Monday, March 27, 2023

Israel at the Crossroads: Democracy or Majoritarianism?

I believe in inalienable human rights, and sovereign rule through democratic norms.  How can that be controversial?

In my opinion, there are two threats to legitimate democracy in Israel today:  the One State plan, and the gutting of Israel's supreme court that is occurring right now.  Both would forever eliminate the essential structure of civil rights, institutionalize military rule, majoritarianism and the oppression of minorities for the foreseeable future.  Here is how.

The Evisceration of the Supreme Court: 
Corruption and the Loss of Minority Protections

As I write, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are marching in the streets in protest of a set of "Judicial Reforms." Universities have closed.  Labor unions are threatening a national strike.  Growing numbers of reservists are refusing to report to duty.  And last night, the Prime Minister fired the Defense Minister for going on television Saturday night and daring to say that the Judicial Reforms need to slow down until a national consensus can be achieved regarding them.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has instead declared that the Supreme Court is the greatest threat to democracy and that he and his majority have the right, power and obligation to gut its independence and remove its power to overturn governmental and legislative actions.

What does the Supreme Court do that bothers Netanyahu's partners so much?

1)    Netanyahu and Deri are invested in removing the court's power to exert a "reasonability veto" on governmental decisions.  

The Court has recently used its "reasonability" power to declare that Aryeh Deri was unfit for service in the ruling cabinet because of his prior convictions and jail time for corruption while in office.  As head of the Shas religious political party, Deri is a major coalition partner in the government and personally musters enormous numbers of faithful followers in election after election.  In addition, it set an important precedent against Netanyahu himself, who is currently indicted for corruption from his previous term of service as Prime Minister.  If the power of the Supreme Court remains unchanged, and Netanyahu is convicted, he would be removed from office.  This is intolerable to Netanyahu and his followers.

2)    The Supreme Court has protected Religious and Social/Sexual Minorities in the past.

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Israeli Pride marches, gay/lesbian rights in marriage registry and adoption. It has ruled in favor of civil rights in the occupied territories, and minority rights in Israel proper.  In particular, it has asserted the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jewish Israelis.  It also placed limitations on the expansion of settlements.  All of these decisions are noxious to the leaders of Political religious Orthodoxy.  If the Supreme court's power to review is eliminated, it is entirely reasonable to believe that gay rights, non-Orthodox religious freedoms and minority liberties can and will be rolled back by the government without recourse.  Such an elimination of basic civil liberties would be an illiberal democratic move by definition.

3)    When rule by the majority is not "democratic."  

Two wolves and a sheep vote on what they will have for dinner.  Isn't that fair and democratic?  It is, unless you believe in the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Allowing a majority to rule in this case is "pulling the wool over your eyes."

The current majority in the Israeli government is comprised by the following parties:

Likud (31)

                    Shas (11) 

United Torah Judaism (7), 

The National Religious Party (7) and 

Otzma Yehudit (6). 

Together they are a bare majority of 62/120 - enough to form a coalition and take over the Executive and Legislative branches of the government. 

4)    What is Majoritarianism and why is it so bad? 

One form of illiberal democracy is "Majoritarianism."  This situation occurs when a majority in a free and fair election, such as Israel's, uses their majority power to act with authoritarian power akin to dictatorship.  All checks and balances against their rule of power are removed, often including the courts, the free press, civil rights and eventually the legality of opposition parties themselves.  The Majoritarian government can do anything, even things that democracies are not supposed to do, claiming that it is the "will of the people" for them to act.  In a self-affirming and anti-democratic move, they assert that they have a "mandate from the people" and that minorities that protest their actions are just sore losers.

Illiberal Democracy in the "One State" plan

My legitimate concern began several years ago was based in the context of annexing territories, won in the 1967 war, without granting full citizenship and voting rights to all people living in those territories.  Either release them to self-governance or annex them and grant full citizenship.  The only alternative is permanent military occupation of non-citizen population centers without political freedom and democratic rule.  People who argue against this view seek to justify why it is necessary.  All they are doing is proving my point.

This has now become the stated policy goal of the current governing coalition under Prime Minister Netanyahu and is an unambiguous statement of fact.  The permanent rule over occupied territories, however you define them as Yehuda/Shomron or the West Bank, is an expression of illiberalism by definition.

