D’var Torah: Responding to this Moment in Israel

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 March 2023

Have you ever heard of the Kohelet Policy Forum?
What about computer scientist Moshe Koppel?
Or Americans Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik?

The chances are that you haven’t heard of any of them.
Which is a shame. Because together they are in the process of reshaping the state of Israel, which is so central to our identity as Jews.

Yass and Dantchik – two American billionaires – are, by most accounts, the two major funders of the Kohelet Forum, which Moshe Koppel leads. Yass is also, for what it is worth, a member of the executive advisory council of the libertarian Cato Institute in America, and one of the largest political donors to the Republican party.

Together, over the last decade, they have made a huge impact on Israeli politics.

They can claim the 2018 Nation State Law as one of their successes – a that law re-defined Israel as a Jewish state in which only Jews have the right to self-determination – despite the 20% of the population who are Arab citizens, and against the express intention of Israel’s founders, who, in the Declaration of Independence declared that the State would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

It was Kohelet that provided then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with legal grounds for announcing American recognition of the legality of the settlements in 2019, despite the position of most experts in international law that they are illegal.

And now it is Kohelet that is leading work to remove the independence and oversight power of the Israeli Supreme Court, removing the one significant constitutional limit on an Israeli coalition government that includes extreme minority views, and which threatens the rights of Palestinians, of the LGBTQ community and of Progressive Judaism in Israel.

Now, why am I telling you this?

Many of us will have received emails this week from Israeli expat friends or colleagues asking us to raise our voices in support of those protesting against the actions of the current Israeli government.

That puts us in an interesting position.

There is a view that we often hear in the UK, that as Jews in the diaspora we have an obligation to show our support. That we should be careful in our critiquing of Israel for fear of undermining something so precious.

In part this is an internal thing – as Anthony Julius has written, “there is a reflex of self-restraint and avoidance of public statements”.

But it is also something we are told. We are told by those who wish to encourage our silence.
A recent JC article on the Choose Democracy campaign, to which MRJ are signatories, gave a prominent place to a quote from an organisation called the Israel Advocacy Movement. “If there are British Jews who are unhappy with the direction Israel is heading, we’d encourage them to make aliyah and help create the change they want to see” it said. The strong implication that speaking up from the diaspora in support of those protesting in Israel is illegitimate. The Israel Advocacy ‘movement’, by the way (as far as I can tell) is one person who has set up his own organisation.

But it is not as simple as that.
Because what is happening at the moment isn’t just about Israelis.

As the Kohelet Policy Forum shows, there are plenty of very powerful actors around the world who are campaigning and funding a different kind of Israel – with a very different understanding of what a democratic Israel might look like. And they show no hesitancy about how they use their voice and their power.

In truth, all of world Jewry should be invested in this moment. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis – including members of Progressive communities in Israel, and many of our rabbinic colleagues – are taking to the streets, week after week, in protest against the current government’s plans.
As one Israeli rabbinic colleague put it to me last week, this is an existential moment – a moment of decision about the kind of Israel that will exist. And that matters for all of us.

If we want there to be an Israel that reflects our values; one that reflects the intent of Israel’s founders to create a democratic society; one that protects and respects all of its citizens, then this is an important moment.

I don’t do this often from this bimah, am rarely so direct. But, this is a moment that demands all of us to respond. To read, to write, to sign, to protest. In this moment, whatever the reflex, and whatever we are told, in this moment our voices matter too.