by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
Every country is unique. And each may even make its own claim to being exceptional. But challenges we face in America are mirrored in challenges we see in other countries, and we can learn important things about ourselves when we see ourselves in that mirror.
The U.S. and Israel have long been seen as allies with shared values. Our two countries continue to have a great deal in common. The situation in Israel is especially contentious right now. Since February the public has engaged in massive demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience to protest the elected government’s plans to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court.
On Monday, July 10 the Israeli government gave initial approval to a bill that prevents the Supreme Court from blocking government decisions it finds to be “unreasonable.” According to Dr. Amir Fuchs, Senior Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, “… the standard of reasonableness refers to a balance between political and public interests in decision-making. An ‘unreasonable’ decision is therefore one which disproportionately focuses on political interests without sufficient consideration for public trust and its protection. While the amendment passed on Monday cannot be used to strike down legislation, it … leave(s) citizens in a position in which they have no power to protect themselves from a problematic decision made by the executive branch.”
Here in the U.S. recent Supreme Court rulings have been decided by a majority of conservative judges. These judges promote a Constitutional theory of originalism that gives little to no weight to current public opinion or the common good, effectively exacerbating polarization in our country rather than reducing it. The U.S. response to the Israeli government is likewise hopelessly polarized, clearly indicating that the same threats to democracy that Israelis are demonstrating against in their country are alive and well here in ours. The Biden Administration supports the opposition in Israel, while Republican members of Congress and presidential contenders give full-throated support to the Netanyahu government.
Today’s strife within and between these two countries has religious underpinnings which are typically either affirmed or dismissed without much discussion in the public square. We may know that God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants in the Book of Genesis, but most of us are less familiar with the scripture and interpretations regarding what should happen in the land. We may have learned the term “manifest destiny,” as it was used to justify American westward expansion despite the persistent presence of indigenous peoples. This is not unlike the conflict in Israel over the persistent presence of Palestinian Arabs in the “Promised Land.” In cases like these, we have to ask how theology impacts our understanding of where human beings should live and how different groups of human beings with competing claims on land might live together.
Faith Commons will be traveling to Israel and Palestine this October to explore two questions: Who does this–or any–land belong to? And what makes that land–or any–sacred? The agenda of our tour is consistent with the mission of Faith Commons: to amplify diverse religious voices in serving the common good through engagement in the public square.
Arguably, there is nowhere on earth people argue more about earth than the Holy Land. Why is it important? To whom does it belong? Who gets to decide who lives there, and how? And perhaps most important, what makes this land holy? This tour is centered on these questions, as we visit places and people that will never leave us with just one answer. We will experience the sites we visit, accompanied by informed sources as ancient as scripture and as contemporary as the daily news.
Our hope is that a diverse group of travelers, attuned to the diversity and complexity of the people connected to the land, will gain insights and wisdom to sustain us and reflect upon with others when we come back to the United States. And we also hope that visiting an ancient land with a younger democracy will give us insight into a more newly discovered land with an older democracy.
We look forward to sharing what we learn with you. And we do have a few spots still available, if you would like to join us. The last date to register is July 26.