To put it plainly, The Likud Party has - ever since Menachem Begin the mid 1970's - held the position that there should be "one state" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.  This has been the basic view of the Otzma Yehudit (Kahanist/Settler) party as well.  The Oslo Accords, now abandoned by the majority of Israeli lawmakers, affirmed a Two State solution as the ultimate goal - Israel and Palestine living side by side.  The current policy goals reject that idea.

The One State solution is the view of intolerance on both sides. Anti-Zionism (Hamas, Students for Justice in Palestine, Hezbollah, many in the BDS movement and others) declares one state (Palestinian) as their only goal. Right-wing Israelis - in particular the settler movements and communities - declare one state (Israel) as their only goal.  Both extremes have proven that they can not be trusted with the "inalienable rights" of the other should they be granted the power and authority they seek.  

A Two State solution remains the only hope for a future with human rights and legitimate democracies.  Do we really have to choose between Democracy and Israel?

The fact that most Israelis and most Palestinians reject the Two State solution does not change reality. In any One State solution human rights will suffer.

The Authoritarian Play Book - Why we worry.

1)    Win legitimate Authority                                                    (YOU ARE HERE)
2)    Demonize minorities                                                          (YOU ARE HERE)
3)    Focus on external threats and security concerns                (YOU ARE HERE)
4)    Take control of all police and military forces                     (YOU ARE HERE)
5)    Eliminate or Control the Judiciary                                     (YOU ARE HERE)
6)   Eliminate Minority Rights                                                   (Underway)
7)    Eliminate opposition access to power
8)    Make your government's rule permanent
9)    Establish illiberal elections to validate your rule.

..... So, Where are YOU now?

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Inclusion and Exclusion - Embracing Change for Good

 Inclusion and Exclusion - Embracing Change for Good

Our synagogue has been engaged in a slow process of change for decades.  At first, in the fifties, men and women were allowed to sit together.  Then, in the seventies girls could have a bat mitzvah on Friday nights.  Next, in the eighties, women could read from the Torah for the congregation and eventually count in the minyan.  More recently, we have come to embrace same sex couples, and the life celebrations and memberships that come with them. We now welcome and invite our non-Jewish family and friends to participate in the ritual life of our congregation, especially in their families' simchas and sacred moments.  And now, as we come to understand and accept the variety of gender expressions and sexual identities that exist in God’s creation, we are devoted to being inclusive of all those who seek more Judaism through participation in our community and synagogue life.

I recognize that when brought together this is a lot.  And it is good and it is important.  In the wake of these changes, however, a key term - a core value - has been raised, debated and decried by a valued few who are not comfortable or supportive of these values.  The terms in question are inclusion and exclusion.  So, in the sincere hope and prayer that our variety and differences can be appreciated and our core values understood, I would like to define each term and give a couple of examples.

Exclusion is any circumstance of formal, ingrained or physical limits that prevent a person from exercising their free will to fully participate in an activity, group or physical infrastructure.  They wish to participate, and are excluded by an external force which prevents them from doing so.  That is exclusion.  Exclusion can occur through everything from the absence of universal design in bathrooms to overt bigotry and bias. 

Inclusion is the circumstance of an open, supportive and welcoming system that anticipates and eliminates all possible external barriers of exclusion.  Inclusion is tested when a person wishes to be a part and in fact is able to be a part of the activity, community or location in question.

Religion can “Exclude"

Religious organizations will often exclude the non-faithful or outsider from their core sacraments, but this is not exclusion per se.  A non-Catholic can not take communion.  A non-Muslim is not allowed at the Kaba in Mecca.  A non-Jew can not read from the Torah scroll for the community.  Since access to the core rituals is permitted by the free will act of conversion, this kind of exclusivity is entirely inclusive in potential - based on the free will of the individual in question.  There is no structural, formal or deliberate exclusion - just the choice of the individual to adhere to the norms of that community.  As such, Religions have the ability and the right to exclude - or include - based on any principle of faith.  Religious organizations will draw the lines in various ways.  Orthodox synagogues will not accept intermarried couples as members, or permit women to lead religious services of the congregation.  That is their right.

Religious “Inclusion"

Two examples are instructive.  First, our synagogue has determined exactly what is permitted or not permitted for a non-Jewish person to do during the services of the congregation. We have embraced their full possible participation in our public and private rituals, according to Jewish Law in our movement.  A non-Jew can join their spouse at the ark, or on the bimah, and can say a parent’s prayer for their child during their bar or bat mitzvah.  Yet they don’t say prayers or engage in actions commanded of Jews for Jews.  Second, we have recognized the important religious value of personal dignity and avoiding public embarrassment when it comes to our bathrooms, providing not just the binary choices of men and women but also a proclaimed “all gender” bathroom.  No one is forced into a personally awkward space, and each person’s free will defines for themselves where they will go.  This is the definition of inclusion.

