Ein Li Eretz Acheret/I Have No Other Country. These words were emblazoned on the side of a building as we drove up the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv on our way from Ben Gurion Airport to our friends in Herzliya. This past June, my family had the chance to spend almost a month in Israel; visiting friends, traveling, exploring, eating, meeting new people, and bearing witness to both the beauty and the pain of a country that for so many is their only country.
Ein Li Eretz Acheret/I Have No Other Country is the title and first line of a well known Israeli song, written by Ehud Manor and Corine Alal. This song is a timeless reflection on both the complexity of living in Israel and a single, essential truth for so many: They have no other country.
Ein Li Eretz Acheret
I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul –
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.
I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes
This is how I feel; Ein Li Eretz Acheret/I Have No Other Country. While I have the privilege of American citizenship, Israel holds a unique place in my heart, like no other country. And because of that, I will not stay silent when my country changes her face. I will not give up reminding her and sing in her ears until she opens her eyes.
Here’s how Israel is changing her face. For the past 9 months, every week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in pro-Democracy protests; marching, carrying signs, and singing songs of dissent, like Ein Li Eretz Acheret. Israelis of all walks of life are protesting the unprecedented moves by the current ruling coalition to decimate the power of the Israeli Supreme Court, in order to make sweeping reforms without any opposition.
In the United States, we have three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judiciary – that all have checks and balances on each other. And we have a Constitution that guarantees such.
In Israel, they only have two branches of government, like a Parliament in Europe, and no Constitution but instead a set of Basic Laws. The executive and legislative branches are combined; the “speaker of the house” so-to-speak becomes Prime Minister. Therefore, the only check on the Prime Minister and his party, who control the Knesset is the Israeli Supreme Court.
The current coalition was elected by the slimmest majority (after four failed elections in four years) and is composed of the most radical right-wing Israelis, like Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, who until recently had a picture of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein on his wall, glorifying the murder of innocent Palestinians. Despite pressure from America and their own citizens, they recently passed a law severely weakening the Supreme Court’s check on their power.
Without checks and balances, the current government has made clear the type of agenda that they hope to pass; an agenda, anathema to our values as Reform Jews, which includes:
- Limiting aliyah to only those deemed Jewish by the Haredi/Ultra-Orthodox.
- Demolishing LGBTQ+ rights, like same sex couple adoption.
- And supporting illegal settlements and vigilante violence against Palestinians.
During our trip to Israel, while in Jerusalem for Shabbat, our friend, Rabbi Tamir Nir, from our partner congregation Achva BaKerem, took our family on a hike. As we were driving through a historically secular neighborhood, I was surprised to see Haredi/Ultra Orthodox men walking in the middle of the street, cursing at drivers, yelling, “Shabbos Shabbos,” as if to rebuke us for driving on Shabbat. Josephine asked me, what they were saying, I said, “Oh, I think they are just wishing us a Shabbat Shalom.” And, being as friendly as they are, my kids rolled down their windows and yelled back, “Shabbat Shalom!”
While this is a cute story, the very real threat of religious coercion by the Haredi is frightening. After waiting decades, a new light rail recently opened in Tel Aviv… only one problem, it is not open on Shabbat. The vast majority of residents of Tel Aviv are secular and would happily use public transportation on Shabbat. However, the Haredi have a disproportionate amount of power in the current government and are slowly turning Israel into a theocracy.
Haredi politicians have signaled their desire to remove protections for women, the queer community, and so many more that do not fit the strict definition of Jewish according to fundamentalist interpretation.
We spent time on this trip with my wife’s cousin, who lives a happy life as an out gay man in Tel Aviv. When I asked him if he was worried about the judicial overhaul, he said, “Don’t worry Eli, I live in Tel Aviv, they will never change Tel Aviv…” I only wish that were true.
For all the secular and progressive Jews in Israel. For Israeli women, for the queer community; they have no other land – Ein Li Eretz Acheret
On one of our last days in Jerusalem, Rabbi Nir took us on a tiyul/hike, in the Ein Gedi nature preserve. On the way there, he had a little surprise for us – camels! The simplest route to Ein Gedi from Jerualem passes right through the West Bank. As we descended towards the Dead Sea, Rabbi Nir pulled off the road where an impoverished Palestinian family had set up a small makeshift camel riding operation. By small operation, I mean there was a camel, some shade, and a few souvenirs to buy. After a little bit of obligatory negotiating, we settled on a price for a quick five minute ride. I asked Rabbi Nir if I could pay and he said he already took care of it and was happy to pay. “This is their livelihood, this is all they have,” he said.
