Israel: The Agitator State – Parashat Devarim 2015

As most of you know, I just returned from nearly three weeks in Israel. The first two weeks were purely vacation, an opportunity to relax, refresh, and spend time with family in close friends in what is, aside from Richmond, of course, my home and favorite place on Earth. I spent my final week on an educational mission for progressive rabbis sponsored by AIPAC, a crucial organization that strives to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. The AIPAC mission was inspiring, challenging, and, in the end, nothing short of transformative, providing some incredible colleagues and me an opportunity to fall in love with Israel, in all of its beauty and all of its complexity, all over again, albeit with a love that is deeper, more understanding, and more mature.

I want to spend some time together over the next few weeks unpacking several takeaways from my time in Israel and, in general, talking about our relationship to the Jewish State and the Zionist dream, hopefully rekindling the flames of our love for Israel and also raising some challenges that will help us develop a more adult connection.

During the course of my trip, speaker after speaker, across the political, ideological, and even ethnic spectrum, raised the question, in one way or another, of what we mean when we say that Israel is a “Jewish State.” On the surface, the term is simple: Israel is to be a sovereign nation of the Jews, by the Jews, and for the Jews. In other words, it is to be a state comprised of a Jewish population that is governed by Jews in a manner informed by Jewish values and culture. Upon reflection, however, despite the frequent insistence of some Israeli and American Jewish leaders for Israel to be recognized by everyone, and especially by its enemies, as a Jewish state, the issue is not so simple: It raises questions like, “How does a Jewish state so defined relate to non-Jewish populations living within its borders?” “Who gets to determine the definition of Jewish, both in terms of who is accepted as a Jew vis a vis citizenship and what forms of Judaism are to be given equal status under the law?” “What does it mean for a state to have a Jewish character? Does character refer to ethnic constitution, culture, ethics, or religion? Some combination of those qualities, or all of the above? And who gets to decide what does and does not constitute Jewish character?”

Early Zionist leaders from Herzl to Ahad ha-Am debated this very question, and my mission affirmed that the conversation remains ongoing, with no easy answers. For some of the speakers with whom we met, to be a Jewish state means, primarily, to be a safe haven for imperiled Jews everywhere, or to be a state with a permanent Jewish majority, or to be a state governed by Torah and Jewish law. For others, it means to advance the sometimes radical propositions of Jewish ethics in the most challenging of contexts, namely, when the Jewish people is more powerful than it has perhaps ever been at any other time in its history. Still others offered that to be a Jewish state is by definition to be an open and raucous democracy inspired by the values of debate and interpretation at the core of Jewish tradition.

Through my experiences on this trip, I began to realize that there is at least one other way of understanding what it means for Israel to be a Jewish State, and I offer it not to oppose any of the above definitions, or any other definition for that matter, but rather to stand as one of many possible ways of understanding the nature of the Zionist project, and what we have built: To be a Jewish state is to be a country driven by a refusal to accept the status quo, to be comfortable with the existing order, an insistence to challenge and push in order to perfect what is not yet in line with a vision of the world as it ought to be.

Throughout my journey, I saw this impulse, this quality, emerge to the forefront again and again, so much so that I began to see it as perhaps the defining feature of Israel and of Israelis:

I saw it when I prayed with Women of the Wall. The Women of the Wall are agitators. They are dedicated to challenging the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism’s holiest site, making the Western Wall a space where Jewish women can worship however they choose, including wearing prayer shawls and praying and reading from the Torah collectively and out loud. I stood with a group of supportive men behind a partition at the back of the women’s section of the Wall, which was itself distanced from the women’s section to prevent us from passing a Torah scroll to the Women of the Wall group worshipping in front of the divider. As I stood with the other male supporters, we were surrounded by another group of agitators: a group of ultra-Orthodox men (venomous and hate-filled, from my perspective) stood around us, spewing insults, denying our Jewishness, and doing everything possible to disrupt and drown out our prayer and provoke us into confrontation. A smaller, but still quite vocal, group of ultra-Orthodox women, agitators too, stood closer to the Women of the Wall prayer group and attempted to do the same.

I was inspired by the courage and passion of hundreds of women (and men) who were willing to withstand indignities and threats in order to advance a vision of a more inclusive Jewish state, where men and women, regardless of their approach to Judaism, are free to worship however they choose at Judaism’s holiest spaces. This, to me, is a deeply Jewish expression of indignation and yearning, a striving for the soul of the Jewish state. And, though I vehemently disagree with their views and their cause, the counter-protests also struck me as deeply Jewish for similar reasons, as they reflected a refusal to stand idly by when something you perceive as evil is taking place.

