Israel: A ‘Jewish State’ no more?

Israel: A ‘Jewish State’ no more?

The State of Israel exists, but it may no longer be a Jewish state as the Torah understands what a Jewish state should be, and its very existence may be facing a greater threat than it already does.

That understanding is strewn throughout the Torah, including in the Torah portion last week, Parashat Va-etchanan, which came right after Tishah B’Av, the most mournful day in Jewish history.

In that parashah, Israel was warned what would happen if it rejected God’s law: “You will perish quickly from the land…. You will be destroyed! And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples.” (See Deuteronomy 5:26-27.)

History has proven those words to be true, as both the First and Second Temples were destroyed and the people exiled both times.

In 1948, God kept the promise we read in Leviticus 26:42. Said God: “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and My covenant with Isaac, and even my covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land.”

Before God made that promise, however, God made it clear in Leviticus 26 (and in many other places) that Israel’s presence in the Land is conditional:

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments…, I will grant peace in the land…. [Your army] shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword….”

There was no hyperbole in that statement, as the 1948-49 war, the 1956 Sinai campaign, the June 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated.

On the other hand, defy God and “you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you…. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin…; your enemies shall consume you.”

Sadly, beginning on Monday, July 24, just three days before Tishah B’Av, Israel’s leaders not only violated God’s law, but they also spit in the face of that law. Specifically, one law they spurned will be read in Parashat Shofetim on August 19: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

Understand what “justice justice”—tzedek tzedek—means. As I have written in the past, the essence of what the Torah expects of us is summed up by the doubling up of the word tzedek. It is the Torah’s prime directive. Tzedek means so many things, including righteousness, justice, truth, purity, honesty, sincerity, kindness, virtue, and piety. By doubling up the word tzedek, we are being told that God wants a world built on each of those meanings. Israel, as God’s kingdom of priests, was assigned to lead the way.

Instead, it is heading away from that concept of justice.

This becomes evident a bit later in Parashat Shofetim, when it says this about the authority of Israel’s judges who, in the words of Leviticus 16:18, must “govern the people with mishpat tzedek [justice that is righteous].” Says Leviticus 17:10-11: “You shall carry out the verdict announced…. You must not deviate from the verdict they announce to you either to the right or to the left.”

A Jewish state as the Torah envisions it must be ruled by a government of checks and balances, with its judges having the final say over what constitutes an act of tzedek. Then, immediately after the Torah commands this in Chapter 17, it makes clear that the political leaders of the nation are subject to the same law as everyone else—the Torah.

In two votes on July 24 and 25, Israel’s Knesset showed its contempt for God’s law when it voted to strip Israel’s judiciary of the very powers God gave to it.

First, the Knesset gave itself the power to overrule any decision by the judiciary that it does not like.

Second, Israel does not have a constitution. Instead, it is ruled by a series of “Basic Laws,” and a two-thirds majority is required to pass such a law. If, however, the Supreme Court voided a Basic Law it found to be undemocratic—denying non-Jews citizenship, for example, or banning parties on the left from standing for election (such a bill has already been introduced)—the Knesset gave itself the power to re-impose that law by a simple majority vote.

The Knesset also is on the verge of voting to change the composition of the committee that appoints judges. The committee now is made up of equal representatives from the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the Israel Bar Association. The proposed new law gives the Knesset a majority of seats on the committee, so it would have partisan control over the appointment of judges.

A major reason for these “judicial reforms” is the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now on trial on three corruption charges: bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—all charges that violate the law in Parashat Shofetim. While Netanyahu denies all the charges, the evidence presented so far is voluminous and damning. That evidence includes written documents, recorded conversations, and testimony from people involved in each of the three alleged crimes.

As I have said about him in the past, Bibi will do anything he needs to do to stay in power, regardless of what is in the best interests of the state. Bibi made deals with racists and extremists after the last election in order to return to office so he could pass a law that would block his conviction. The Knesset’s actions make that a virtual certainty, because now it can override the conviction and keep Bibi in power.

That also means, though, that the Knesset can pass laws that are undemocratic, that violate the Torah’s insistence on “tzedek tzedek,” and that undermine the Torah’s insistence on Israel being a just, honorable, and equitable society for all people, including “the stranger in your midst,” as the Torah insists more than 50 times in one form or another. Already, the Knesset is considering a bill that would make Torah study the equivalent of military service, thereby absolving students who spend their days poring over sacred texts from sharing the burden of having to defend the state.

The undemocratic nature of these reforms is why more than 11,000 Israeli reservists so far have said that they would defy reservist call-ups. That includes approximately 1,000 Air Force reservists. (Israel reportedly has more than 460,000 reservists on call.) They said they would not serve as long as the judicial overhaul remained on the books. As one prominent reservist said, “We had faith in the government, but the government broke us. I will not volunteer to serve in a dictatorial state.”

These undemocratic reforms are why there have been demonstrations against the judicial overhaul for the last 30 weeks, since January 7, which was the day after the proposed reforms were announced. These demonstrations have been serious in terms of their size and intensity. As many as 200,000 people took part in protest rallies throughout Israel last Saturday, July 28, with nearly 175,000 of them attending the main rally in Tel Aviv. At least a few demonstrations thus far have turned violent.

These undemocratic reforms are also why medical professionals held a 24-hour strike on July 25.

Understand what all this means. First, there may not be enough soldiers to defend the state from attack if too many reservists refuse to be called up. According to IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, having to rely on fewer reservists will do “damage to the army’s competence.” Further damage would be done if yeshiva students in the ritually rigid community were excluded from the IDF’s ranks, assuming that the just introduced bill mentioned earlier becomes law. Israel’s ritually rigid community represents about 12 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, and it is growing faster than the general population.

Second, a very bloody civil war is a strong possibility if hundreds of thousands of protesting Israelis decide to take matters into their own hands to try to undo the Knesset’s undemocratic reforms.

That will give the Palestinian Arab rejectionist front and its allies an incentive to invade the country. The IDF’s intelligence directorate reportedly warned Netanyahu of this possibility no fewer than four times before the bill passed. According to the intelligence assessment as reported by Israeli media on July 28, Iran and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorist group see a “historic opportunity” to attack Israel because of a “major erosion in basic deterrence.”

The Knesset, by its undemocratic judicial overhaul, has put Israel’s existence at risk, with even leading Likud MKs recognizing this and vowing to resist any further changes. Efforts are underway in the courts to undermine what the Knesset has done, but to what end now that the Knesset now has the power to override court rulings that go against it?

If that occurs, heaven forbid, it will only lead to disaster.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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