The Coronation of Binyamin Netanyahu
The hope to which I alluded in yesterday’s reflections may not have been misplaced. As of last night, Israel has a government and Israelis will be spared yet another general election, likely to have been as inconclusive as the previous three. The corona pandemic seems to have added to the sense of urgency to create at least a semblance of a unity government.
The size of it – 32 ministers now, plus another four to come, and 16 deputy ministers. i.e., most of the bench on the government side – suggests that massaging the egos and feeding the ambitions of politicians may have been part of the price for their support of the agreement, probably at least as much as their stated commitment to the welfare of the State of Israel.
This is more of a coronation of Binyamin Netanyahu than a division of power between parties. He seems to have got his way on all major points, some explicitly others by inference. Thus, for example, the annexation of parts of the West Bank is due to start in July, long before the US elections that may unseat Donald Trump. Israel’s unilateral action may turn out not bother too much many governments around the world, because they’ll be too preoccupied with the effect of the pandemic in their own countries to worry about what happens to the Palestinians.
It’s also worth mentioning that Netanyahu’s standing in this country seems to have been greatly enhanced by the corona crisis. Though he’s said to have at times overstated Israel’s success in dealing with it, by all accounts he – and thus the country – has done well. The opinion polls reflect it, which may be another reason why Gantz agreed to join him.
Though the minister of justice is to be a member of Benny Gantz’s party, we’re told that his powers are being restricted to make sure that the judiciary won’t be able to get to Netanyahu, even if he’s convicted.
Though Netanyahu is supposed to turn over the leadership of the country to Gantz in 18 months’ time, everybody knows that a year-and-a-half is a very long time in politics and all kinds of unexpected things may happen by then, likely to Netanyahu’s advantage.
Nothing of this is necessarily the result of Gantz’s ineptitude, as some observers suggest. In part, Gantz’s politics may not be very different from Netanyahu’s, especially on the issue of annexation, but largely he may have caved in for the good of the country believing that a stable government is better than a temporary one, which Israel has now had for more than a year, and that an awkward coalition is better than having new elections.
The fact that the deal was signed just as Israel was about to mark Holocaust Memorial Day may also have been a factor in Gantz’s decision. A weak Israel is the nightmare of every Jew today. We’re especially conscious of it on a day like today. Though the coalition agreement may have tampered with democracy, it may turn out to be good for security. Significantly, in addition to being deputy prime minister, Gantz, a former chief of staff, will also be the minister of defense.
In sum, though there’s much still to be worried about when it comes to Israeli politics, there’s enough to give us hope, even for pessimists like me.
Jerusalem 21.4.20 Dow Marmur
Shabbat Morning Sermon by Rabbi Jordan Helfman, the Sermon can be found at: 1:18:17
The Politics Seems More Toxic Than the Pandemic
In addition to the corona crisis, Israel also has a political crisis. After three general elections within a year, it still only has a transition government. Most members of it seem to run the prime minister’s often very personal errands. Perhaps that’s why when, last Saturday night, he announced the easing of restrictions to enable more people to return to work, we hear that he didn’t even bother to inform his cabinet colleagues ahead of time.
It made me think of the famous sketch in the days of the Thatcher government in Britain. It showed the late Margaret Thatcher and her government in a restaurant. The waiter approached her first to find out what she had chosen on the menu. “I’ll have the steak,” she said. “And the vegetables?” asked the waiter. “They’ll have steak, too,” she answered.
Last night there was a demonstration in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Some 2000 people are reported to have turned out, each observing the required 6 feet distance. What I glean from the reports suggests that its main purpose was to persuade Benny Gantz, the leader of what’s left of the Blue and White party, not to join Netanyahu in a so-called unity – or emergency – government. His critics argued that you can’t fight corruption from within.
Yair Lapid and Boogie Yaalon, two of Gantz’s former senior colleagues in the party who have now established an opposition block of their own, urged him to return to the fold and not allow himself to be used by Netanyahu. As I wrote before, the two should know: they both served under Netanyahu.