The accusation of “exclusion" in times of change

Change is not always welcomed by everyone, and is managed as a process in religious communities.  Clearly all the movements in Judaism originally accepted the pertinent passages of Leviticus as prohibiting homosexuality, for example.  The Conservative movement has come to recognize homosexuality as a creation of God, not a sinful choice. It is, therefore, to be celebrated in the kinds of lifecycle moments that heterosexual couples have always enjoyed.  Eliminating the ban on all homosexuality was an act of inclusion, based on the change in beliefs endorsed by the movement as a whole.  But what of the person who joined the community long ago who holds fast to the prior belief system?  What happens when they sit in their long-time seat and are suddenly subjected to a ritual activity or community norm that they believe is terrible and wrong?  “By making this change” they say, “you are excluding me.”  I have to lovingly say, they are mistaken.

Embracing free will in times of change is the key to the conundrum.  The religious leadership of the movement, as taught by the mara d’atra - the local rabbinic law authority of the rabbi - determines the acceptable norms and standards for the community.  The community then sets policy and procedures within those norms.  So there are two steps. First the Jewish law is determined.  That is an exclusionary action.  Second, the communal standards and policies are determined by the volunteer leadership.  That can be either further exclusion, or full inclusion.  Our community, to its great credit, has become avowedly inclusive in its norms.  Everything permitted by Jewish law is made available to everyone of any ability or identity who comes into our building.  Barriers have been removed, and free will is the only determining factor for someone’s participation.

Some people will accept and others will personally reject these changes in the synagogue.  This has always been the case, as in each of the earlier examples of change I mentioned.  Some will determine that they want a more exclusive environment, or that they want one with even more inclusive core beliefs and practices.  They are still valued and beloved members of our community, and the distress this causes is sad. I ask that everyone look to the most inclusive model when it comes to the permitted, and act from love rather than judgement.

On the other hand, a negative outcome is possible for some individuals as a personal choice. A person who chooses not to tolerate the practices and norms of the community is making a personal choice based on the exercise of their own free will. The community is not "doing this to them." They are still being included in our community.  No barrier exists to their continued involvement, and they are welcome and valued, even if they personally oppose the religious standards being taught by the movement and embodied in the synagogue.

Religion Exists to Provoke Change

In fact, one can presume that this is the core purpose of the synagogue and religion as a whole. If everyone in the room already believed and followed every teaching of the organization, there would be no possibility for spiritual or religious growth among the members. Religion exists to provoke change and improvement in all of us. It can be safely presumed that its message will not always be welcome - especially if it is something new.

We are indeed an inclusive community, and I am proud of our community’s firm embrace of that standard.  It is my sincere prayer that we embrace our diversity in all its forms and that all our people continue to devote themselves to our synagogue and its ever changing fabric of community. All are welcome.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Condemn the Terror by Palestinians and Israelis this past week and be aware of what is at stake


A message in friendship, with prayers for peace.
View this email in your browser

Since the founding of the Shalom Hartman Institute over 40 years ago, and throughout these decades of producing research on the biggest challenges facing Jewish life and running educational programs for the betterment of the Jewish people, we have adhered to a set of overarching commitments that help to characterize the stakes of our work, and our aspirations. 
Our Core Commitments 
First, our work – and the positioning of our headquarters in Jerusalem – reflect an appreciation of the centrality of the birth of the State of Israel in a modern Jewish religious consciousness and a willingness to engage in the audacious, creative process of ‘writing the Torah of Zionism’ for the Jewish people as we encounter the new possibilities that this historical reality has brought about.  

Second, we understand the State of Israel to have originated as a collective project of the Jewish people worldwide, and we insist that it must remain that way – requiring all our wisdom and passion for its long-term thriving. We sometimes say that Israel is too big and too important to be left to Israelis alone. For Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people, it must forever engage the hearts, minds, concerns, and commitments of world Jewry. Just as Jewish suffering has historically been shared by Jews the world over, so must Jewish responsibility for Jewish peoplehood be shared as well. 

