I spent yesterday morning at the Israel Bird Observatory seeing tiny migrating birds being expertly ringed.
The Observatory is situated exactly between Israel’s Knesset and the Supreme Court; politicians go past frequently. An extraordinary green haven in the middle of the city, its location is critically symbolic.
I watched closely as birds as light as just five grams were measured and ringed. It was a privilege to witness the loving skill with which they were handled. There’s a careful technique to holding them, either by their legs, or by cupping them in the hand with fingers placed round their neck. A careless movement and the creature would be strangled.
In that location and at this hour I couldn’t escape the thought that this was symbolic: that Israel’s current government has its rough fingers round the neck of Israel’s judiciary, Israel’s democracy, its ethical standing, its reputation as the Jewish State and the good name of Judaism across the world.
In the words of Yuval Noah Harari, (The Times of Israel) the legal reforms it proposes would give it ‘unlimited power to pass any law it wants…without checks on its power and without protection for minority rights,’ those very rights on which we Jews have depended, and in the absence of which we’ve often been betrayed, in numerous lands for many generations. Without judicial protection, society, and especially the most vulnerable groups in it, would be left at the mercy of the very ministers who ‘have often expressed racist, misogynist and homophobic views,’ a prospect viciously evidenced in Minister Ben Gvir’s despicable response to the appalling pogrom in Hawara last week. (There’s a deeply disturbing relationship between the occupation and the attack on justice and freedom within Israel itself.)
‘It seems that the current Israeli government has simply forgotten what it means to be Jewish,’ Harari concludes.
In an emergency address to the nation last night, President Herzog put himself on the line, telling his government, history would judge if it did not act immediately to calm the national emergency and rethink its proposed legislation which would destroy ‘the supreme values’ of democracy and justice, and imperil Israel.
Moments afterwards there was an appalling terrorist attack on the streets of Tel Aviv, horribly highlighting the all-too-real dangers Israelis regularly face.
I was asked last night about the connection between Purim and Pesach. This year it’s bluntly clear. ‘If you are silent now,’ Mordechai tells Esther, demanding her, despite the risk, to intervene on behalf of her people. Pesach is the festival of liberty and human dignity. If we are silent now, we will watch those very values corroded and corrupted by a leadership which is not only betraying its own courageous and creative country, but Judaism itself.
Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Freedman quoted three Israeli thinkers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi and Matti Friedman who, though representing different political perspectives, deliberately came together to tell American Jewry to stand up and defend Israel ‘from a political leadership that is undermining our society’s cohesion and its democratic ethos, the foundations of the Israeli success story.’
On Wednesday I was with leaders of local protests (half a million people are expected on the streets this Saturday night). One, a senior doctor, had coordinated a letter signed by three hundred medics in the reserves, stating that they would not serve if the government destroyed those very freedoms for which they had time and again put their lives on the line.
The massive, strong and peaceful protests across the country are a deep indication of the country’s health, symbolised by the reclaiming of the national flag as representing the core values for which the state of Israel was founded: democracy, justice and equality for all its citizens.
We, who live abroad, must stand up too. It is not just for Israel but for Judaism itself that those same values must be claimed. Otherwise, others will represent Judaism for us, as proved by the religious far right in the current government. We mustn’t let ‘Jewish’ be merely an adjective we apply to ourselves when it suits. We must study, know, love and live by its creed of justice, compassion, and the service of God through the creation of just, compassionate, knowledgeable and dedicated communities and societies.