Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

February 11, 2009

Too many choices – Swiss vanilla pecan, raspberry chocolate, or 35 other varieties? A. & I walk out of the ice cream parlor, each with a different flavor of choice and immediately resume our heated debate about the tougher choice ahead – who do we vote for in the Israeli elections, just a day away?

Difficult choices this time around and difficult to keep friendships intact when the divides are so deep and emotional, especially on the big issues. For many, myself included, the big and defining issue of these elections was/is how Israelis relate to the ‘other’ – and in particular- Israeli Arabs. A. and I take a deep breath before we part ways, shake hands, nod curtly and say goodnight – walking away in disagreement about what he calls pragmatism and I call racism – the complex reality of Israel 2009.

Now it’s the morning after. The race is over and the juggling for a coalition government is in full speed between the two large parties. But the defining factor that will determine the next prime minister is the party that has emerged as the third biggest – ‘Israel is our home’ – an Extreme- Right party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, that won 15 seats on a fierce anti Israeli-Arab campaign. Never before in Israel’s political history has such a radical and extreme voice been so central and critical – potentially undermining the democratic and moral core of this nation. This IS a democracy – and choices do reflect different segments of the populations, but many here are pausing to ponder how this happened, and what are the implications –how will this new political reality shape the moral character of this society? For some, Lieberman’s position is the very essence of Jewish survival. For others – this demonizing of the other is anything but authentically Jewish. This conversation is intense – a complex socio-political-religious narrative as ancient as the Bible. And maybe that’s where it all starts – so when we try to analyze this alarming reality, a peek at the way our ancestors dealt with being on either side of the ethnic minority divide is not a bad idea.

The weekly Torah text, coincidently, provides us with the first political process of elections in Jewish history. The portion is called ‘Yitro’ – named for the Pagan priest of the Nation of Midian (Jethro in English) who is the mentor and father in law to Moses. Yitro is no Hebrew, and his daughter, Moses’s wife Zippora (for whom Zippi Livni is named), the first First Hebrew Lady is no Jewess either. And yet, this important Torah portion, which includes the dramatic transmission of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, is named for this non-Jew, and honors his political-civic wisdom: thanks to his advice Moses was able to establish Israel’s first judicial system. Note Yitro’s exact language, as he instructs Moses to choose Israel’s first cabinet: ‘…pick out of all the people - able men, who fear God, are men of truth, and hating unjust gain.” (Ex.18:21) Interestingly, when it’s time for Moses to implement his father in law’s suggestion he only focused on the first category – ‘And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.’ (Ex. 18:25) Moses goes for leaders who can deliver and de prioritizes the charge for faith, honesty, and scrupulous behavior – maybe Moses knows something realistic about Jewish leaders (then and now) that Yitro doesn’t. But the key action here is ‘CHOSE’ – ‘va’yivchar’ – just before inviting the Hebrew Nation to strike a deal with God and to officially become the ‘chosen people’, Moses initiates a process in which local leaders are chosen and a system for administering justice is installed. This important moment in the birth of the nation is attributed to a Non Jew – who honors the God of Israel and blesses his son in law before departing back to Midian. Yitro will always be remembered by us as the outsider, the other who has taught us how to govern. This is an important precedent, a reminder of how ethnic and racial differences can be respected, not regarded with hate.

So what does all this have to do with modern politics? Midian is just one historical example of ethnic ‘other’ in close contact with Israel’s notions of cultural, political and religious survival. But it’s an example of how things can work right – not just how they can turn out ugly. This, for modern day Israel – is an important reminder.

20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs (mostly Muslim, with a smaller Christian minority and a sizeable Druze community – for whom Yitro is an important prophet) and they also constitute 25% of Israelis under 25. The level of their civic participation and dignified co-existence is key to the survival of both people on this land – and radical approaches such as Lieberman’s are endangering this delicate balance.

It’s important to remember that Lieberman is not operating in a vacuum – there has been a shift in the dynamics between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Since the mid 1990’s the Israeli Arab vote has shifted from mostly supportive towards Israel’s Zionist agenda (and voting for main stream Israeli political parties) towards greater ambivalence and even hostility. Many reasons are cited - the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the ongoing socio-financial marginalization of this population, the 2nd Lebanon War, and the most recent war in Gaza – these factors and others have left deep scars on a population challenged by dual allegiance to its Arab identity and to the nation within which they have been granted citizenship since 1948. For Israel – this is the real test of democracy: can this be a state for its citizens – ALL its citizens? Or is this a Jewish state with some tolerant nod towards ethnic others? Can there be hope here for noble co-existence or will racist politics dictate the public policy and popular vote? This challenging issue of ‘Ethnic Minorities’ is not unique to Israel – it is currently remapping demographic and geographic reality across Europe and is no stranger to the US narrative either – but here, with so much explosive energy already in the air – the fire is getting hotter.

Yesterday, while activating my right to choose – I found myself crying. I stood behind the cardboard booth, holding the piece of paper with my party of choice and I closed my eyes and prayed – actually prayed – that my voice will help bring peace and that justice will prevail in this part of the world, so passionately and painfully struggling to be humane and honest and happy.

I cried with hope, and with sadness, and with deep pride of being a descendent of a heritage that honors justice and honors diversity and celebrates plurality and values all others as equal partners in the healing of the planet.

I believe that we are no longer merely the chosen people – rather - we are the ‘people of choice’, and I hope that we will rise above the fears and choose to embrace all those values that Yitro endowed us with – truth, and ability and hatred of vice and commitment to justice.

If only this was as easy as choosing an ice cream flavor...


  1. I prayed too. unexpectedly, I was overcome by hope - that it mattered, that things will happen for the best - and i prayed. When I opened my eyes - I saw the letters of the word EMET (truth) in front of me. It was reassuring, it was kind. It took me a second to recall that what i was seeing was the note of the party I had intended to vote for anyway. so I voted.

    so much for hope.

  2. Arab Israelis have been second(or lower)-class citizens since the founding of the Israeli State. There's a price to be paid for saving on water, electricity, etc. not provided to Arabs. I hope it won't turn out to be a terrible price.

  3. I'm not an expert in Torah, but doesn't it say something about being kind to the stranger because we were once strangers in a strange land? Yes, we must be for ourselves, because who else will be. But.....if we are only for ourselves......oy vey!