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We Were Once Not Free

April 2, 2023

Rabbi Geier


BSD || Rabbi Geier

We Were Once Not Free

This month, we are supposed to be valuing the concept of freedom, tasting the matza during our Sedarim, our Passover dinners, remembering why our ancestors ate it on their way out of Egypt.

We can say we are people who valued individual liberties long before others even thought about them. We can say that we are a people who have valued freedom of expression, diversity of opinions, and discussions in favor of reaching agreeable understandings for more than 2,000 years. However, in the countries where the majority of Jews are living today, they are threatened by policies that hinder freedoms, question the division of state powers against respect for institutions and above all against the resolution of conflicts through open and frank discussions facing and negotiating positions.

Since there are threats in this sense in countries like the United States, where the Jewish people are not the majority, would that be only one reason to leave them out of this reflection? The answer is NO.

We know that American Jews play an influential and important part in areas that could twist or influence certain things so they do not happen. If we add this to the United States of America, a nation that has always been an example and safeguard of many of these principles, then it probably puts us on alert that something very bad is happening.

Of course, this is not just the case in America. Countries that once had moderate or progressive governments are dangerously inclined to a political conservatism (not to be confused with our Conservative Movement or Masorti) of the extreme right. This would be acceptable as long as, and as I mentioned before, the different existing freedoms are not violated.

Let's go to the important part of this crisis: Eretz Yisrael. Although we cannot say that it is Israel's political history that has had governments that were mainly left-wing, with a few exceptions, legality and institutionality were always present.

Even the coalition governments of the right ended up understanding those of the left and vice versa. In a country that lacks a constitution and where the law of the Torah overrides all State decisions, we must recognize that it has been an enormous effort to maintain and guarantee individual freedoms and the independence of state powers.

Beyond the dangers involved in manipulating state powers, as Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition claims, the facts that extremist minorities are behind these negotiations for the simple fact of being the ones that provide the majority for governability means that we are facing an institutional crisis that keeps Israeli society in chaos.

In the Babylonian Talmud, treatise on Sanhedrin page 23a we find the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, who served as a judge in the rabbinical court of his city. One day, he was summoned by King Herod Antipas to act as a judge in a dispute in his royal court. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa refused to go, saying that he would only try cases in the rabbinical court where he could apply God's law without political interference.

King Herod was offended and ordered Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa to be forcibly taken to his court. When he got there, the king asked him how he dared to disobey his order. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa replied that he was willing to face any punishment the king wanted to inflict upon him, but as a judge, he could only apply God's law, not the king's law.

I want to share with you a quote from the Statement of the Conservative movement published last February regarding Israel's crisis:

Alarm regarding these reforms is being expressed by large segments of Israeli society, including the legal and business communities, academia, Masorti communities, and hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel's streets. Among the most worrying elements is the so-called “override clause” which would enable a simple majority of the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions. This would eviscerate the already fragile balance of power between the branches of Israel's government.

Weakening Israel's highly regarded judicial system would undermine the message we have proudly and successfully promoted for decades around the world that Israel is both a Jewish AND a democratic state. With the mounting global disapproval of the proposed plan, moving forward risks serious economic, diplomatic and strategic consequences.

What can be done? We believe that now is the time to identify a better path forward that guarantees the rights of all Israelis and preserves the State of Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people around the world. In the words of Israel's President Isaac Herzog, "dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public... the absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within.... This powder keg is about to explode. This is an emergency." It is in this spirit that we support the President's call for freezing the entire legislative process in the Knesset and holding a dialogue between the government and opposition under his auspices.

We understand the extraordinary nature of a call by a global movement representing more than two million Diaspora Jews regarding an internal matter of the State of Israel. But our love for Israel compels us to action, just as it has in every past crisis the State of Israel has faced.

We call on all Jews worldwide to join us in making our voices heard at this historic juncture for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. We are standing for and will always stand for a strong, vibrant and democratic State of Israel. Israel's future, resilience, and unity depend on it remaining Yehudit v'Democratit B'Dibur Echad - Jewish and democratic in one.

For more than 2000 years it has been understood that one should not interfere with the powers of State. For more than 2,000 years we have known and studied the need to respect different opinions and accept differences. For more than 2000 years, we have revalued freedom and liberties year after year, remembering that we were not once free.

May this not be the year to forget it.

I wish each and everyone of us a “Pesach Kasher ve Sameach”, a happy and kosher kept Pesach; but above all, a Passover Holiday full of meaningful content that helps us change not only our lives and those of our neighbors, but part of our wonderful world.

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