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The Torah of Elections in Israel: Concern and Optimism

The Torah of Elections in Israel: Concern and Optimism

Israel's parliament building, the Knesset

Medinat Halachah, Halchah HaMedina.” (A state of halachah (Jewish religious law), the State is lost.”)
-“Sticker Song” by the popular Israeli band HaDag Nachash

In the Israeli elections last month, the country’s citizens elected an interesting assortment of representatives. After only 30 days – the shortest Knesset term ever – 74 of the parliament’s members voted to dissolve the body because of a failure in coalition negotiations to obtain a majority, which will send the country back to the polls for new elections in September.

Many complex political factors contributed to Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition, including the diametrically opposed ultra-Orthodox parties and Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing, secular Yisrael Beiteinu party. To form a coalition, Prime Minister Netanyahu needed the five members of Avigdor Lieberman’s party, but Lieberman was unwilling to compromise on the issue of national conscription for the ultra-Orthodox.

A week later, MK Betzalel Smotrich demanded that his Union of Right-Wing Parties (Orthodox, but not ultra-Orthodox or Haredi) be granted the portfolios of education and justice now vacant because Netanyahu dismissed the two sitting ministers when they were not reelected in April. “We want the justice portfolio,” said Smotrich, “because we want to restore the Torah justice system.” He also told a public radio station that the country should aspire to run itself as “in the days of King David.” 

Fortunately, Netanyahu rejected that request, saying in a tweet: “The State of Israel will not be a halachic state.”  Netanyahu will temporarily fill the vacant roles himself, which is controversial because he is under investigation that may lead to his indictment, creating a direct conflict of interest for him as the sitting justice minister.

This entire scenario gives us pause to reflect on a bigger question at hand.

But first, let us be clear that as a religious movement, Reform Judaism holds to the fundamental belief that the values and ethics set out in the Torah are the greatest gift the Jewish people have given to world. Our biblical system of law and morality has set the world on a course of clarity and universal values for which we can be proud. 

It in no way follows, however, that the Jewish State should be governed according to Jewish or biblical law. The Jewish State has an established system of government based on justice and equality – a rule of law in which halachah may be referenced but does not have the final word.

Although MK Smotrich and his camp’s dangerous campaigning has been rejected across the divide, we will see issues of religion and state play a more prominent role in the upcoming elections.

As Israel moves into a three-month campaign, much will change and develop. Let us evaluate both concerns and reasons for optimism at this moment in Israeli politics.

Here are two reasons to be concerned:

1. New elections may change little.

After four more months and billions of shekels the outcome may be a similar, if not identical, reality to today. Elections are always a gamble and may not resolve the current impasse.

2. New elections may favor Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic character.

September’s elections may see a strengthening of politicians, including former ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who have called for annexation of the West Bank, and a limitation of power of the courts.

Here are two reasons to be optimistic:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not an omnipotent leader.

The election process showed us Netanyahu’s inability to alter the political course based on his own calculations to preserve power and avoid indictment. His pre-indictment hearings are scheduled for October 2, only days after the next elections. This timing is good news for Israel’s democracy, proving that one individual cannot singlehandedly control the course the country.

2. Significant civic engagement is creating a buzz of excitement.

The current reality offers us a good time to look at the cracks in the foundation of Israel’s democracy and gives us, as a movement, an opportunity to offer a different reality. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are pouring into the streets and speaking out in various media to stand up for democracy and to uphold the values of the country’s sacred institutions – the rule of the law and the Supreme Court, which provides an essential and critical check on the Knesset’s legislative power.

As we watch the events continue to unfold in Israel, we know that the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections (January 21 to March 11, 2020) will offer us a democratic opportunity to support our Reform values there as well. Watch this space for more information in the coming weeks and months.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism and the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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