I still believe that Gantz’s reasons for trying to join Netanyahu are noble and patriotic. As he has repeatedly stated, in the present situation it behooves leaders to set aside personal ambitions for the good of the country. As a former IDF Chief of Staff he knows what he’s talking about. But his army training doesn’t seem to have equipped him to deal with a seasoned politician like Netanyahu, who, so it seems, has as his primary aim to protect himself in the face of the judiciary. By all accounts, the control of the courts appears to be on top of Netanyahu’s wish list. The fear is that Gantz is caving in.
Another issue on Netanyahu’s agenda is to proceed with the annexation of certain parts of the occupied territories. No doubt this accords with the prime minister’s ideology, but it’s also a way of making sure that the parties on the right of his Likud remain in his coalition. The matter may seem urgent because at this stage, in view of his way of responding to the corona crisis in the United States, it’s not sure that Donald Trump will still be its president after the elections there later this year. Joe Biden, if he wins, will scrap his predecessor’s so-called peace plan.
With all this in mind, Israel will either have a government of vegetables or be forced to go to new elections in the – some say, vain – hope of creating stability. As this isn’t likely to happen until well after the pandemic, Israel may have to live with the present ostensibly temporary government for a long time, perhaps a year or even more. The instability thus created, with an onslaught on democracy in its wake, may turn out to be even more lethal than the pandemic.
I’ve delayed writing this for some time in the hope of being able to reflect on better news from Israel’s political front. Unfortunately, I cannot see any signs of it – but I never stop hoping that my pessimism is unwarranted.
Jerusalem 20.4.20 Dow Marmur
Temple of Zoom*
Its been a month now since turning Holy Blossom into a virtual congregation. The on-line gatherings will never replace being together in-person. I miss hearing the voices of the congregation at prayer. I miss embracing the Torah Scroll. I miss the intimacy of informal, spontaneous conversations over bagels after services. I miss the free-flowing discussions at one study table or another. I miss the free exchange of ideas at our weekly Senior Leadership table, at our monthly board table. There is a rhythm to face to face interactions that are now clumsy over Zoom. There is nuance in facial expressions that are lost on the screen.
Our on-line gatherings are not nothing. They are something. They are not virtual. They are very real. And can even create moments of sacred connection.
I officiated at a Zoom funeral. The sound of that alone sounds just awful. And yet, for the family to deliver their eulogies and be met in their hour of grief by one hundred faces of loved ones was remarkably moving. For friends and relatives — square by square – to offer loving words of condolences was a real comfort for the mourners.
Our Little Blossoms classes on Friday mornings with our youngest members from newborns to toddlers are as delightful as ever on Zoom. More people can participate without having to bundle up and fight through traffic. Three generations of grandparents, parents, and babies can have a weekly reunion filled with music.
Together with Dr. Yoel Abells I met with eighteen congregants, all medical professionals. We provided a safe space for them to speak about the fears and frustrations on the frontlines. There was instant connection, immediate comradery, and confidence in one another. There was prayer for their patients and prayer for their own strength of body and strength of spirit. We concluded by lifting a glass or a teacup and affirming: L’Chayim! To life!
Our virtual seder saw none of the spilled wine or side-line jokes of the in-person family seders we know and love. But more than 700 or perhaps 800 people joined for the rituals and together fulfilled the mitzvah of retelling the story of our people’s exodus from slavery to freedom. Mayor Tory was an honoured guest with a seder plate of his own, held up to the screen for all to see. For the meal, hundreds gathered in Zoom Dining Rooms. The matches were made randomly. New friendships were forged, and some long-ago connections were reinforced. Most of all, isolation gave way to the power of community. That night, we knew we were a part of something larger beyond our own homes. We reconfirmed that we are a part of a People and players in the unfolding of Jewish history.
Our Yizkor service included a photograph of our sanctuary empty and dark, but aglow with the lights of the Memorial Lights. Many congregants wrote to say how moved they were by the prayers and melodies. It was not at all the same as being together in person, but still uplifting, still transcending.
