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Dear Friends,

A number of years ago I delivered two sermons on Israel… at the same time.

In the first part of the sermon I spoke of my love for Israel and my concerns that the international community and the media continued to demonize the Jewish State. I warned that we, the American Jewish community, needed to wake up to the growing threats and increasing marginalization of Israel before it was too late.

In the second part of the sermon I described then-government’s attempt to create a reality on the ground that made a two-state solution increasingly implausible as “pouring gasoline on an already burning fire.” (Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister at the time was Bibi Netanyahu.)

The point of the sermon was to make clear my belief that one can be a proud Zionist and supporter of Israel while also being highly critical of her government’s policies. I believe that more strongly now than ever before.

There is no doubt that Israel is a complex country.

In just under 75 years it has achieved tremendous things. Israel has provided a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and a variety of Arab States. Scientific discoveries made in Israel impact our daily lives to the extent that there is a barely a piece of technology that Israeli ingenuity has not played a role in creating. And when there is a disaster anywhere in the world Israel is often the first country to offer assistance. When one visits Israel it is impossible to not be in awe of the way the vibrant city of Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes just over one hundred years ago.

At the same time, Israel is an imperfect work in progress. Social inequity in Israel is greater now than at any time in her 75 year history. And more than 50 years after the West Bank was captured from Jordan, Palestinians living there have neither a state nor citizenship in either Jordan or Israel. It is an unsustainable situation but, sadly, both sides continue to dig in. Their intransigence is causing pain and suffering on both sides of the conflict.

As I wrote some weeks ago, when the new Israeli government came to power I was worried but consciously stood back to see how the new reality would play out. Bibi Netanyahu had a history of employing ugly rhetoric during campaigns but then pulling back from that rhetoric once in power. I hoped that would once again be the case. Sadly, that does not seem to be happening this time as Netanyahu has surrounded himself with far-right ideologues who are doubling down on the hateful rhetoric they have used in the past and, worse yet, seeking to transform their rhetoric into law.

I was hesitant to ring the alarm initially but as the current government attempts to turn their rhetoric into action and move forward with some of its more draconian policies, it seems the time has come to do just that.

And I am not alone.

In a piece entitled, “An open letter to Israel’s friends in North America” MATTI FRIEDMAN, YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI and DANIEL GORDIS  share their growing concerns for Israel. I know Halevi and Gordis and have studied with both numerous times. Neither is an alarmist. While studying with both they would frequently note Israel’s “complexity.” They spoke of Israel being a work in progress. But they NEVER expressed fear for the soul of the nation. Now they are.

They note,

To Israel’s friends in North America,

We are taking the unusual step of directly addressing you at a moment of acute crisis in Israel. We write with a sense of anguish and anxiety for the future of our country. All of us moved to Israel from North America and raised our children here. Between us are many decades of work as reporters, literary chroniclers and translators of Israeli reality for audiences abroad. We have explained and defended Israel against the campaign of distortions that seeks to turn the Jewish state into a pariah and will proudly continue to do so.

Today, though, protecting Israel also means defending it from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story. 

Especially problematic is the “judicial reform” Netanyahu and his minions are seeking to enact. Netanyahu was on American news programs last week and sought to put these changes in “context.” But as Friedman, HaLevi and Gordis note,

In substance, the changes would remove the only effective brake on government power and profoundly weaken the only body capable of protecting citizens from the tyranny of a majority – protection that has never seemed more vital.

Their Op Ed is a sobering piece and I encourage you to read it.

It is a wakeup call to all of us who care about the future of an Israel that is Jewish AND Democratic and protects the rights of ALL her citizens.

But the Op Ed is also a love letter written by three thought leaders who are proud Zionists and who love their country.

And that is the point. This is not the time to turn our backs on Israel. It is, however, time for us to speak out with both love AND concern. Love—because a return to Jewish self-determination after 2000 years is nothing short of a miracle. And concern—because the current government is seeking to turn that miracle into something ugly.

As the authors conclude,

We and our families, along with many tens of thousands of other Israelis, are in the streets every week demanding the government end its war against our democratic values and institutions. We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Services this evening will begin at 6pm. A pre service Kiddush will begin at 5pm, a half hour earlier than usual. I want to especially encourage those of you who have participated in one of our TSTI Missions to Israel to join us, as our friend and guide Doron Harel will be in attendance.