I’ve just returned from a sobering visit to Israel. I traveled with 30 Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) colleagues for 24 hours of high-level meetings with partners, leaders, and government officials about the unfolding situation in Israel. Our goals were to listen and learn, show solidarity with Israelis during this challenging time, and bring the voices of our community in real time. We engaged in conversations and deliberations about the future of Israel’s judicial and political systems, both of which will have profound implications on the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
My trip began with a visit to Haifa, where I met with professional and volunteer leaders from CJP’s Boston-Haifa partnership, as well as the president of the University of Haifa and the mayor. It was so good to be with our extended Boston-Haifa family, and to be reminded that we are already investing in people and initiatives that share our community’s values and that are strengthening Israeli society for all. In Jerusalem, I joined my JFNA colleagues and we met with high-tech leaders, journalists, scholars, and political heads of both the coalition and the opposition—including architects of the judicial reform process and those leading the protests against it.
What messages did we bring to the leaders?
Our visit was out of love and deep concern for Israel that stems from our care for the Jewish people and the belief that Israel is inseparable from our past and our future. It was also in the name of our commitment to democracy, including checks and balances on power, and protections for the rights, security, and dignity of every human being. The way this process is playing out is already causing damage to Israel’s society, security, and economy, and to the relationship between Israel and North American Jewry. We implored leaders to act courageously and with urgency to restore calm. We encouraged them to embrace the framework proposed by President Isaac Herzog, and to find a solution that unites rather than divides the people of Israel, that moves the country toward healing rather than causing further, God forbid, irreparable harm.
Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum expressed gratitude that our American Jewish community cares so much. This was a stark contrast to what we sometimes hear: “Mind your own business,” or, “You don’t live here, so stay quiet and do not criticize.” Many declared this the greatest challenge Israel has faced in the last 75 years, and they want us in it with them. They encouraged us to stay engaged, use our voices, and bring our points of view to the essential conversations about the vision, values, and identity of Israel. In the words of President Herzog, with whom we met, “We need to hear the voice of world Jewry right now.”
The Israelis we met shared their deep concerns for Israel’s future, and we heard heartbreak and existential worry about the ways every segment of Israeli society could be impacted. To quote my Israeli JFNA colleague: “Our souls are wrenched. We are in dismay. We are feeling the strain of the battle for the soul of this country.”
Since before the founding of the state, Jews have been arguing about what Zionism means and what the Jewish state should look like, just as the rabbis of the Talmud argued about Judaism, and the founders of this country fought about the nature of America. This kind of continuing conflict among leaders and citizens is a feature, not a bug, of a free society and thriving democracy, and of the Jewish moral and intellectual tradition as well. We should encourage and celebrate healthy debate.
But right now, what could be generative conflict among family and fellow citizens feels more like a battle between factions, each of which is fearfully and angrily wondering whether Israel’s prosperity, democracy, culture, and Jewish character will include—let alone protect—them and the values they hold dear. This moment is revealing years of simmering internal conflict, a culture war between different groups, each of which in their own ways, and for different reasons, feels abandoned or let down by Israel.
What gives me hope?
I keep coming back to the image of hundreds of thousands of protesters waving Israeli flags in the streets, a show of love for their country. This fight is not against the State of Israel, but rather represents an awakening of concern for Israel and its future. To borrow a metaphor from Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, it feels like the vessels are breaking—things are cracking open in Israeli society. Scarily, that means that the country could break apart and shatter into pieces. Or it could signal a breaking open of new possibilities, what some have called a “constitutional moment.” This frustration and fear could be a renewal of engagement and passion, with all of us reimagining an aspirational Zionism that continually wrestles with how to build a more just, peaceful, and inclusive Jewish and democratic state.
We need to stay in this and write the next chapters of this history, together.
-Rabbi Marc Baker