I dream of the day we can return to our beautiful sanctuary and our magnificent Schwartz/Reisman Atrium. It will be so good to reclaim many of the practices and patterns of congregational life. Some things will change, of course. We will grow from this experience and somethings will inevitably shift. So much is still unpredictable, but one innovation I expect will remain will be our ability to livestream our services and opportunities for learning. In this way, we will continue to extend our reach, share our many strengths, and multiply the lines of connections that bind us together.
*I thank my colleague, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow from our sister congregation, Temple Emanu-El of Montreal for this title. It was too good not to borrow.
‘A Prayer for Healers’
By Rabbi Ayelet Cohen
May the One Who Blessed Our Ancestors
Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick
Physicians and nurses and orderlies
Technicians and home health aides
First responders and pharmacists
Hospital social workers and respiratory therapists and other frontline healthcare workers.
And bless especially (insert the names of colleagues and co-workers here,)
Who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,
To tend to those they have sworn to help.
Bless them and their loved ones when they come home and bless them when they go out again.
Ease their fears. Sustain them.
Source of All Breath, Healer of All Beings,
Protect them and restore their hope.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
Keep them in good health, that they may bring healing to others.
Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.
Bless the sacred work of their hands.
May this plague pass from among us, “speedily and in our day.”
Doing the Right Thing – Despite Orders from On High
“Put not your trust in the great (“princes”), in mortal man who cannot save,” says the Psalmist. Alas, it’s not the only advice we tend to ignore. For example, we often ascribe to politicians, especially those whom we support, qualities they don’t possess. When we discover how wrong we were, we appear to be shocked. And I’m not writing now about Trump.
Israelis can look back on at least one prime minister who behaved in exemplary fashion in his personal life. Whether or not we agreed with things Menachem Begin was responsible for, we knew that he lived by the standards he advocated. I think the same may be true of Sweden. Throughout my years there, Tage Erlander was its prime minister. By all accounts, he lived as modestly and behaved as honestly as he expected others to do, unless, of course, one day some researcher will dig up facts that challenge my impressions.
I don’t know about Sweden today, but I know that Israeli politicians don’t always live by the policies they advocate. The fact that several of them, including a former prime minister, have served prison sentences and that the current prime minister has been indicted for serious crimes is an apt and sad illustration.
The corona crisis has confronted Israelis with at least three instances of leaders flaunting rules that they have set and which they expect others to obey. First, we hear that Minister of Health Ya’akov Litzman has attended services in one of the synagogues of his Gur Hasidim sect, though the government of which he is a member – and at the recommendation of the ministry he heads – forbade us to do so.
Second, contrary to rules that prevented us to celebrate the Seder with our families, Israel’s president had invited members of his family to be with him on the Eve of Passover. When found out, he apologized by saying that since his wife died, his daughter and other family members would accompany him. The government of the country of which he’ s the titular head doesn’t provide for such exemptions and apologies don’t prevent risks.
Thirdly, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in persuasive speeches explains why strict rules must be imposed for the safety of citizens, was photographed sitting at the table at home with one of his sons who doesn’t live in the same house. And he hasn’t even apologized.
These are wholesome reminders that we shouldn’t be lulled into emulating “princes” we vote for and see as our leaders. I recall that Isaac Bashevis Singer, the great Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize laurate, averred once that, “Even if I lived across the road from Tolstoy, I’d read all his books but I wouldn’t try to have tea with him.”
There’re probably very cogent reasons for following the rules set out by the authorities to protect ourselves and others from the pandemic. Following the examples of politicians (and perhaps other “important people”) isn’t one of them.
Jerusalem 12.4.20 Dow Marmur
Friday Evening Drash by Rabbi Jordan Helfman, the Drash can be found at: 34:20
Yom Tov Morning Sermon by Rabbi Yael Splansky, the Sermon can be found at: 1:24:56