‘For it is a time of trouble for Jacob’1 

‘For it is a time of trouble for Jacob’1 

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck and chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at SAR High School in New York City.

In the midst of the legal, social, and political upheaval in Israel over the last seven months, many responsible voices on the left and right have called for compromise and dialogue on the deeply contentious issues at play.

Those voices have called for slowing down the rush to legislation as well as toning down the rhetoric and extreme formulations that have been uttered by extreme partisans on the left, such as former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and extreme partisans of the right, such as Ministers Yariv Levin and Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Unfortunately, those efforts have not been successful and Israeli society has been hurtling down the path to heightened tension, more strident moves by anti-government protesters, and more concomitant reactions by the government and police. Together with this, we have seen the worrying phenomenon of growing numbers of reservists in various units in the Air Force declaring their intention to no longer volunteer for training, calls for shutting down various parts of the economy, the growing tensions with the U.S. administration and European countries, the potential downgrading of Israel’s credit rating, the growing emboldening of Israel’s enemies, and the worries, God forbid, of the potential for a cold civil war between various parts of Israeli society.

This has been coupled with a general sense of despair in some circles for the future of the State of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Added to that has been the rhetoric and actions of the most right-wing members, as well as charedi representatives of the coalition, that have caused many Israelis, religious and secular, to fear for the future of the tolerant and liberal society where all members of Israeli society, including the non-Jewish populace, can live and flourish comfortably.

As a result of these growing tensions especially in light of the recent passage of the law striking the reasonableness clause, even voices that previously were strongly in favor of the judicial reform, such as Haggai Segal, editor of the staunchly rightwing newspaper Makor Rishon, have concluded that the schisms and enmity that are tearing Israeli society apart are not worth it, and that the judicial reform should be suspended entirely for now.  Together with that, we have all heard rumors and whispers that Prime Minister Netanyahu has wanted to suspend the judicial reform for some time, but fears that doing so will bring down his coalition and remove him from power. In a parallel fashion, there are rumors and whispers that a number of the leaders of the opposition were willing to accept some more moderate versions of judicial reform proposals but have been concerned lest the leaders of the protest movement turn their ire toward them and call them sell-outs.

In the context of all these realities and the emergency situation that Israel faces, both internally and externally, it is time to heed the call of a number of prominent Israeli thinkers, journalists, and politicians, such as Yair Sheleg and former minister of communications Yoaz Handel, and seriously consider the creation of an emergency unity government. In other times of deep and serious crises, Israeli leaders were responsible and prescient to recognize that a broad unity government of the moderate left, center, and moderate right, composing an overwhelming majority of Israeli society, was the right move at the right time to handle the crises of war in 1967, or the challenge of runaway inflation and removing most Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon from 1984 to 198).

The creation of such a government would be accompanied by an immediate suspension of the current judicial reform, together with a suspension of the protests and strikes throughout the country.

A broad and stable emergency unity government among the major parties could be established that would be able to deal with the major issues that Israel faces, including the nuclear threat from Iran, Hezbollah’s growing belligerency in the north of Israel,  dealing with the crime and violence in the Arab-Israeli sector, forging normalization with Saudi Arabia,  restoring normal relations with the U.S. administration and healing the tensions with diaspora Jewry, and, of course, neutralizing the threat of Palestinian terrorism  while hand in hand working toward progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front.

This government, including the Likud, Yesh Atid, and National Unity, would have a solid majority of 68 seats, and it wouod not be beholden to every demand of every small party with the sword of a no-confidence vote constantly hovering over its head.

It should then turn to smaller parties reflecting both the moderate right and left,  such as Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Shas, inviting them  to join the coalition based on the priorities set by the major parties. It could then turn to Raam-Taal and invite it, too, to join the coalition as a message that it hopes that Arab-Israelis participate fully in the Israeli political fabric and governance. In addition, in order to make a statement about the desire to include more moderate religious voices, it could reach out to the leaders of the Jewish Home party and the New Right, who are not now in the Knesset, such as Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, and to join as ministers of the new government. Moreover, it might turn to more moderate respected settler leaders and rabbis such as Rabbi Avi Gisser, recently retired rabbi of Ofra in the Shomron, or Rabbi Yaacov Medan, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Ezion, to serve for a period of time as ministers in the coalition to reflect a broad and inclusive coalition.

In tandem with the creation of such a government, a wide swath of legal scholars, rabbis, intellectuals, thinkers, and politicians could be created to draft a thin constitution (to use the phrase of Professor Yedida Stern) to set the guidelines and rules of the road for creating major changes for the governance of the State of Israel and the interaction between the various branches of government. (See www.timesofisrael.com/what-matters-now-to-prof-yedidia-stern-a-thin-constitution/)

Leading pundits have noted that as the one now holding the keys to power, it will be on Prime Minister Netanyahu to make the first move, turn to his rivals, and invite them for secret talks to create such an memshelet cheirum, an emergency government. According to most observers, the most challenging issue in creating such a coalition is having the two major parties, Yesh Atid and National Unity, agree to sit in a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu. There is great enmity between the leaders of those parties and Netanyahu, based on previous experiences as well as the fact that the prime minister is under indictment for various offenses and going through a judicial trail on some of those charges.

This is a difficult conundrum, and the desire to avoid the moral compromises involved in joining with a prime minister under such a cloud of malfeasance — and who is seen as untrustworthy — is understandable. However, given the severity of the situation and danger to the internal cohesion of the State of Israel and its safety from external enemies, the luxury of the ideal simply is not available.

The good of the country has to be the primary motivation that underlies the decision-making process of all responsible leaders in these critical times. Without making any analogies, or to use the more positive Hebrew phrase, lehavdil elef havdalot, in dire times, the United States and other democracies have made common cause with less-than-ideal leaders in order to achieve and ensure the greater goals of peace, safety, and protection of the world. (Consider, for example, World War II and the fight against terrorism.)

1The title of this essay comes from Jeremiah Chapter 30, from the series of chapters written during the impending crisis in Jerusalem but with the vision of the redemption and salvation in the offing. The verse in full reads “For it is a time of trouble for Jacob, but he shall be delivered from it.”

This essay was originally published in the Times of Israel.

Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom and chair of the department of Torah She Baal Peh at SAR High School in Riverdale. Disclaimer: This essay is a personal opinion. It does not represent any official viewpoint of the shul or school that I work at. —NH

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