The Crisis in Israel

a sermon delivered on March 3, 2023

This past Monday, Elan Ganeles, who grew up in West Hartford was murdered on his way to celebrate the wedding of his best friend’s sister. He was traveling on a road through the West Bank that is one of the primary roads to get to the Dead Sea, a road that I have been on before. This terror attack follows a weeklong period of violence, precipitated by an Israeli raid in the West Bank which left 11 Palestinians dead. Following the raid, two Israelis in the West Bank were killed, and after a group of far-right settlers engaged in what can only be described as a pogrom against the Palestinian village of Huwara. One day later, Elan was killed. He was 26. Last night, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who was throwing fireworks at Israeli cars.

In the past, we would decry the violence from both sides and offer prayers for peace, blaming the cycle of violence on the ongoing occupation. This time is different because today Israel faces threats from both non-Jews AND the Israeli Government.

In order to form his right-wing coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave incredible power to avowed racist and far-right leaders Itamir Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich. The Israeli army refused to conscript the young 18-year-old Ben-Gvir because he already displayed far-right views of the late ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane, a very rare decision because the army didn’t believe he could be trusted with a weapon[1]. Ben Gvir now controls what some describe as a private army in the West Bank, comprised of soldiers and police force.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich have both called for removing all non-Jews from both the occupied territories and Israel proper, and have been arrested for inciting violence and racism. On Wednesday, Smotrich voiced his approval for the pogrom against Palestinians in Huwara, saying “The village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that – not, God forbid, private individuals.” Smotrich currently serves as the Finance Minister, “responsible for determining and implementing economic policy in Israel.”

In order to appeal to those slightly more moderate before the elections, Ben-Gvir has changed his overtly racist call to “remove the Arabs,” to racially coded language calling for the “removal of terrorists.” No surprise, then, that each of the settlers who were directly involved in the pogrom and arrested have been released without charges. Given Ben-Gvir’s sentiments few believe that he will enact justice to hold them responsible and deter others from attacking Palestinians.

Many believe that Netanyahu made this deal with such an extremist in exchange for support of a bill that would drastically reduce the power of the Judiciary.

It is important to know that Israel has no constitution, even though the founders called for establishing a constitution. Instead, the Declaration of Independence and a series of so-called “Basic Laws,” fulfill the role of the constitution. The Israeli Supreme Court uses these Basic Laws as the essential check on other laws passed by the Knesset.

Netanyahu ran on a platform that, if elected, he would ensure the passage of a law that would allow the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court, removing the check on government. If passed, as expected, this law will allow the current far right government to amend the right of return bill and prevent Jews converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis from making Aliyah and gaining citizenship in their homeland. They could pass laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, or even criminalizing homosexuality. They could allow for greater exemptions from army service for the Ultra-Orthodox. They could, and almost guaranteed, would pass a law increasing the immunity of a current or previous prime minister, shielding Netanyahu from corruption and bribery charges he faces from his last few years as prime minister. Reducing the power of the Judiciary moves Israel further from Democracy and closer to Theocracy.

Born in the eighties, 35 years after the founding of the State of Israel, I grew up believing and taking for granted that Israel exists and will continue to exist. Much like the Ner Tamid we learn about in this week’s Torah portion, the State of Israel was intended to be a light to the nations forever, meaning that both the Jewish people and the State of Israel can represent the highest of our moral values and help model them for the other nations of this earth. The occupation has always dimmed that light, but today many are watching it flicker from within for the first time in Israel’s 75 year history.

I don’t think that I am speaking in hyperbole – the government has led Israel to an inflection point. I’m not alone in thinking this, neither is this relegated to left-wing overly optimistic American Jews (as I have been called before).

In addition to thought-leaders, for several weeks, Israelis have been protesting the judicial overhaul bill in greater and greater numbers. Last weekend nearly 300,000 Israelis, 5% of Israel’s Jewish population, protested around the country including 160,000 in Tel Aviv. They were addressed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union For Reform Judaism here in the United States and the de-facto head of the Reform Movement. He said:

“We’re deeply concerned about proposed changes to Israel’s democracy. With only 61 votes the Knesset could override the rights of millions such as the LGBTQ community, women, Palestinian Citizens of Israel and Reform and Conservative Jews.

We know how precarious it can be to live as a minority. But we also know that our concepts of equal rights for all, our rule of law, our independent courts –our democracy—is what protect us.[2]

A solid majority of Israeli’s do not support this bill with “About two out of three (66%) Israelis believe the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws, and about the same proportion (63%) say they support the current system of nominating judges.[3]

This entire narrative carries undertones of the Purim story – a man in power who cedes control over a minority population to his minister who was determined to rid the land of this minority. I cannot imagine how the Jews who committed the atrocities in Huwara will be able to read the story of Purim and not see themselves as Haman.

On his weekly podcast, Rabbi Donniel Hartman spoke with Yossi Klein-HaLevi and Elana Hahn about the pogrom (a word they used throughout the program), and for them, this moment is different than any time before[4]. They also don’t believe that this was an isolated incident, but symptom of a disease that has been allowed to flourish in Israel for decades. Over and over they use also used the word “abyss” when referring to this moment in Israel history. For them, as it should be for us, their largest concern isn’t that this happened, for most are not surprised that this happened, but that not one Jew sits in jail or will likely ever be held accountable indicates that we are in an abyss. That the army, who would have and has intervened immediately in other situations did little to nothing for over 15 hours, indicates that we are in an abyss. That the democratically elected government has allowed, if not encouraged, such egregious desecration of Jewish law and values, indicates that we are in abyss. That the finance minister is inciting even more violence, indicates that we are in an abyss.

Perhaps we join with the psalmist who writes:

“Out of the depths I call You, O LORD.

O Lord, listen to my cry;
let Your ears be attentive
to my plea for mercy.

Yours is the power to forgive
so that You may be held in awe.

I look to the LORD;
I look to God;
I await your word.[5]

Perhaps in addition to turning to God we also decide that we will no longer remain passive bystanders to what is happening in Israel in the name of Judaism. In a letter emailed this week, Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes, “At this moment, it is our duty to speak out, to critique the moral failures and dangers to Israel’s democratic future, and to be clear about our values as Jews and Zionists. This is… the time to double down on the work that we do, with a sense of urgency and responsibility that we have never experienced.”

Now is the time for the Jewish community to flex our financial and influential powers to stop this internal attack on the Jewish state. We can speak out loudly and join our Israeli family in protest. We can encourage the United States government to leverage our financial support for Israel in order to pressure the Knesset to restore justice and no longer encourage violence or racism. We can also support Israeli organizations working to protect democracy. We cannot sit idly by.

As Rabbi Jacobs concluded his speech in Tel Aviv, “We will never turn our back or walk away from this place we love. We’re going to lean in even harder and fight for the values of this country alongside all of you. In the name of Judaism, we will guard our democracy!”





[5] Psalm 130