Third, we see the State of Israel as one of the greatest tests the Jewish people have ever faced – a crucible of our values systems and essentially a public referendum on the quality of our commitments. The experience of power and sovereignty can be miraculous, but it is also a test. For Judaism and Jewish tradition to be worth continuing, they must address the central moral questions of the day and speak a coherent moral language in response. Put simply, the State of Israel is the largest platform the Jewish people has ever had to test the integrity of our commitments. 

And fourth, we insist that the core moral and political aspirations of the State – that it be both a homeland for the Jewish people and a vibrant democracy, a homeland for Jews and for Palestinians, and a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens – are not competing ideas in tension with one another and certainly not contradictions, Rather, they are complex yet plausible aspirations for the State of Israel that can be honored through a serious commitment to Jewish and democratic values and institutions.  

The fact that these commitments are difficult to attain, and sometimes complicated to articulate, does not make them invalid and does not exonerate our responsibility to bring them out. We believe that Judaism has always spoken in full sentences, in paragraphs, even in tractates – much more than in the slogans that work temporarily for political parties or that live easily on a bumper sticker. Moreover, our tradition is skeptical of populism, and questions whether the ideas that are the most popular and easy to implement are truly the morally serious ones. We have always had in our history prophets, elders, and sages with a moral message for the people; sometimes their viewpoints have been rejected by the people for all forms of expediency, but their wisdom is preserved for posterity, and represents the north star of Jewish continuity. 

For the last several decades, we have benefited from the fact that many of these commitments were shared by Israelis and world Jewry – if not explicitly, then at least tacitly. Even as the attachment by some Jews around the world to Israel has eroded in recent decades, the overwhelming majority has maintained that a relationship to Israel constitutes a significant commitment in their Jewishness; even as some democratic norms have eroded in Israel with the failure of the negotiations with Palestinians and the likelihood of indefinite occupation, the pro-democracy forces in Israeli society have helped Israel keep its central commitments in alignment.  

Our Concerns and Fears 
The events of the last few months – and especially the last week – are constituting some of the most difficult tests to our commitments that we have ever seen. We feel shaken, and we know from many of you that you feel shaken as well. 

In the last few weeks, we have seen a major outburst of violence including several terror attacks that have killed innocent Israeli civilians, including in our community – Elan Galenes z”l, the brother of Gabriel, an alumnus of our Hevruta Gap-Year Program. We have seen lethal Israeli military incursions in the West Bank that have resulted in significant Palestinian casualties.  We have watched – and participated in – historic demonstrations against radical judicial reforms that are wildly unpopular in the Israeli electorate, even as they are being advanced by a government that was just elected. And we have watched, in horror, retaliatory behaviors by a group of Jewish settlers in Huawara following one of the terror attacks. This violent response contradicts the essence of what we mean when we talk about the Jewish people thinking of ourselves as defined by the commitment to be 'rahmanim, bnei rahmanim' – the compassionate, children of the compassionate. 

In some of these moments we have raised our voices in protest; in others, in tears of loss; in others, in lament, or in anger. 

It is not easy in moments like this to remain, as we will remain, a nonpartisan and pluralistic organization. And to do so, we are reminded that we define our work through a commitment to principles, beliefs, and values, and not to concrete political positions or other short-term strategies. 

All our core commitments are now being tested. 

There are too many in the Jewish people who are either taking the State of Israel and its long-term future for granted, or increasingly “writing it off” as a less central part of their Judaism. 

There are many who are either giving up on the collective project that is Jewish peoplehood or being pushed out of that project against their will.

There are too many examples of the State of Israel simply falling short of the standard of moral excellence – the standard to which we are meant to hold us ourselves accountable – and instead capitulating too readily to the standard of ‘normalcy,’ or worse. 

Thousands of international and pro-Israel observers are speaking up – in some cases, for the first time in public, because of the clarity of their concerns and the gravity of the issues – to express legitimate fears of Israel’s future as a democracy; and a growing number of Israel’s Palestinian citizens fear for their future. 

Our Responsibilities 
We have no intention of abating our commitments; if anything, the urgency of these commitments – stipulating them, and fighting for them – has never been stronger. At this moment, it is our duty to speak out, to critique the moral failures and dangers to Israel’s democratic future, and to be clear about our values as Jews and Zionists. 

