Parashah Ponderings

Building a home for God. Building a home for the Jewish People. Lacking Divine instructions for the latter, mistakes will happen, corrections made.

Parashat Terumah 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת תְּרוּמָה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1-27:19

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), delineates the plans for building the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that was to serve as God’s dwelling place among the People of Israel. In building a home for God, God intends for all people who are willing and able to be involved. Moses assembles a talented crew of designers and builders to take care of the construction of the structure and its appurtenances and asks the people for freewill offerings of the materials required for this sacred project. As we will later learn, the plan, though complex, is fool-proof and is executed without flaw.

I see direct parallels between the construction of the mishkan and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. The former secures God’s permanent dwelling place among the People of Israel. Once it is built, the People will coalesce around God’s presence. Zionism, in its many iterations, has always sought to build a home among the nations for the Jewish People. Much like the mishkan, the Jewish homeland would serve to unite Jews the world over. Further, its presence would nourish the Jewish People, just as God’s presence in the mishkan would nourish our biblical forebears. The mishkan was God’s home. Today, the State of Israel is our homeland, if not our actual home.

Unlike the mishkan, however, there has never been a single, clear blueprint for how to build the Jewish homeland. People of good will had different ideas about the future homeland for centuries, from the Prophets, to Torah scholars, to the panoply of 19th and 20th century Zionist thinkers. Plans for the building up of Zion and the creation of the State of Israel have never been fool-proof, and the execution of Theodore Herzl’s vision for the Jewish homeland has been anything but flawless. Yet, the State of Israel is a reality. With all its trials, complications and blunders, with all its beauty, lofty ideals and incredible achievements, it is the homeland of the Jewish People.

The Zionist enterprise, the upbuilding of the Jewish homeland, is established, but it is not complete. Unlike the work of building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the work of creating a state that reflects the best of the Jewish People is ongoing. We are ever seeking to balance the particularistic concerns of the Jewish People with the universalistic goals of tikkun olam, creating a just, sustainable and peaceful world. We are taught: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All Israel is responsible one for another. We are also taught to be Or la-goyim – A light unto the nations. In the life and governance of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, these teachings stand in constant tension. It should be the prayer of all Jews that this tension exists in a way that brings honor to the Jewish People and extends honor and dignity to all who live in Israel and in areas under it is control.

The damning and highly problematic 280-page report issued by Amnesty International – Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity – underscores the tremendous challenges the current State of Israel faces to create a just, sustainable and peaceful society for all whom it governs. There is intense debate whether Israel’s policies constitute apartheid — even among Israelis who have served in high office and have fought for the Jewish State. It is clear to me, therefore, that one can label Israel’s system of government and administration “apartheid” without delegitimizing Israel’s existence nor implicating all Jews in the creation and implementation of the State’s policies. (Please see the numerous responses to the AI report below. Several organizations believe AI’s report does delegitimize Israel’s very existence, and they find its calls for actions would lead to an elimination of the Jewish state.) As a Zionist, putting the accusation of apartheid aside and understanding that much in the report is debatable, misrepresented or just plain wrong, I read AI’s report and its conclusions as an urgent call for reform, reform that is critical for the continued unfolding of the Zionist dream.

To my mind, what is most problematic about Amnesty International’s report is that it fails to provide any historical or political context and, thus, is ready to be weaponized by Israel’s enemies and anti-Semites everywhere. As meticulously researched as it purports to be, the report’s lack of balance and nuance is stunning. There is no mention of the critical role of an Arab political party in the coalition that governs Israel today. There is no mention of the ways in which the State of Israel has improved the quality of life for so many Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. There is no mention that minorities in Israel have full political rights and greater representation in Knesset than in the U.S. Congress. There is no mention of the failures of the Palestinian Authority. There is no mention of the role of Hamas in holding the people of Gaza hostage to their extremist, anti-Semitic worldview, nor of Egypt’s partnership with Israel in keeping Hamas in check so the people in Gaza might have a chance to prosper. If I overlooked AI’s treatment of any of these realities in its report, I would gladly admit my error. None of this would excuse Israel’s mistakes and abuses, but it would certainly reveal that Israel is not essentially an apartheid state, but one dedicated to justice and fair treatment for all who reside within and beyond its borders.

Notwithstanding any oversight on my part, it is hard to see Amnesty International as seeking the kind of reform that would benefit Palestinians while also honoring Israel’s legitimate right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people. Though the authors of the report seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid language that could be deemed overtly anti-Semitic, it is too easy to imagine how anti-Semitic enemies of Israel will use this report to marshal public opinion against Israel and the Jewish People. Similarly, though the authors do not come out and say Israel does not have the right to exist, it is too easy to imagine how anti-Zionists, including Jewish anti-Zionists, will use AI’s report to undermine Israel’s very existence. In these regards, AI’s report poses a grave danger to Jewish communities everywhere. Most assuredly, it will become a rallying cry for anti-Semites and anti-Zionists on college campuses who will use it to isolate and demean their Jewish populations, as has happened so many times before. I hope I am wrong.

In the face of Amnesty International report equating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with apartheid, it is important for Jews who care about Israel to remember how the Zionist dream is all about our collective homecoming. Whether one makes aliyah or remains in the Diaspora, we must not let criticism of Israel become fodder for those who would do Israel or the Jewish People harm. This is not to say we should dismiss the criticism altogether. While the instructions for the mishkan were a product of the Divine, a reflection of God’s orderly universe as interpreted by our biblical ancestors, the pursuit for a more perfect homeland for the Jewish People is a decidedly human endeavor, in whole or in part. As such, the ongoing creation of the State of Israel is bound to be flawed. Rather than ignore or reject AI’s report altogether, we should discern legitimate criticism and pray that Israel’s leaders and advisors will remain steadfast in shaping a Jewish State that will continue to represent the “dawn of our redemption” and a shining light for the nations of the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Read responses to the Amnesty International Report: