The spring holiday season is upon us! Though not nearly as concentrated or intense as their fall counterparts, the spring holidays – from Purim in early March this year to Shavuot falling in late May – are easily the busiest such an extended period on the Jewish calendar. In addition to the venerable biblical holidays above, and with them Passover and the period of counting the Omer (including within it the occasion of Lag Ba’Omer), this stretch of the calendar includes a number of modern additions to the lineup. Specifically, the period of the Omer now includes:
1. Yom HaShoah, the Israeli/Jewish Holocaust memorial occasion, based on the timing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (as opposed to the UN’s International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th, based on the date the liberation of Auschwitz – and it must be said that overruling the Jews on the proper date to memorialize the Holocaust is what the kids call a “weird flex.” One could also argue that both dates are somewhat misguided in emphasis, as most Shoah victims had no opportunity to experience either armed resistance or liberation).
2. Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, which is exactly what it sounds like.
And 3. Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, which the state’s founding generation cleverly and movingly placed on the day before Yom Ha’Atzma’ut so that Israelis never celebrate their continued existence and sovereignty without first remembering and acknowledging those who sacrificed to make it possible.
If you’ve lost count, this totals up to six yontov days (outside Israel), a chol hamo’ed week, four non-yontov sacred occasions plus the bonus day of Shushan Purim (in ancient walled cities, i.e. Jerusalem), Lag BaOmer (however you want to characterize it), two minor fasts (the days preceding Purim and Passover), and an entire 49-day span of unique character and practices, within a space of slightly less than three months. On top of all that, the latter end of the season includes the end of the modern school year and Confirmation programs, often on Shavuot, in many communities. It’s a lot. I haven’t even mentioned tax day! Fair enough, not a Jewish holiday, but I like to stay on Mike’s good side when I’m late with my Scroll article.
Needless to say, there is more material here than I could ever cover in one article, and in most years Passover, as the literal and figurative centerpiece of the season, gets the most attention. This year, I would like to put the focus elsewhere, and a little math will partly explain why. For once, the math is easier on the Jewish calendar: this year is 5783, and the State of Israel was founded in 5708 (1948), making it Israel’s 75th birthday! The miraculous accomplishments of the state and its citizens within one human lifespan are undoubtedly worthy of celebration.
We all know that the first miraculous accomplishment of the state, achieved at great human cost in the aftermath of the destruction of roughly 40% of the global pre-Holocaust Jewish population, was simply to survive the threat of physical eradication, particularly in the state’s first thirty years when literally every neighbor was formally, and often concretely, at war with her. Today, despite the perpetual threat of destructive conflict with powerful foes like Iran, and the abiding reality of an unabated terrorist assault on the peace and security of Israelis (and Jews around the world), we can say that with the help of God and a Qualitative Military Edge, the State of Israel is not realistically in danger of physical annihilation on an imminent basis.
This will not be Israel’s last birthday! However, it could be Israel’s last birthday as a liberal democracy and the nation-state of the Jewish People. Some explanation is in order.
For clarity and simplicity, by liberal democracy, I mean a political system where a majority governs, but various kinds of minorities – ethnic, political, religious – nonetheless enjoy respect and protections under the rule of law. The greatest guarantor of such protection is a court system with the power to compel adherence to the rule of law – and the adherence of the law to the rule of justice – even against the will of the political majority. Among the proposals of the new Israeli government are to strip the courts of the power of judicial review (the power to rule on whether new laws are themselves legal) and/or to permit the Knesset to overrule the High Court on a simple majority vote. These proposals would permit the slimmest of parliamentary majorities – which may or may not actually represent the majority of citizens on any given issue – to, for instance: declare parties in the minority illegal or ineligible for election; change other electoral rules to favor their own continued rule; immunize their own members from prosecution for political misdeeds such as corruption, or even from simple crimes like assault or fraud; declare minority religious practices illegal; and many other abuses. Whether or not any government takes advantage of such malignant opportunities, a political system without structures to prevent or impede such conduct by the ruling power is not a liberal democracy.
By nation-state of the Jewish People, I mean a state which is not only the spiritual homeland of Judaism, but also a representative of the Jewish People as a whole on the world stage, and a welcoming home to any Jew who comes to make Israel their home, whether by purely free choice or because their former home was hostile to Jews. The most obvious and direct threat to this principle are proposals to change Israel’s Law of Return to apply only to Jews as defined by Halacha. There are two major problems here: first, the law as presently formulated is largely an intentional counter to the Nuremberg Laws, which discriminated against Jews and their descendants based on ancestry, not Halacha. If the State of Israel had existed during the Holocaust, should it have (חַס וְחָלִילָה!) forced Jewish men to abandon non-Jewish wives and children to the Nazis as the price of their own rescue?! Second, if the law should be formulated to recognize only Jews according to Halacha, then we must ask, whose Halacha? Should Conservative and Reform converts – and indeed many Modern Orthodox converts – be ineligible for rescue in future emergencies, or to choose to live their lives as Jews in the Jewish State? Happily, altering the Law of Return looks out of reach at the moment, but see above.
Even so, this points to a broader prospective problem for non-(ultra-)Orthodox Jews in and out of Israel. To keep it simple, let’s talk about our own community. We are a Conservative shul. We drive to shul on Shabbat – there is literally no one who walks to our shul. We call women up to the Torah, allow women to read Torah or lead davenning or sing, and women may wear a tallit or kippah if they choose; we even let men and women sit together during prayer! Let’s imagine for a moment that we, as a community, picked up and made aliyah to Israel for whatever reason. In Israel today, Conservative rabbis can’t legally perform marriages, burials, or conversions. So if you or your children want to be married in your shul by your rabbi, no dice – you can have a state-approved Orthodox rabbi marry you according to their customs, or go to Cyprus to be married. Suppose that we decide to take a communal trip to the holiest accessible place in our tradition, the Kotel (the Western Wall), and once there, of course we want to pray together according to our own usual customs. Well, at the Kotel it is illegal for women to wear a tallit, read Torah, or pray alongside men. These are laws in Israel now. There are members of the present government who would like to extend an ultra-Orthodox halachic penumbra over the civil laws of the state beyond just the Law of Return, rendering our theoretically transplanted community even more fully second-class citizens. At some point, even assuming we remain eligible under the Law of Return, does Israel cease to be a welcoming home for us as Jews?
Personally, I don’t think we are there yet. Nonetheless, it is disturbingly conceivable and painful even to contemplate. It behooves us as Jews, as Zionists, and as free and freedom-loving people to monitor this situation from afar and to give what support we can to those who are striving to maintain or even improve the existing liberal-democratic legal structure of the state. May the State of Israel greet many more years as a home of religious and personal freedom for all its citizens, and a welcoming home to every Jew – and near-Jew – who needs one.