude. Fifty years ago, it was an American Jew who heard Israel’s call for help. And while I don’t pretend to think that Henry Kissinger was motivated solely by a sense of Jewish loyalty, it does set up for us what the model must be. It has been, in fact, for centuries, the case that the Jews of the Diaspora, and all the more so in the affluent countries of the Jews’ Exile, to support and even intervene in the doings of the Jewish community in the Holy Land both before Israel was a state and since then.
If Israel is to be the sort of light to the nations we want it to be, if it is to be reshit tzmichat geulateinu, the beginning of our redemption from Exile, then we have no choice but to act.
I’ve admired the Netanyahu family for more than one hundred years. I wasn’t around that whole time, but the work of Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, played a valuable role in my understanding of Jewish history. Who could not be an admirer of Yoni Netanyahu, who embodied the spirit of Israel. And I will admit to having liked Bibi as prime minister – at least some of the times he was prime minister. This is important only inasmuch as it shows that above all, we as Jews, whether rabbis up here or congregants out there all need to think for ourselves and reflect on what we think we know and be open to new ways of understanding when the truth is presented to us.
The truth is now that Netanyahu is in government primarily for himself, betraying the legacy of his family and his own past legacy. And this is clear from the coalition he has assembled. Parties on the outside of Israeli politics, rightfully so, are now at its center. Advocating for legislation that would negatively impact non-Orthodox Jews, LGBTQ Israelis, women, and the Arab population both of Israeli citizens and in Gaza and the PA.
Israel is supposed to be a Jewish and democratic society. I once saw an argument on the Knesset floor between a Likud member (Netanyahu’s party) and one from Labor arguing over which party had welcomed gay and lesbian members first. And while I realize that Israel does not have a separation between synagogue and state as we do, and that in itself is not wrong, the balance that has existed between secular and religious norms in society has by and large been reasonable, and now it is in danger of tipping to a minority of a minority of those on the right of the Israeli Jewish religio-political spectrum.
And how does the governing coalition hope to effect these changes, changes let loose by the lack of the PM’s having a policy program other than staying in power? By limiting the role of the Supreme Court.
Israel is a parliamentary state, modeled on the UK. As such, there is no separate executive – the Knesset is both that and the legislature. The courts stand separate as a check on power. This is made the more complicated because, like the UK, Israel does not have a constitution. It has what are called Basic Laws, but even these are, shall I say, “squishy” in terms of what becomes one, how that happens, and what it means to violate one. Yet the system has worked, with the Courts being able to call into question laws passed that break a reasonableness bar with regard to the Basic Laws.
Netanyahu’s coalition wants to curb the Court by making it possible for a simple majority in the Knesset able to invalidate the Court’s finding that a law is unreasonable. It also wants to change the way in which decisions can be made into Basic Laws.
While some check on the Court, perhaps a super majority in the Knesset, is probably a good idea, and so too a clearer understanding of what Basic Laws are, would serve Israel well, that is not what is happening now.
And so, we see the protests – fierce but thus far not effective, against this effort to upturn the balance of power.
Again, how tragic, that just as a state of peace with its neighbors once unimaginable seems just ready to dawn that Israel tear itself apart from the inside.
In 1773, the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, hosted Chaim Isaac Karigal, an emissary (or schnorrer you might say) from the Old Yishuv, the Jewish community of pre-State Israel. Dressed in the exotic manner of a Turkish nobleman, Karigal, communicating with those early colonial Sephardic Jews in Ladino, requested support for the poor Jews of the Land of Israel. The Jews of Newport were happy to help.
This is probably the earliest reference to American Jews assisting the Jews of Israel. It is far from the last. Raising money, visiting,
Helping found Hebrew University. Supporting the War of Independence. Countless examples abound of Diaspora Jews and American Jews in particular weighing in at critical times in Israel’s life.
And now is another of those times. We cannot take the old “Israelis have to decide attitude.” Let our actions as Jews motivate us to support those in the streets of Israel waving the blue and white banner. Let us aid in ushering the time of our Redemption into being by allowing Israel to be what its Declaration of Independence says it is meant to be a country that, “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture” to all its inhabitants.
Use all the ways you would act politically here be the ways you reach to Israel. And perhaps most of all. Let people, in particular young people, about whom we hear so much regarding their distance from and diffidence towards Israel, see how it is truly a land of all Jews, a miraculous land. A land so important to our history and world history that we cannot but take an active and keen interest in its future.
May it be true the prayer we say:
Avinu she-ba-Shamayim, stronghold and redeemer of the people Israel: Bless the State of Israel, beginning of our redemption. Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Guide its leaders and advisors with Your light and Your truth. Help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our holy land. Deliver them; crown their efforts with triumph. Bless the land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy. And let us say: Amen.