January 22, 2019

Election results in Israel: The triumph of fear over vision in the Jewish State

On election day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on Facebook that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” With this fear-mongering, he succeeded in bringing out the far-right votes to secure his victory.  When I learned of these tactics, and of Likud’s victory, I was not angry.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  My sadness wasn’t only on account of dashed hopes for peace, or of an alienated American Jewry.  My deepest grief was on the triumph of fear over vision in the State of Israel. 

In many ways, the story of the Jewish people over centuries has been about the struggle between fear and vision–between the trauma of persecution and the mission to be a holy people, a light of justice and peace for the world.  On Passover we tell the story of how our people we were liberated from a fear-mongering Pharaonic state.  Our national narrative bears a message of justice and hope.  At our seders, we also acknowledge that “…in every generation [enemies of the Jewish people] rise up to destroy us…”At the very core of our identity as a people, vision and fear exist together in a tense and competing partnership.

In the Zohar, a central medieval Jewish mystical text, this tension between a loving vision and a fearful darkness exists as an earthly reflection of a similar tension within the Godhead itself.  Even God struggles between the Divine “Attribute of Compassion”–an infinite desire to love and to embrace–along with the “Attribute of Judgment,” the inevitable need for limits and disappointments, for death itself.  Our rabbis teach us that God seeks to exist always with the Attribute of Compassion in ascendancy over the Attribute of Judgment. So, too, on earth, we must live so that our choices and actions place compassion over judgment.  If we incline more toward fear and judgment than compassion, we unleash greater potential for evil in the world.

The dream of the modern State of Israel came into being on the heels of the Shoah, when the world turned on us and sought to annihilate us.  Once again–now in real statecraft–the holiest dreams and hopes of the Jewish people were inexorably linked with trauma and horror.  Whether we realized it or not, the grand experiment of the Jewish state was a test of the Jewish people:  can we, despite six million reasons to incline toward the Attribute of Judgment, build a state that inclines toward the Attribute of Compassion?  Netanyahu would say that dreams and visions are nice, but the reality of Iran and an increasingly radicalized middle east calls for extreme defensive response.  He is not wrong about the realities of the Middle East and the very real existential threats to Israel. 

But in this election, and recently in the US Congress, Netanyahu has taken tactics deliberately aimed at striking fear into the hearts of the Jewish people, and of the world.  By playing partisan politics in the States, by eliciting a standing ovation for Eli Wiesel–thereby invoking the trauma of the Holocaust–by blanketly painting the political Left as in cahoots with the enemies of Israel and of Democracy, Netanyahu has tipped the scales toward the Attribute of Judgment.  The stage is now set for fear itself to be the defining characteristic of the Jewish state.  Under Netanyahu’s leadership, trauma and mistrust itself become the central bases of the future Jewish State, in all the ways Israel will respond to its neighbors, and to the world.

I grieve the results of this election because it represents the abandonment of the dreams of Israel’s founders, who sought a Jewish state that cherished all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. I grieve this election because it replaces the core Israeli value of “Hatikvah,” of Hope, with cynicism.  The grand experiment of Israel was whether a vision of hope, justice, and peace could overcome centuries of exile and trauma in the hearts of the Israeli people.  I grieve because Netanyahu’s leadership presents an answer to this experiment, and that answer is no.  May those of us refuse to give up on a vision of hope and justice remain undaunted, despite our grief.  And may we live to see the day when the Attribute of Compassion beats at the deepest heart of the Jewish State.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. He is the first openly gay senior rabbi in the institution's 150-year history, and speaks publicly on matters of Israel, LGBT Justice, and Jewish Spirituality throughout the Nation's Capital and the world.