Jewish and Democratic

I spent the last three days on a Federation Rabbinic Mission trip to Israel with a group of eight rabbis from Greater Washington. As one of the first groups to visit Israel since the country began accepting visitors this year, the trip felt like a “Shehecheyanu moment” for me personally and, I hope, for our community. We had to pass through several layers of COVID-19 testing, but once the process was complete, we were greeted by Israel’s quintessential hustle and bustle, energy, and vitality.

In addition to reconnecting with Israel after more than a year apart, the purpose of our trip was to sit down with Israeli leaders from all facets of society and hear their thoughts about this particular moment in Israel’s history. Over the course of our 57 hours on the ground, a new president of Israel was elected and representatives from across a broad political spectrum came together to form a new potential governing coalition, including, for the first time, an Arab party. These new developments informed our discussions about the recent conflict with Hamas and how to navigate the complicated task of showing compassion to the Palestinian people while responding to the terrorist organization.

But the deepest, and perhaps most powerful, of the conversations we engaged in were about Israel’s internal struggles. On Thursday, we visited Lod, a city that is home to both Jewish and Arab residents. During the recent conflict, Lod became a flashpoint for Jewish and Arab tensions in Israel. Angry mobs targeted the other, destroying synagogues and houses. And two people, one Jewish and one Arab, were killed. It took days for the violence to settle down and it is clear the city is still reeling from what happened—we spoke with Jewish and Arab community leaders each struggling with what caused the tragic breakdown.

There was, however, a common thread that ran through our many conversations. Whether implied or articulated, the question on everyone’s mind was what does it look like for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state? Israel’s declaration of independence defines the country as such, but how do you take that tension and make it a reality? How do you recognize Israel’s unique Jewish character while ensuring full democratic processes for all of its citizens? Former Member of Knesset Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh, the first Druze woman to be elected to Israel’s parliament, thought that perhaps the country should separate civil rights from national rights. Israel can play a role as the homeland for the Jewish people while also upholding a full slate of civil rights for all its citizens.

Whatever the answers, the successful reconciliation of Israel’s dual nature is vital to the country’s future. This is not something that American Jews have to simply sit back and witness, either. As we discussed with Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, we have a role to play in Israel’s endeavor. Specifically, Rabbi Hartman encouraged us to “trouble the committed” and “commit the troubled.” We can support Israel in living up to its ideals by helping those already highly connected and committed to Israel grapple with its challenges—and shortcomings—head on. Likewise, we can help all those troubled by some of Israel’s actions to cultivate an enduring and meaningful connection with an imperfect country living in challenging times.

Though this work is already central to what we do at Federation, after this week, I feel an even greater sense of responsibility to help everyone be part of the conversation. We are eager to welcome participants back on Federation’s Israel YOUR Way Mission in May 2022, and to continue providing opportunities to come together to think, learn, and honor each other’s diverse viewpoints on Israel’s calling as a nation. Indeed, determining what it means for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state is one of the most compelling questions of our time—with implications for Jewish and Arab Israelis, Jewish peoplehood, and shared societies around the world. I cannot wait to dig into this further with all of you.

Shabbat Shalom,