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How Can Israel Become a Place of Justice?

How Can Israel Become a Place of Justice?

Statue of justice, blindfolded with scale, in front of shelves of books

The United States Constitution is kept within an atomic bomb-proof vault in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Our nation’s foundational document therefore (hopefully) is well protected from any who would seek to do it physical harm. There are constant battles about how best to understand the original intent of the Constitution’s authors, and battles rage on as well about how to find ways to expand the Constitution’s protections in a world vastly different from June 21, 1788, when it was formally adopted.  But that vault bears profound testimony to the role the Constitution plays in our national life.

The Shrine of the Book, located on the campus of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, houses many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Designed to conserve, protect, and exhibit priceless artifacts, this majestic example of modernist architecture is periodically renovated to bring its security technologies up to the highest contemporary standards.

But where is the Israeli constitution housed? There is no constitution. There are Basic Laws, considered to be building blocks for a future constitution, and of course the Knesset passes laws. However, Israel does have its M’gillat HaAtzamut, its Declaration of Independence, first proclaimed by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948. Lacking the force of law, the M’gillah is a soaring proclamation of the moral vision of Israel’s founders. It is the enduring standard held up against Israeli society of today by those who wish to determine how far modern Zionism has come in fulfilling its original dream.

In a forthcoming book, Dr. Ruth Calderon, former MK, trail blazing Israeli educator, and moral visionary, and Rabbi Shmuley Yanklowitz author, philosopher, and a warrior for social justice, struggle with the troubling distance between vision and reality. (Deepening the Dialogue: Jewish Americans and Israelis Envision the Jewish-Democratic State. Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Rabbi John Rosove (ed.), New York, CCAR Press, 2020.)

Dr. Calderon feels the urgent need for Israel to adopt a constitution (a heavily debated position in Israel today!) and to have the M’gillah serve as its preamble. There are multiple Jewish dimensions to living in Israel, dimensions that simply do not exist for Jews outside Israel. Jewishness within Israel takes place in every aspect of the public sphere, and that public sphere is the place within which Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, Haredi and secular, must live side-by-side.

Jews in the Diaspora live a Jewishness that is carried out in the private sphere. The differences between crafting Jewish lives in private vs. public spheres are daunting. Is it any wonder that many Diaspora Jews cannot fully comprehend the challenges Israel faces, even as many Israeli Jews view Jewish life in America as wholly alien to their experience?

The M’gillat HaAtzmaut proudly embraces inter alia the aspiration that Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs could live together in a condition of equality in a democratic Jewish state, but the current situation is far from making such a dream come to life. And Dr. Calderon sees the established chief rabbinate (the Rabbanut) as being a primary obstacle to civil and religious equality in Israel. She would like to see the Rabbanut disestablished.

As an American Jew, Rabbi Yanklowitz painfully charts what he considers to be the disappearance of social justice within the very heart of Zionism. He notes that Jewish nationalism and what he calls “land-idolatry” are draining the oxygen out of the M’gillah’s core Jewish values. Like so many of us, he feels enormous pride in Israel as a “start-up” nation, but he insists that such an achievement does not adequately reflect the dream of Israel’s founders to create an ir zedek, a city of justice, that could become l’or goyyim, a light unto the nations. Israel has fallen short in its moral and spiritual development, therefore limiting its capacity to model a better world that could inspire other nations.

Yet Yanklowitz’s retains his optimism: they can do it. And we can be partners with them. The work of making the dreams of the M’gillah come to life cannot be delayed nor deferred, because the souls of Jews alive today truly matter. Tikkun olam (repair of the world) is the pathway to tikkun ha-medinah (the moral repair of the State): social justice is the one sure pathway to make Israel a beacon of ethical and moral living. And only tikkun ha-medinah can bring Israel closer to fulfilling the prophetic imperative for it to be l’or goyyim.

The two world centers of Jewish life, experiencing their Judaism in dramatically different ways, eternally linked by what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously called a b’rit goral, a shared covenant of fate. The failure of either community would have a devastating effect on the other. The future of each requires a partnership of both.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids, D.D., was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta, GA. A member of the Board of Overseers of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and an honorary life member of NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth organization, he previously held leadership posts with the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Zionist Organization. He is a past international president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids
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