This is also the time to double down on the work that we do, with a sense of urgency and responsibility that we have never experienced. In Israel, we are accelerating the pace of our growth and innovation in our Center for Israeli Jewish Identity under the leadership of Ronit Heyd, building an activist network of teachers and principals towards the advancement of liberal Jewish and democratic values in the school system; in our new Center for Shared Society under the leadership of Rana Fahoum, breaking new ground in relationship-building and the building of a stronger civic culture of shared belonging between Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens; in our Rabbanut Yisraelit rabbinic network, driving religious-based community organizing across the country; in our Center for Religion and State under the leadership of Tani Frank, pumping out legislative proposals and critical commentary to advance the agenda of religious pluralism; in our Kogod Research Center, under the leadership of Shraga Bar-On, we are working on new ways and methodologies to communicate the essential features of liberal Judaism, democracy, and religious Zionism for Israeli society; and with our voices – in our podcasts, in videos, in writing, and on the street – to sometimes shape and sometimes echo the emergent liberal democratic voice of Israeli society that is making a comeback.

It is equally critical that we galvanize American Jewish leaders to speak, teach, and lead with a clear and passionate moral voice about the Israel we are fighting for, that we might support our partners in Israel and honor our commitments to Jewish peoplehood. We are doing this by rapidly growing our work with teens and young Jewish adults in our Wellspring suite of programs, which focus heavily on issues of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism and what it means to be engaged morally, spiritually, and intellectually with Israel at this critical juncture. We have devoted most of the episodes of our flagship podcasts, Identity/Crisis and For Heaven’s Sake, to strengthening the Jewish communal discourse around Israel and Jewish politics. We devoted all last summer’s programs for lay leaders and rabbis, and an issue of our journal Sources, to the question of “Why Israel Now?” inviting a new generation of our leaders to grow and shape their own courageous leadership voices for the needs of this moment. And we are planning our summer programs for this year for lay leaders, rabbis, heads of Jewish day schools, Hillel professionals, and college students which will be infused with the tagline “The Israel we are fighting for” – to make clear that our commitments are fueled by Torah, our moral convictions, and the responsibilities that come with being alive at this moment in Jewish history. 

We do none of this alone. The Shalom Hartman Institute is proud to belong and contribute to an ecosystem of organizations in Israel and in the North American Jewish community who are committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel that lives up to our moral aspirations, and especially the many organizations who invite both Israelis and world Jewry to participate in shaping the Israel we imagine.

We want you to be with us and to stay with us. Now is not the moment for those who share our overarching commitments – who believe in the ideal – to check out because of the real. Now is the moment for world Jewry to raise up the Israelis and Palestinians who are working for change; for liberal Zionists to see our commitments as rooted in patriotism and loyalty to Israel’s abiding commitments which it laid out in its Declaration of Independence. Now is the time to build larger and broader coalitions, to acknowledge that we don’t have to agree on everything, but we need one another for the betterment of Israeli society. Now is the time to remember that many of our disagreements can be negotiated without the zero-sum framework that our politicians are so attached to, and that a culture of pluralism and principled debate is in our collective best interest. Now is the time for people of Torah everywhere to resist the binary between Jewish values and Jewish nationalism – to recognize that history has made such a distinction irrelevant, and that the work of Torah is in service of the current needs of the Jewish people and not in avoidance thereof.  Now is the time for more sermons on Israel that foreground the Jewish tradition’s moral voice and the insistence that the best of our tradition continue to shape our hopes and dreams for how we as the Jewish people walk in the world, for more and better Israel education that doesn’t shy away from the challenges but uses them to help enlist the next generation to be part of the solution, for more philanthropy to Israeli NGOs so that we can do what Zionism has always done – it dreams of a better future, and it rejects the fatalism of the status quo. 

We need each other more than ever. The Jewish people cannot walk away from one another, not on our watch. There is too much to do. 

In friendship, and with prayers for peace –

Donniel Hartman
Shalom Hartman Institute

Yehuda Kurtzer
Shalom Hartman Institute of North America 
Copyright © 2023 Shalom Hartman Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Our mailing address is:
Shalom Hartman Institute
11 Gedalyahu Alon Street PO Box 8029 Jerusalem 9108001 Israel
T: +972 2 567 5320 | Email

Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
475 Riverside Dr. Suite 1450, New York, NY 10115
T: +1 212 268 0300 | Email

Canadian Friends of Shalom Hartman Institute
8888 Blvd Pie IX, Montreal, QC H1Z4J5
T: +1 212 268 0300 |  Email

unsubscribe from this list    update subscription preferences