Israel’s fanatical national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently said in an interview, “my right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs.”
These words do not represent the majority of Israelis. These words do not represent Judaism. These are the words of a Jewish supremacist who believes that Jewish lives are more important than Arab lives. We will read in the Torah tomorrow morning that all humanity was created b’tzelem elohim/in the Divine image. And the Talmud goes on to comment that the first human was created alone so that the families would not quarrel with each other, boasting of the superior heritage of their ancestors. (Sanhedrin 38a)
Our Jewish tradition is clear: this family of camel entrepreneurs deserves the same dignity as anyone else. They would much rather have stable jobs working in Israel’s thriving tech or healthcare sectors, and yet, they are confined by laws that limit their movement and prevent them from seeking work in a country whose policies already play a part in restricting Palestinian self-determination.
I am not naive, this family has also been failed by their own Palestinian leadership and security concerns are real. However, we can not use that as an excuse to continue the status quo and allow extremists to further punish the Palestinian people.
For the camel owners and all Palestinians; they have no other land – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
At the new Anu Museum gift shop (there was always a stop at the gift shop. You name the random museum, historical site, etc…, my kids made sure we stopped at the gift shop!). At the gift shop, my 5 year old found a music box. She cranked the little handle and a tiny melody began. [hum Hatikvah, la la la la la] Nora asked, “What’s that melody?” “HaTikvah,” I said, “It means hope.”
In addition to seeing the pain that so many Israelis are facing, in seeing their country change her face, we also saw so much hope on our trip.
One of the simchas/joyous events that brought us to Israel was our friend’s daughter, Ma’ayan’s bat mitzvah ceremony, which took place on the Israeli campus of Hebrew Union College, a pillar of progressive Judaism in the heart of Jerusalem. Seeing this young, progressive, Jewish woman take her place in the chain of tradition, gave me hope for the future of Israel. The service was led by Rabbi Stacey Blank. Rabbi Blank is a leader in the Israeli Reform Movement, working for justice on behalf of all people in Israel. When asked what she wants the Jewish-American community to know about the current situation, she wrote:
Do not despair. Continue to educate yourselves and your communities about the issues. Be leaders in dialogue. Delve into the truism that, “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh L’Zeh/All of Israel is Responsible for One Another. Talk about the dangers of Sinat Chinam/Baseless Hatred. And remember how important every single person is to the success of Israel, both those of us who live here and those who live elsewhere.
Rabbi Blank ended her message with the words from HaTikvah:
… עוד לא אבדה תקוותנו
Our hope is not lost…
For the bat mitzvah, Ma’ayan, for Rabbi Blank; they have no other land – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
As the song reminds us, even when Israel is aflame, it is home. When our country changes her face, we will not give up, we will sing in her ears until she opens her eyes. We will engage more than ever:
- We are traveling to Israel as a congregation in May. Our Israel ConnectRS group is bringing amazing speakers like Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID, and Sigal Kanotopsky, who was born in a small village in Ethiopia’s rural north, before walking three months to make aliya at the age of five, and now runs the Jewish Agency in our region.
- We are continuing our dynamic relationship with our partner congregation, Achva BaKerem, and there is an opportunity to help them build a new prayer space in their community garden.
- We are doubling down our support of ARZA, The Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Israel arm of the Reform Movement.
We are supporting the organizations and individuals in Israel that represent our values. When our country changes her face, we will not give up, we will sing in her ears until she opens her eyes.
For hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters – they have no other land – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
For the tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression and seeking asylum in Israel – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
For my wife’s grandparents, Savta Dina who escaped Polish pogrom as a child and Saba Joe, who found refuge in Israel from Nazi persecution – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
For Rabbi Tamir Nir and Rabbi Stacey Blank and all Reform communities in Israel – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
For the five million Palestinian people – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.
And for us, the entire Jewish community in the diaspora – who cling to Israel as the heart that beats life into our global jewish community – Ein Li Eretz Acheret.