Rabbi Moshe Parnes in the Israel National News: Birth pangs of a nation
March 28, 2023

by Rabbi Moshe B. Parnes in the Israel National News

Israel’s newly proposed Judicial Reform Bill is all over the news, both in Israel and abroad, for all the wrong reasons. Thousands of protestors in Tel Aviv claimed that its passage would change the character of the State from a liberal democracy to an unyielding theocracy.

Prominent media outlets and left-leaning pundits are rending their garments over the corpse of Israeli democracy, mourning the end of the State of Israel and the demise of Judaism itself.

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None of this is even remotely true. In actuality, not only does the Judicial Reform Bill not herald the end of times, it may even usher at the beginning of a stronger, leaner, and more focused Jewish people.

Let’s be honest, Israelis never cared much about democracy. The forced evacuations of thousands of Jews from their Gaza homes during the Sharon-led government, a policy supported by only a small minority in the Knesset, pulled the mask off any such pretensions in Israeli society. The brutal crackdowns on protestors and the warrantless jailing of minors that followed, gleefully supported by the secular Israeli press, underscored how little Israelis really value their freedoms.

The Gaza debacle was hardly a one-time event. Since its conception in the late 1800’s the founders of the State always valued socialist policy and conformity over human rights and democracy. The familiar saga of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the State of Israel in its early years and tried to observe the Jewish traditions they had been accustomed to in their native lands was a harbinger of things to come. For the double sin of being both Sephardi and traditional, they were greeted with contempt, discrimination, forcible secularization, and even open hatred while trying to seek jobs, benefits, and healthcare.

The Yemenites fared even worse. Their ancient community who resettled in Israel after the establishment of the State with great hope and anticipation was not met with the understanding and tolerance you would expect from a democracy. Instead, they were forced into anti-religious kibbutzim foreign to their way of life, often made to eat non-kosher food, given jobs compelling them to work on Shabbat, and some even had their precious children torn away and placed in secular hands.

And so it was with the barely tolerated Haredi minority. As an American yeshiva student in the early 1980’s I vividly remember watching a peaceful, albeit loud, protest in Jerusalem’s Kikar HaShabbat, when Mayor Teddy Kolek disembarked from a black sedan and the police, who were mostly passively observing up till then, swung into action. They punched, beat, and shoved the protestors mercilessly. I’ll never forget the look of triumph on Kolek’s countenance as he watched a policeman bloody the face of a young Haredi student until the blood ran down his white shirt and onto the ground. I recognized that look; it was terrifying. I had seen it often in pictures from my parent’s time, but never on a Jewish face.

Purim is over, so we don’t need to masquerade any longer. The anguish at the proposed changes in the Israeli judicial system has nothing to do with the demise of a system of government that was always foreign to the Israeli psyche. What Israelis, and all Jews, do care about, what they have always deeply invested in, is ideology and identity. Israel is currently facing a profound identity crisis, not a judicial crisis. It is wrestling with the confluence and contradiction of being an Israeli together with being a Jew.

History has shown that all movements that seek to redefine Judaism and Jews and divorce Judaism from its traditional sense, have no Jewish future. There has never been a successful adaption of the Jewish religion, since the foundations of Christianity and Islam, that has maintained its Jewish identity. These breakaway movements are usually lauded and embraced at their inception as a new and dynamic form of Judaism, but ultimately, they drift away from their Jewish core, and their adherents are lost to the Jewish people forever.

In modern times, one needn’t look further than the Reform movement and its fraternal twin, the Conservatives. Once hailed as the very future of Judaism and the logical adaption of Jewish practice to contemporary custom, now, they only manage to sputter along because their numbers are artificially inflated by non-Jewish members. With their rabbinical and cantorial schools in serious decline, the shuttering of many of their synagogues and temples across America, and the majority of their members marrying non-Jews, they are the very definition of assimilation and Jewish obsolescence.

The demise of the Reform and Conservative movements abroad and the great religious revival over the past four decades throughout the Jewish world places the Israeli secular public squarely in the center of an existential dilemma.

Israel’s Founding Fathers tried to fashion a Jewish identity based upon fealty to the State but not to the religion. “Israelism” was to become the new Judaism. This was the Israeli nationalist version of the Reform and Conservative movements. This new Israelism embraced Jewish culture, just as Reform does. There’s nothing unsettling about placing a Chanukah menorah in the window or enjoying a knish or a pastrami sandwich, but anyone who crossed the line into Jewish religion was met with the full wrath of the new Israeli. The inherent contradictions embodied in a philosophy promoting a “Jewish” State devoid of Judaism, although apparent to religious Jews, were actively ignored by secular Israelis. Thus, the strongarming of the highly traditional Sephardic and Yemenite immigrants, the shunning of hareidim, and the disrespect for religious Zionists were not met with democratic outrage. Instead, they were welcomed as a necessary component in fashioning the modern identity of a Jewishless Israeli man.

Today, with the political rise of hareidim, Sephardim, religious Zionists, and the many secular Israelis who revere Judaism and all that it encompasses, their desire to ensure a Jewish future for their children and grandchildren by espousing Jewish values can no longer be beaten down and pushed to the side like a protestor in Kolek’s Jerusalem of old.

Today’s protests are not against Judicial reform, which any liberal-minded citizen should happily champion. It’s about the guilt and contradiction that all Jews feel when confronted with Judaism. Secular Israelis are feeling the sharp pressure of their own faith bearing down on them and they correctly view the Supreme Court and its disdain for religion (e.g. former Chief Justice Aharon Barak recently admitted that he does not even know the words of Shema Yisrael, but felt capable of making judgments on religious issues during his tenure, ed.) as the last bastion of Israelism and the only remaining firewall against the onslaught of Judaism. They are greatly encouraged by American reform and conservative movement leaders who see this battle as their final prospect to transgender the Jewish religion into the modern oblivion of Western ideas, transient culture, and anti-religious secularism.

The civil unrest has opened very deep wounds in our national soul which at once hurt badly but give us the opportunity to peer into ourselves as we never have before. If we look honestly we can come out more focused and stronger than we were before. If we don’t, we should bear in mind that this epic battle has a preordained victor. The Jewish Nation will ultimately choose Judaism over any innovation as it always has. Judaism is immortal and will survive and even thrive. The great question of the day is, will the anti-religious left in the State of Israel realize that in time?

Originally published in the Israel National News

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