First appeared in Haaretz.com
“How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob…” (Numbers 24: 5)
We don’t know whether Bilaam, the gentile prophet prophesied the protest tents of the Israeli social justice movement, but other prophets certainly identified with the spirit of the struggle.
Most famously, Amos, the prophet from Tekoa resolutely insisted that social justice lies at the heart of Judaism. Currently, the gap between the rich and the poor in Israel is one of the widest in the developed world. The protestors object to this, and the ancient prophet shared their concerns. He railed against a society which taxed the poor beyond measure, while the rich lived in decadent luxury. This, he states is intolerable and unsustainable:
“Therefore, because you trample upon the poor, and because you exhort taxes on their grain, you have built houses of carved stone, but you won’t live in them; you have planted lush vineyards, but you won’t drink their wine” (Amos 5: 11).
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester directs the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and serves as the British United Synagogue’s Rabbi in Israel.
Is belly dancing kosher? How about New Year’s Eve parties?
For years, the Israeli rabbinate has waged wars against such activities, revoking the kashrut licenses of hotels and restaurants that offered them. This enrages those who feel that kashrut authorities should limit themselves to certifying food; others admire the holistic approach, which indicates that both the food and the ambience strictly conform to Jewish tradition.
Jews around the world have been shocked by the story of Na’ama: the eight-year-old girl from a religious family in Beit Shemesh who was spat on, cursed and insulted by religious extremists as she made her way to school.
Image: Alex Livac
One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yoram Kaniuk, has resigned from the Jewish religion. He won his case in court to have the word “Jewish” removed from his identity at the Population Registry, and from now on he will be listed as “without religion”.
When Theodore Herzl saw the mobs outside a Paris courtroom screaming, “Death to Dreyfus, death to the Jews”, he knew that there was no future for the Jews in Europe. The visceral hatred that he witnessed was enough to persuade him that profound anti semitism prevailed in the hearts of his French kinsmen. Herzl dreamed of a homeland where Jews could live normal lives free from persecution and so modern Zionism was born. All who came to these shores in the face of anti-Semitism and persecution have reason to be grateful to him.
I was educated in the cradles of religious Zionism which promised so much more than than a refuge for the hunted Jews of the world and the normalization of the Jewish people. Idealistic rabbis offered a thrilling vision of our return to our ancestral homeland in which we would once again live out our Jewish values, building the most just and ethical society. The State of Israel would give us the space, the population and the governmental apparatus to build a truly outstanding society. This would culminate in the Messianic state in which justice and loving kindness would rule supreme.
It’s a great privilege to live in Jerusalem. Just stepping out of my front door, I immediately confront my identity and destiny as a Jew. My street carries the name of a Mishnaic sage, to the left the streets are named after Biblical characters, to the right after soldiers and politicians who forged the State of Israel. Walking up these roads, passed many kosher restaurants and a myriad of synagogues, I regularly spot important rabbis, former Russian dissidents and political leaders. As I nod and murmur a greeting, I proudly whisper to my children, “Did you know that person is a Jewish hero?”
My most extraordinary religious experience took place on a mountain top in the north of Israel. The winding path to Mount Meron was lined with holy men, charlatans and peddlers pressing me to buy blessings, trinkets, food and drink. At the summit were hundreds of tents belonging to Sephardi families who camp out for a week before the festival; tied to each tent was a young lamb.
The day before the new au pair arrived, my father took me aside. “Gideon, be kind to her,” he said, “for remember, you were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” I was only five years old at the time, and I was bewildered by his words, but from his tone, I understood that his message was urgent. I was growing up in the shadows of the Holocaust and he was giving me my first lesson in tolerance and the importance of kindness to strangers.
I am a Zionist. Every day I marvel at Israel’s achievements, I am awed by the soldiers who risk their lives so that I can be here, I am uplifted by a democracy where an Arab judge can sentence the Jewish ex-President to jail and I treasure the privilege of walking the streets of the Promised Land.
But living here comes with a price tag. Sometimes the harsh realities of Israel displace my Zionist dreams and the daily papers carry disturbing news of rampant government corruption and the harshness of the occupation. Edmund Burke is famous for saying that “All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to remain silent”; should this be our guiding principle, leading us to speak openly and critically about Israel’s flaws?
Last week, I visited Bethlehem. As an Israeli citizen, I am banned from entering most of the city and till now that has kept me away from the whole area. But the Encounter organization which takes diaspora rabbis and rabbinical students to see life beyond the separation fence graciously organized a special trip for me and two fellow Orthodox Rabbis to visit those parts of Bethlehem which are still open to us.
As a condition of taking part, we committed ourselves to “resilient listening”, and giving the benefit of the doubt to our speakers even when their accounts seemed unpalatable, harsh, distorted or unfair. It was to prove a fascinating, but grueling experience.