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Home > News & Politics > Israel >A proposal for Jewish Democratic Renewal

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A proposal for Jewish democratic renewal

Special to
September 18, 2000

Rabbi Michael Melchior
(Israel Govt.
Press Office)
JERUSALEM—Israel has long avoided dealing with some of the basic, defining issues that will determine what kind of country it is to become. These issues have been dodged for political reasons, and for fear that confronting them head on might tear the country apart. It is my belief that the time for facing these crucial issues can no longer be postponed, because of three major kinds of transformations that are deeply affecting Israeli society.

The first of these changes is the sometimes slow, sometimes dramatic advance towards peace that the last seven years have seen. Peace with our neighbors will be lasting and durable only to the extent that our own society is inwardly strong and cohesive.

The second change is economic. Israel's centralized, conservative economy is being transformed into a bold, open, free market economy, with a high rate of growth stemming from our position as a world leader in information technology. But the economic growth we are experiencing has its dark side. First of all, it has widened the gap between rich and poor to unacceptable levels; it also threatens to wash away our unique culture and heritage in the flood of American-style consumer goods.

The third change is the growing political polarization between religious and secular in our country. Differences in beliefs and practices that should enrich our culture, when politicized, make both sides fearful and combative.

Some politicians and media figures have linked the quest to provide a firm moral basis for Israeli society with the idea of a "secular revolution". I thoroughly reject this juxtaposition. Israel's future strength will be determined by our ability to articulate a vision large enough and inclusive enough to forestall the need for one part of the populations' victories to come at the expense of the others defeats. I am convinced that, far from causing irreparable rifts, if we work wisely and patiently, we can reach a broad national consensus that will provide a solid foundation for Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state.

This first step towards reaching broad consensus is to reject the corrosive idea that the desire to preserve and strengthen Israel as a Jewish state is somehow diametrically opposed to the broadening and strengthening of human rights and freedoms. Eliminating poverty, providing educational opportunity for all, ensuring adequate health care for each citizen, caring for our elderly, and providing equality under the law for women and minorities are core Jewish values - in no way less crucial to our tradition than keeping the Sabbath.

For too long, Judaism has been presented to the Israeli public as being about rituals and practices which divide us from each other. The ethical dimension of Judaism that demands the creation of a society that places the common good above the interests of the rich and powerful must be highlighted and given expression as a force for national unity and social cohesion.

The Sabbath, which has been turned into a battlefield by both secular and religious politicians, can itself be transformed into a symbol of unity. The Sabbath should be a day of rest and recreation where the entire population, each in its own way, can experience renewal.

I recently demonstrated against the opening of a gigantic mall in Herzliyah on Shabbat, because I believe that a one day moratorium on commercial activity will benefit us all. Entertainment and recreation facilities should remain open for those who do not keep Shabbat according to traditional Jewish law. But it is well within the national consensus, I believe, to preserve Shabbat as an island apart from the non-stop commercial pressure foisted on us by the global economy that would turn Israel's culture into a poor imitation of America's.

In order to create the kind of Jewish consciousness we need here in Israel, we must introduce a core curriculum of Jewish studies that all schools would share - though each would be free to give their own emphasis and interpretation to the common course of study. Not so long ago, when seemingly heretical scientific ideas and ideologies such as socialism drew hundreds of thousands of Jews away from tradition, there was a Yiddish proverb which said, "better an am ha'aretz (an ignorant Jew) than an apikorus (heretic)." That proverb is no longer valid.

Ignorance is the greatest threat to Jewish identity and solidarity today, in Israel as much as in the Diaspora. All of us have an interest in bringing close the day when all Israelis will be able to read a page of Talmud together - even while continuing to argue about its meaning. The effort to introduce a core curriculum of Jewish studies in Israel would be a kind of parallel to the Birthright program, which seeks to offer every young, unaffiliated Jew in the Diaspora the opportunity to connect with their Israeli peers and their Jewish heritage.

As a member, along with Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin and Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, of a committee appointed by Prime Minister Barak to set the guidelines for the healing of Israeli society, I know that we are not plotting a secular revolution. Instead, we are hoping to turn those very issues which divide us into the foundation for an Israel united more deeply than ever before.

As we gather together to pray for a sweet new year, we would do well to remember that only in an Israel unified by concern for the rights and welfare of all its members will we merit to witness the renewal of Judaism that we all seek. "For the sake of my brothers and friends," begins the Psalm, found towards the end of our daily prayers. Only afterwards, the Psalm continues, "For the sake of the House of the Lord."

©, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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