In August of 1897 Theodor Herzl brought together Jewish leaders from around the globe. They met in Basel, Switzerland. The attire was formal. The event would prove to be historic. The subject of the meeting: the need for a home for the Jewish people. Herzl’s vision was to garner support for his idea and thus raise funds to help bring Israel into existence. Such early Zionist icons as Max Nordau and Chaim Weizmann were in attendance. Many point to this gathering as the very seeds that would sprout into modern day Israel.
It was fifty years after Basel that the United Nations voted, in November of 1947, to adopt what was known as “the partition plan.” In May of 1948, as we all know, David Ben Gurion would formally proclaim statehood. The State of Israel was born. HaTikvah rang out on the streets of Tel Aviv, even as war raged all about the infant nation.
Herzl envisioned a place of safe haven and welcome. Israel was to be a place of home and homecoming, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust. What he imagined in Basel all those years ago was a place that aspired to the highest of Jewish ideals: compassion, heritage, memory and right action.
What would Herzl say today?
This week the Israeli government adopted judicial reforms that limit the powers of the Supreme Court and allows for the government to override judicial rulings. It is, to be sure, an affront to the norms of a healthy democracy, in which a judicial branch is independent altogether. Even as thousands protested across the country, and many cautioned against such an excessive measure, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government enacted the new law.
When asked about what this development meant for him and what he would want American rabbis to talk about, Rabbi Haim Shalom wrote the following from Israel:
‘I want you to talk about hope. I want you to talk about love. I want you to talk about how hard it is to see a country one loves choose a dangerous path of self-harm.’
Another Reform rabbi in Israel, Rinat Safania, wrote the following:
‘There is a large movement of protest here, and alongside it a large movement of people who want to continue holding hands despite all the differences. We as the Reform movement and communities are here to hold on to hope even when darkness seems to be falling.’
Rabbi Leora Ezrachi-Vered said this: ‘As hard as this is to see and watch from afar, and the reality is certainly very, very, very concerning, there are also huge waves of people working for a better Israel. And that this is not the end, but a pit that we can climb out of, like Yossef. Like all those who are struggling, we need friendship and solidarity more than ever.’
Indeed, Israel needs us as much now as ever, our conviction, our commitment, our belief in a place that is upstanding in all of its decision-making and ever-committed to democracy. We not only pray about and learn about Israel, but must stay profoundly engaged in dialogue around Israel. We can give to the causes that move us. We can visit. We can roll up our sleeves and join the cause for a more just and equitable Israel.
We can also continue to hold onto hope, as Herzl did in his time, and Ben Gurion did in his, for an Israel that embodies true peace and a Torah of utmost empathy.