If the prophets could see Israel now

The JC Essay


By Laura Janner-Klausner, July 27, 2012
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"Be consoled. Be consoled, my people". Between this Shabbat and the next, we wait for these calming words from Isaiah, which console us after weeks of pre-Tisha B'Av (ninth of Av) mourning and three Shabbats of being chided by our prophets. There is an inexorable process at work here: we have to hear this rebuke, we need to acknowledge pain before we can move to comfort and consolation. Given recent events in Israel, the process is as true as ever this year.

I am a "chetzi-chetzi", a "half and half" Israeli-Brit. Every day, I devour my dosage of Israeli news. I can't keep away even when it is painful. The Israeli news station, Reshet Bet, fills my office with details of this summer's protests, which seem to be qualitatively different from those that rocked Tel Aviv and the rest of the country a year ago. The focus has shifted from issues of economic opportunity to a potpourri of issues in an outpouring of frustration: social justice, refugees, universal conscription, democracy and the occupation.

Two moments have already gained iconic status in this scorching Israeli summer. Daphni Leef, the young woman who led the peaceful protests of last year, was photographed while being arrested and roughly handled by the police. She sustained severe bruises and a broken left arm. This news is perhaps particularly disconcerting for those, like me, who met Daphni at Limmud last December and were impressed by her gentle determination. The level of violence of both the protesters and police is worlds apart from last year.

The second incident - this time captured on video - is even more shocking. Two weeks ago, a protester, Moshe Silman, set himself on fire during a demonstration. His business had collapsed and he had been refused subsidised housing, even though he was unable to work due to a stroke. He wrote a deeply unsettling note that has been read out at many subsequent protests: "We have no money, we have no justice, we have no home. We are left to our own fate". Silman died a week later and, disturbingly, since his self-immolation several others have tried to set themselves on fire.

They might find themselves wagging their prophetic fingers at a few politicians who seem to have historical amnesia

Tomorrow is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Isaiah's Vision that precedes Tisha B'Av. On this Shabbat, the challenge and vision of the prophets inspires, nudges, and even infuriates us with its piercing intensity, reminding us of crucial moral truths, needling us through chastisement, then moving us to the place of mourning and eventually towards consolation.

Theirs is not a voice that is easy to hear. In his seminal work, The Prophets, the 20th-century American rabbi, Avraham Joshua Heschel, likened the prophetic voice to a "polished arrow" taken out of the quiver of God. The prophet's voice is "stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind." As Isaiah said: "Shudder, you complacent ones".

Turning their gaze - scathing and compassionate - to today's Jewish state, what might those prophets of ancient Israel lock in their sights? The prophet Amos would hone in on the troubling gap between rich and poor, which is one of the three widest in the developed world. I imagine Amos would rage at this inequality. As he said: "Because you trample on the poor, and because you take bread right out of their mouths, you are never going to move into those beautiful stone homes that you have built… cheating the poor."

We may instinctively recoil from such harsh words, just as I did when I saw the video of Silman burning himself alive. Amos knew that the truth was hard to hear - "people hate those who rebuke others. They abhor those who speak bluntly," he said. This summer seems to be full of blunt truths. It bruises. I am yearning for consolation, for comfort.

In contrast with Amos, Hosea might have addressed the nature of authority, using his vision for God's covenant of "integrity and justice", and "tenderness and love" as a metaphor for how government should rule the country. He might well fix his gaze on to the banners held high at this year's protests, highlighting the occupation in a way they did not last year. As I am writing this essay, the radio station Reshet Bet is reporting on a Knesset debate in which the Prime Minister is being accused of "spending so much on the territories that the day-to-day needs of citizens are being ignored".

We have journeyed through the mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av and, this Shabbat, the mighty figure of Isaiah himself commands the stage in our synagogues with the special haftarah for Shabbat Chazon. Across millennia his counsel still rings true: "Learn to do right; seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the orphan, fight for the right of the widow."

Isaiah could well be castigating the racial incitement directed at the 60,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees who have entered Israel over the past seven years. These refugees have fled appalling conditions in Eritrea, a failed state where political and religious freedoms are extremely limited. Torture appears to be widespread and there is no freedom of movement.

The situation is also dire in Sudan. Its president, Omar Al Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity. Ethnic cleansing, torture, slavery and political persecution are all part of the reality of life in Sudan. And in newly independent South Sudan, which is one of the poorest places on earth, ongoing conflict with Sudan threatens the stability of the country.

The Israeli Government initially granted the Eritreans and Sudanese collective immunity, undertaking not to repatriate them for as long as returning may put their lives at risk. However, recently, Israel stopped processing individual applications for refugee status, which confers residency rights. These people are now in limbo. They can be repatriated as soon as the conditions in their home countries are deemed to have eased but, in the meantime, are not allowed to work, nor can they access social services or non-emergency medical treatment. They cannot receive international aid, because they are not formally classed as refugees.

