Shabbat Chanukah: We Must Fight Like the Maccabees for the Soul of Israel

Posted on December 23, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

On November 1, Israel held its fifth round of elections in less than four years. The good news is that the vote was free and fair. It was an unquestionable, unassailable exercise in representative democracy.

The bad news for those committed to liberal democracy and religious pluralism is that the voice of the people has now produced the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history — a government that is founded on explicitly anti-democratic principles (as outlined in the coalition agreement that Benjamin Netanyahu has signed with his religious-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners).

That agreement, which has now been finalized and presented to the President of the State of Israel, includes the following commitments to:

  • Pass a law that would give the Knesset the ability to overturn Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority, thereby eliminating judicial review, one of the pillars of a liberal democracy.
  • Revoke a section of the Basic Law on the Knesset that disqualifies for election any person or party that denies Israel’s character as a Jewish or democratic state, or that incites racism. This would allow the members of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party — the successor to Meir Kahane’s racist Kach party that was banned by the Basic Law — to promote the disenfranchisement of Israel’s Arab citizens. Should this succeed, it will signal the death of democracy in Israel.
  • Limit the application of the Law of Return to those who are Jewish according to the ultra-Orthodox definition of who is a Jew. Currently, it is sufficient to have one Jewish grandparent to be eligible to make aliyah and claim Israeli citizenship. The last attempt to amend the Law of Return precipitated a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations that led Israel’s leaders to abandon the effort. Such a move at this time would do untold damage to the relationship between Israel and World Jewry.
  • Amend the Basic Law to give the Minister of Police authority over the Police Commissioner. With Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir holding this portfolio, the power of law enforcement would be in the hands of an avowed racist who was banned from serving in the IDF for his multiple arrests and convictions for incitement to racism and violence.
  • Grant the Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich ministerial authority over the Civil Administration of the West Bank. A leading advocate for the expansion of Jewish settlements and annexation of the West Bank, Smotrich has called for Israel to become a theocracy governed by Jewish law. The threats to democracy and the rule of law posed by this appointment are manifold.

The implications of the rise of this new government are frightening for liberal Jews around the world, and most especially for those in Israel, including the members of our burgeoning Israeli Reform Movement. And nothing would please the anti-democratic forces more than to see liberal Jews in the Diaspora withdraw and give up on the struggle for the soul of Israel, thereby abandoning our allies and friends when they need us most.

Now, more than ever, liberal Jews need to renew the commitment to fight for the vision of Israel embodied in its Declaration of Independence, the vision of a Jewish state as a liberal democracy that will “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;” “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex;” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

In his Shabbat message this week, my friend and colleague Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the URJ’s Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism, recalls the classic Chanukah song “Mi Y’maleil,” which extols the heroism of the Maccabees in ancient days and summons us in our day to “join together and rise up to bring redemption.”

For the Zionist pioneers, Chanukah was about reclaiming Jewish power, about fighting for our freedom against great odds. This moment in Jewish history demands of us a Maccabean response. It requires us to use all our power and determination to win the battle for the soul of Israel.

We have but one amazing, challenging, inspiring, imperfect, sometimes infuriating, and yet so promising Jewish State of Israel. To live in this time and witness the miracle of our people’s return to our ancient homeland to build a modern Jewish Democratic state is a gift and a blessing for which we should be beyond grateful. So let us discharge this debt of gratitude by redoubling our commitment to its cause. Let our words and our deeds echo those of Isaiah (62:1) who declared:

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still. Until her righteousness shines forth like a bright light and her deliverance like a blazing torch.


Shabbat shalom and chag urim sameach,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck

P.S. I encourage you to read Rabbi Weinberg’s important message and a statement by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, both of which can be found in this week’s ARZA Weekly.