I saw it when I visited the Rachel border crossing, the only point near Bethlehem where West Bank Palestinians can cross over into Israel. Now, whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about what the relative costs and benefits are to the security barrier and restricted Palestinian travel – and believe me, I know that the issue is incredibly complex – it is hard to deny that the Rachel border crossing is, on a purely human level, a painful place to visit, evoking, as it does in its concrete, barbed-wire, and chain-link construction, a prison of sorts, into which thousands of people have to crowd on a daily basis just to get to and from work, or to visit family, on the other side of the border. While there are certainly places around the world where human rights violations are more egregious, Israelis across the political spectrum wrestle with the indignities Palestinians have to endure at crossings like this as a price of their security. Of course, there are many on the Israeli political left who rail against these reported violations, either to alleviate the proximate cause or to push Israel to resolve the root cause, namely the conflict itself. But the agitation is not limited to the liberals: We met one Israeli, a right-wing academic and policy advisor who happened to be a former IDF commando, who founded an organization called “Blue and White Human Rights” whose goal is to ensure Palestinian rights at border crossings while simultaneously supporting the soldiers who guard the crossings and Israeli security policy vis a vis the Palestinians. This, too, is a deeply Jewish expression of striving, someone who could easily have accepted the status quo and yet refused.

I saw it when we met with the leader of the settler movement, who agitates, against significant domestic and international pressure, for increased Jewish presence in and greater Israeli control of the West Bank. And I saw it when, in the dizzying span of a few hours, we met with the leader of Peace Now, one of the main organizations agitating, despite the position of the current governing coalition, for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, dismantling the settlements, and forging a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

I saw it when we met with Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, founder of “Hashgahah Pratit” (“Practical Supervision”), who is agitating against the Chief Rabbinate’s stranglehold on kosher restaurant supervision, enabling more restaurants to serve observant Jewish clientele, providing kosher consumers with more options, and opening more pluralism in Israeli Jewish life.

I saw it when we met with leaders of the Israeli LGBT community, leaders of the Ethiopian community, and leaders of the Israeli Arab community, all of them agitating for greater understanding, inclusion, and equality. Israel may be the Middle East’s only democracy, but like all democracies, including our own, it is not perfect, and Israelis, perhaps unlike their American counterparts, are ill-suited to simply accept the status quo without a fight.

And, without getting too political, I saw it in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the Iran nuclear deal, where virtually no Israeli I met, whether they were for or against the deal – and, in fairness, many more Israelis are against the deal than are for it – expressed no ambivalence, and minced no words, about their feelings. Both those for and those against did not hesitate to agitate.

Through it all, I began to consider whether agitation was itself the quality that makes the Jewish State Jewish.

If you’ve ever met a Jew, you probably know deep down that the answer to that question is, at least partially, yes. We are not, and have never been, a people content with things as they are, and we have never been timid about advocating for our vision of the world as it might be. This trait has been passed on to us from our earliest ancestors: from Abraham who railed against God’s decree to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah to Rebecca, who, far from enduring her miraculous pregnancy in quiet gratitude, cried out to God with not a little bit of holy chutzpah, “If so, then why do I exist?!” to Moses who insisted that God was wrong in choosing him as a leader, and then time and again went to the mats with the Holy One in order to save his Israelite flock, to the Israelites themselves, who cried out to God because of their oppression in Egypt and lobbied for liberation, to the Hebrew prophets who never relented in demanding that the Jewish people live up to their highest ideals of compassion, justice, and peace.

And the Zionist movement was not unsurprisingly energized by this impulse. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in the 1960’s:

We are tired of expulsions, of pogroms, we have had enough of extermination camps. We are tired of apologizing for our existence. If I should go to Poland, or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated. When I go to Israel every stone and every tree is a reminder of hard labor and glory, of prophets and psalmists, of loyalty and holiness. The Jews go to Israel not only for physical security for themselves and their children; they go to Israel for renewal, for the experience of resurrection.

A rejection of what is, a vision of what might be, and a commitment to doing whatever is necessary to bridge the gap. That is what makes Israel a Jewish State. And the same agitas courses through every Jew’s veins. It’s who we are and who we can be.

This quality is not only a defining feature of Jewishness, but a core value as well. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Moses recalls God instructing the Israelites while encamped at Mt. Sinai, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites…” Many of the Hasidic masters interpret this passage as a spiritual, rather than a geographical, directive: Do not be content with things as they are. Don’t get complacent. Always be on the move, always strive to grow, always be pushing for personal and social improvement and transformation. The world as it is is broken. Don’t just sit there while it is in pieces. Get up and strive to put it back together.

God’s instruction calls us back to the core of who we are, and who we are called to be. Israel reminds us that to be a Jew is to be perpetually unsatisfied and always agitating to make things better. As we prepare tonight to celebrate Tisha B’Av, the holiday that reminds us of the brokenness of our world, let us, along with our brothers and sisters in Israel, recommit to moving forward from this mountain, from our world of injustice and disharmony, to a world perfected through God’s sovereignty. Shabbat Shalom.

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