A Giant Step Forward and a Giant Step Back in Israel
Extraordinary news came out of Israel last week. One event was beyond exciting for Israel and its possibilities - the other was profoundly disturbing.
The exciting thing was launching a rover bound for the moon, becoming only the fourth country to engage in such a mission and by far the smallest, the others being the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China. And the rover Israel launched, called Bereishit (Genesis) is one of the smallest crafts designed for a moon landing. According to what I read, Israel did this for a mere fraction of the billions of dollars other programs have spent. But unfortunately, there was disturbing news coming out of Israel this week.
A Step Backward for Democracy in Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut a deal on Wednesday that paves the way for Otzma Yehudi (Jewish Power), an extremist and racist group, to sit in the next Knesset when it opens.
Otzma Yehudit is the ideological descendant of the late Meir Kahane, founder and inspiration for Jewish groups that carried out acts of terror in the United States and in Israel. I spoke about Kahane and his followers on Yom Kippur when I described my trip to Hebron last summer. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. That massacre took place on Purim in 1994. Following Goldstein's brutal attack, his Kach party, which stood for the living legacy of Meir Kahane, was banned and made illegal in Israel and listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department.
In response to the cultivation and inclusion of the Jewish Power party, the opposition parties have decided to work together to try to win back the leadership and at least thwart this dangerous faction from holding power. Will such an effort succeed? Only time will tell.
The implications of Netanyahu's decision to make it possible for Otzma Yehudit to participate in the Knesset are serious for several reasons. For so many of us across the Jewish world, the revival of Kahanists in the government means a collapse of Israel as a democratic state. We worry that the inspiring aspirations of Israel's founders will be lost, and that Israel will not be a nation ruled by justice and seeking peace for any and all its inhabitants.
Of the criticism the Netanyahu government has received to date, it is especially noteworthy that both AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and AJC (American Jewish Congress) condemned Netanyahu's alliance with right-wing parties that united with Otzma Yehudit. AJC does not normally comment on political parties and candidates during elections. And AIPAC always stands by the government of Israel. But the views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible and both organizations felt compelled to issue a strong condemnation.
And for Israel's most virulent critics - who do not believe that a Jewish State can be a democracy, let alone a place of universal justice - the Netanyahu government has thrown out any pretense of desiring security, self-determination and dignity for Palestinians as well as all Israelis.
But what do Israeli elections have to do with the moon launch? There are two different answers I would like to share with you. The answers find their origins in the moon itself.
According to a midrash from Jewish tradition, on the Fourth Day of Creation, the moon and the sun were created and each was the same size. The moon complained to God saying "How can two powers rule the same sky?" God said "You're right." So God made the moon smaller. The moon yelled back "That's not fair! Why should I be shrunk? All I did was point out your mistake." And God said, "Again, you are right. But I can't make you bigger again because one of you has to be small. What I will do is connect you to my people Israel who will watch you as you change and mark their calendars by you. They will come to concern themselves with how to bring light in dark times and how best to treat those who are belittled and who are a minority."
So even as we reach toward the moon, showing that our little nation can dream big, Israel must not forget that our real greatness must be in a commitment to justice. Today, it is impossible to recognize anything close to this commitment in the ruling coalition of Israel.
Waxing and Waning of the Moon
The image of the sliver of moon - reappearing in the darkness and growing nightly into a full sphere only to wane again - has been interpreted by some rabbis as a metaphor for the history of the Jewish people. At times, the Jewish people suffer in darkness, and even fear extinction. But just as the moon's light is continually renewed, so too do we Jews draw reassurance that we will again have a future that shines.
Similarly, the waxing and waning of the moon may be seen as symbolic of the State of Israel. There are times when Israel is a light unto the nations. And we can be so proud when Syrian refugees receive medical treatment in Israel, when IsraelAid helps people all over the world overcome extreme crises, when Israel launches a rover bound for the moon! And there are dark moments, when the democratic nature of the state is in danger. Netanyahu's recent deal is just such a moment.
The rabbis created that midrash about the sun and the moon because there is a textual challenge presented by Genesis 1:16 where the stars seem to have been created separately - or were an "add-on." Their answer? In order to conciliate the moon for having shrunk it. The moon shines brighter than the stars in the sky.
There are two peoples living on the same land that both claim it as its own. Jews are the majority in Israel and as such, we must never forget those who are the minority. Their light is important as well. Hatred, extremism, racism, terrorism have no place in the Israeli democracy - from any side at any time. Taking my cue from Israel's determination that Kahanist activities are illegal tells me as much as I need to know.
Israel shoots for the stars to reach the moon - and please God will make it there by Pesach. As Israel approaches its elections, may its leaders not thwart a safe landing to sustain a genuine and safe democracy for all who dwell between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, PhD