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25th February 2023 / 4th Adar 5783


I have good news. Good news from Israel.

But first, let me share a story with you. When Menachem Begin visited the States for the first time as Prime Minister in 1977, he spent one night in a hotel in New York. Unsurprisingly, a group of protesters gathered on the street beneath his window. They were anti-Israel folks of the ultra-Orthodox variety, those black-dressed lunatics whomaintain that Zionism is blasphemy and the Israeli Prime Ministers - all of them - are bloodthirsty criminals. It was a small clique but very noisy. Past 10.00 PM, the hoteliers and the security services offered to disperse the group so that the Prime Minister could have his night of rest. But Menachem Begin had no time for it. "Let them protest,” he said. “Let them make all the noise they want. Those people have waited two thousand years for a Jewish prime minister to protest against and the freedom to protest aloud. Don't you dare destroy the gift that they have finally received!"

Reading the news from Israel over the last weeks, I thought several times about this story.

The numbers are impressive. 250 thousand Israeli citizens, more than 2 per cent, regularly participate in demonstrations against the proposed judicial reform. To give you an idea of scale, think of more than 180,000 English citizens demonstrating. Or 8,000 citizens out of the whole population of Brighton. These are the biggest demonstrations in the history of the country, and they have been going on for weeks.

It used to be that every Israeli knew at least another Israeli who had died in war. Now every Israeli knows at least one Israeli citizen who has taken part in these demonstrations. These protesters belong to every stratum of Israeli society. They are farmers, social workers, students, and hi-tech entrepreneurs. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachis. Religious and secular. There are Left-wing leaders, like our own Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Labour MP, and Right-wing personalities, such as Tzipi Livni and Benny Begin. So many people and so diverse that they cannot even appoint an official spokesperson.

And now let me ask you, how often would you see something similar happening in England? I mean people ‘doing’ politics, things like demonstrations and rallies. I am talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Not that often, I suppose. These days, doing politics means writing two lines on Twitter, pushing the send button, and then waiting for someone to argue back. This is how politics is done here these days.

Some people still go canvassing; that's true. But remember when we organised a meeting with all the candidates for the political elections in 2019? The average age of the participants was so high; there were no young people. This is not good for the future: it means that young UK citizens are not interested in democracy.

The lack of participation in political life in this country is dramatic – and it is not only happening in the UK. It's a problem throughout the whole of the Western world. In Italy two weeks ago, people voted for the Governors of the two biggest regions, Lombardy and Lazio, that is, Milan and Rome: 40% of people did not bother to vote. These are the elections that decide who will govern the major cities and their regions, that is, the politicians who will take decisions for matters that affect their daily lives, such as public health, traffic, and transportation... But an increasing number of citizens simply do not care, do not trust the system or the politicians. They choose not to have a voice. And the problem is the same all over the Western world. There's a dramatic mistrust in democracy. This is the reason why populist political forces are growing everywhere: because distrust of democracy forms the basis of their agendas.

The result is that many people all over the world do not care for politics and do not trust democracy at all. And then there is a small Country where things are different. A Country - lest we forget - that is constantly targeted by terrorists, even now, even at this very moment. Israel is the only Country in the world that a coalition of other countries (led by Iran) has committed to erase from the face of the earth.

Nonetheless, despite being under threat of annihilation, the citizens of this Country, the Israelis, prove that they believe in democracy and mobilise themselves. In that Country, hundreds of thousands of citizens join public rallies in all the major cities, in every part of the Country, from the impoverished villages in the South to big cities such as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and even in some settlements in the West Bank.

It may be, as Menachem Begin said, that we Jews have waited for such a long time to have a government against which to protest that now we want to savour this opportunity. (Try to organise a Jewish demonstration against the Iranian Government in Tehran: good luck with that). It could also be that the high concentration of Jewish citizens in a Jewish State creates the conditions for highly participative and opinionated Jewish public life...

Whatever the reason for such mass participation, the important point is this, and I am quite impressed that no one has noticed: the Israelis are teaching the rest of the world that democracy matters.

I do not have a high opinion of the current Israeli Government. I think that Netanyahu is a cynical, albeit very talented, man who, at this point, should build a different coalition. To be honest, I am worried about the judicial reform, and I am worried about worse things to come - especially restrictions on Jewish immigration from Ukraine, Russia, Ethiopia, etc. That would be a betrayal of Zionism. Nonetheless, let me state it clearly. Our faith commands us to judge everybody for good.

Perhaps those who - even now - spend their time insulting Israel on social media (and call it "doing politics" and identify themselves as Jewish...) have never been in touch with this important teaching of our Tradition. It's not a secret that those critics-of-Israel know very little of Judaism, and even the very little they know, they get wrong (it's funny to see how the ultra-Orthodox are held in huge esteem for some anti-Zionist rant published before the 20s...). But who cares about their rant. We must judge Israel for good.

And so here is my opinion: How can you not admire the Israelis? How can you not be proud of being a Jew, of being a Zionist right now? Look at the passion and dedication to democracy that, over these past weeks, the Israelis are showing to the world. Precisely when people in the Western world have lost faith in democracy and the despot in the Kremlin smirks "I told you so, Western democracy is over".

Having faith in the power of democracy these days means being a light upon the nations, which is what Zionism is all about.

There is something in the Jewish culture which encourages us Jews to take part in public life. This week's Torah portion, for example, is all about God's instructions to make the Tabernacle and its furnishings: quite a trivial and, dare I say, boring topic. But commentators have read in these paragraphs important teachings regarding public life - even when the text is about a portable altar! For example, they compare the Tabernacle to a leader and, by extension, that political leaders must be gold (that is, pure) on the inside and outside.

In the opening of the Torah portion, God commands the Israelites to bring gifts with a well-disposed heart. But what exactly happens here? Asks the Sfas Emet. Are these spontaneous donations, or rather are people being asked to contribute? How can you command anyone to feel generous and hence to give generously? Are these taxations or donations? And the answer is - people are happy to give money to pay taxes if they feel a sense of belonging to society.

This is an extraordinary teaching by a Rabbi at a time when democracy as we know it, with universal suffrage, was yet to be invented. The Jewish tradition finds political meaning even in the description of the building of a portable altar!

Our tradition encourages us to be involved in politics. If you wonder why when the rest of the world does not trust democracy anymore, the Israelis are showing the opposite faith in democracy, and you suggest that the answer is in the Torah: that's fine for me. I am willing to concede that when the Israelis do something good, it is because they are inspired by the Torah. I am a Rabbi and helping Jews to find inspiration in the Torah is, after all, my job.

But the main point, and we should not be afraid to say it openly, is that the Israelis are doing something very good, something remarkable, something inspiring.

Kol ha Kavod, maximum respect and Yasher koach. May the force be with them.


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