I distinctly remember the archeology class I took during my junior year abroad (1991-1992) at Hebrew University. We would study the Tanakh in the classroom and then make our way through the city of Jerusalem, where the ancient verses would come alive in the land. Battles, encounters with God, the building of altars, the naming of places—moments of consequence inscribed in our holiest of books and alive in the land, forever memorialized.
While I took in the ancient history of Israel for the first time, so too was a different story being birthed. That year, the Madrid conference took place in an attempt for the international community to revive the peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As a result, many more countries, including Arab ones, established some kind of diplomatic relations with Israel. It also set the stage for the Oslo Accords, signed on the White House Lawn on September 13, 1993. I lived in Jerusalem that year as well and experienced the euphoria on the streets that day. I watched the shaking of hands of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat on a movie screen-like television in the park atop Ben Yehuda Street. There were tears and applause and dancing. It was unforgettable.
Just like the Tanakh records our ancient history and creates a holy narrative that shapes and defines who we are to this very day, so, too, do these moments of modern history have an indelible impact on the soul of our people, the daily lives of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and the landscape of the Middle East to this very day. Of course, the potential and hope that was felt by many of us in those years after the Oslo Accords was paired with rage, and skepticism at best, by others of us. No matter what our political leanings, Madrid and Oslo, their triumphs and failures, set the stage for what was to come and the landscape of Israel/Palestine today.
What is happening in Israel these days is no less consequential than the ancient spiritual and physical battles for the soul of the nation recounted in the Tanakh. These more recent, significant dates since the establishment of the State almost 75 years ago—wars, terrorist attacks, Madrid and Oslo, Rabin’s assassination, the disengagement from Gaza—have all come to define Israel’s modern history. Most recently, the far-reaching judicial overhaul proposed by Israel’s governing coalition, which will compromise the democratic nature of Israel, has brought Israeli Jews of all kinds into the streets every Saturday night for a dozen weeks. But last Sunday night, when Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu abruptly fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for challenging the judicial overhaul, hundreds of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in anger and fear, outraged at the far lengths Netanyahu will go to achieve his goals with his far-right coalition and their fascist inclinations. No matter where we stand politically, the safety and security of Israel is at stake. Generals of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) agree. Former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court agree. Business leaders agree. Israeli embassy staff around the world agree. In fact, the Israeli Consul general in New York City, Asaf Zamir, resigned this week. He wrote in his letter of resignation:
“I am taking this step because of my deep love for my country,” he wrote. “As a proud Israeli citizen, I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”
So much deep love has risen up: through protests, strikes, and refusals to serve in millu’im (IDF reserve duty).
This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol: the Shabbat that precedes Pesah. Many reasons are given for this name—the Great Shabbat. One is that it marks the 10th of the month of Nisan, when the Israelites took the sheep for the Pesah offering (the 10th day was considered Shabbat). An early 20th-century Polish rabbi, Rav Amiel, taught that the Israelites turned the object of idolatry (the sheep) and prepared to sacrifice to God on the Shabbat before the redemption. The taking of the sacrifice was the cause. The redemption was the effect.
Today, Israelis of all kinds are making this kind of sacrifice, risking their jobs and presumed definitions of loyalty to Israel in order to express their deep love and concern, to rise up, to fight for a vision of Israel declared in its Declaration of Independence.
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Justice, freedom, and peace do not arrive on their own. Ravi Amiel said that we often want Pesah before Shabbat HaGadol—we wish for redemption without first conquering the idols, without sacrificing for a greater vision and doing what is necessary to catalyze the effect. We must be the cause for redemption to come.
This is not the time for complacency. Not in Israel, not in New York. Not as a Jewish people. It is a time of awakening. It is a time to express our deep love through fighting for an Israel we believe in but is far from being realized.
At the end of Pesah seder we will say “Next year in Jerusalem.”
May it be a Jerusalem of justice, of freedom, of peace. And may we, all of us who love her so, be a part of the great cause to beckon her arrival. If not now, when?