Isaiah might ask how people can live in limbo without being allowed to work or have access to social
services. Indefinite detention of asylum seekers without processing their individual applications for refugee status is unsustainable - materially, morally and politically.

The Executive director of the Tel Aviv based Migrant Helpline spoke in London recently, describing how migrants are being thrown off buses, how children are verbally abused, being called "black, dirty" in playgrounds. Worse still are the physical attacks - Africans being stabbed, shot at, or having their homes set on fire. You can almost hear the moral outrage of Isaiah, reminding us of the repeated biblical injunction: "You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the African migration to Israel; whether people should be categorised as "economic migrants", "refugees", "infiltrators" or "asylum seekers", the provocative language and the violence that surround the debate should cease immediately.

Clear guidelines and a swift legal process for foreign workers and refugees are vital. This is certainly not only an exclusively Israeli issue - global political instability and climate-change are accelerating the number of refugees internationally and many countries already struggle with major population movements.

The prophets knew that there was no neat dividing line between "religion" and "politics". They knew that, to bring the divine presence, the Shechinah, into the world, they needed to influence the ruling power and so they were often in direct conflict with those in power. Today, they might find themselves wagging their prophetic fingers at a few politicians who seem to have historical amnesia, such as the Likud MK Miri Regev, who called the refugees a "cancer in our body"; or the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, who called them "purveyors of disease". Perhaps they would address MK Michael Ben-Ari, who stated that "the infiltrators are not only hungry for bread… they are hungry for women".

The stories of injustice cannot be contained; what happens inside Israel impacts on how people abroad see it and of course, therefore, how they see Jews.

As Leslie Susser pointed out in a recent edition of the Jerusalem Report, the present internal situation "has played into the hands of Israel's detractors. It has also hurt Israel's image in the US, especially among Afro-Americans."

The driving passion of my rabbinate is to keep young Jews positively engaged with Israel. Sadly, I am increasingly meeting many under-40s who do not have Israel "in their guts" and many who are deeply troubled by what they see as racism and by what they see as threats to Israel's democracy.

It is not through hiding difficulties that we engage our community but through telling the truth and encouraging channels of positive, ideological, Zionist engagement. There is much in contemporary Israel to help carry us from the painful period of rebuke before Tisha B'Av to the consolation that Tisha B'Av brings, encapsulated in the message of the Shabbat of consolation that follows it - Shabbat Nachamu.

We can be consoled that the police are taking attacks on foreign workers and on refugees very seriously, with subsequent arrests and charges.

We can be consoled that many Israelis are caring for refugees. There are numerous outstanding projects, such as "Marak Levinsky", where volunteers give hot soup to the refugees every day in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park. I am proud, for instance, of the Reform community in Jerusalem, Kol Haneshamah, for being one of many organisations responding to the situation, and holding a meeting of solidarity and study with the Eritrean community in Jerusalem next to a flat that had been set on fire. They also train volunteers to work in nurseries with refugees, and operate a special nursery for children of refugees - in the same nursery that my children attended when we lived in Jerusalem.

We can be consoled that the inflammatory statements of the Knesset members did not pass unchallenged. The Knesset committee at which they were made described the statements as: "Difficult, harsh and outrageous… severe and extreme expressions on the part of elected officials erode the public's confidence and diminish the dignity of the Knesset, and may even bring a flush of passion and violence in extreme cases."

We can be consoled that a specialist team in the social service system has been established to deal with extreme cases of distress, such as that of Moshe Silman.

We can be consoled that following each of the anti-immigration demonstrations, there were three times as many anti-racist protests. When shops were looted during anti-immigration protests, people went the next day to offer help.

Jewish tradition holds that prophecy ceased some two millennia ago. In its absence, we alone carry the responsibility to internalise that rebuking voice, to remember the messages and sometimes even the tone of the prophets. We cannot rely on prophets to react for us. We must react to events around us, even when this may be hard to do and may risk censure. We must react when we see problems, as it is a core Jewish imperative to speak out, to reproach. This is the mitzvah of tochecha, that occurs in the Leviticus verse: "Love your companion as yourself". They are inevitably linked. We show our love by taking risks, by stating our views even when we do not want to or others do not want us to.

On this Shabbat, between vision and consolation, I would urge you to choose your "chazon" of Israel, your vision and actively support the Israeli individuals or organisations that forward that vision and so make your vision into reality, into your nechamah, your consolation. In this way, we can reinforce those who further the prophetic vision and so strengthen the Israel that we love.

Laura Janner-Klausner is Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism

Last updated: 10:45am, July 27 2012