News Highlights Newton Solidarity Protest for Democracy in Israel

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Sharon Cohen Anisfeld speaking at protest

Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld delivered the following remarks at an Israel Democracy Solidarity Protest on August 24, 2023 in Newton Centre, MA.

It is an honor to stand here with you tonight. It is an honor to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have been protesting with such enormous dedication for many months now, Israelis who have been resisting the dangerous, racist, extremist, and anti-democratic actions and rhetoric of this government, and who, thank God, are showing no signs of letting up.

It is the equivalent of 15 million Americans in the street every Saturday night. I can only pray that those of us who make our home here in the United States will show the same courage and commitment in the struggle against racist, extremist, and anti-democratic forces that are on the rise in this country.

It is all too easy to give in to despair — and it’s even easier to get overwhelmed with the distractions of our daily lives — but this awe-inspiring protest movement reminds us day after day, week after week, month after month: Asur l’hityaesh. It is forbidden to despair. Simu lev. Pay attention — and keep paying attention. Od lo avda tikvateinu. To join the protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and in cities all over Israel is to feel the building of an ever-deepening, ever-broadening base of support for a better future — a true movement of hope.

With your permission, I’d like to share a brief personal note. My mother was born in Haifa 90 years ago, and although she came to America with her parents when she was a young child, I always felt a quiet pride that my family was part of the story of pre-state Palestine. My grandmother was a nurse (the private nurse of the great poet Haim Nachman Bialik, for a brief time), and my grandfather studied in the first graduating class of the Technion.

I have returned to Israel at various points in my own life and over the last four decades, I have spent thirty summers bringing North American teenagers to Israel. I have gone with groups — and with my own family — in times of great violence and fear and in times of great hope for peace. I have done so out of love and out of a sense of shared destiny. I have done so because I feel deeply that our lives and our futures as Jews – inside and outside of the land of Israel — are bound up with one another.

It saddens me to say that there are many Jews in this country who are tempted to simply throw up their hands and walk away from Israel, particularly as this government takes it further and further down the dangerous path away from democracy, toward dictatorship, and toward the most extreme expressions of ethno-religious nationalism.

I am here because — like you — I don’t want to walk away.
I am here because — like you — I can’t walk away.
I am here because — like you — I won’t walk away.

You don’t need me to tell you how much is at stake for the future of Israeli democracy in this current struggle. But I want to remind us that what is at stake is also a struggle for the heart of Jewish life.

In the words of my colleague from Paris, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur: “Ben Gvir’s interpretation of Judaism is just one voice, just one language, among so many others. His language is not my Jewish language, it is not the one in which I speak to my children, my students, or my friends, and it is not the one I believe in. Its exclusive and exclusionary message impoverishes and condemns us all.”

We cannot let this happen. This is a kidnapping of democracy, but it is also a kidnapping of Judaism and of Zionism — whether out of cynicism, by those protecting their own power and privilege or out of an extreme ideology, one that promotes hate and diminishes, demeans, and denies the tzelem, the sacred reflection of the divine that shines within every human being.

There is a word that has been reverberating in the streets of Israeli cities for these last eight months. That word is busha. Shame. It is one of the central chants, of course, of the protest movement. Busha, busha, busha. It speaks to us because of its moral clarity, its willingness to call to account a government whose actions and rhetoric are deeply shameful.

But when we say busha we are not just saying, “shame on you” — we’re also saying something deeper and more painful. We are saying: “You are bringing shame on us.” Statements from the highest halls of government that dehumanize, that incite violence, that deny basic human and civil rights, bring shame on all of us. Acts of Jewish terror in Palestinian villages bring shame on all of us. Attempts to erode the very foundations of Israel’s democracy bring shame on all of us.

Particularly in this season, I believe the Hebrew language has something powerful to teach us about shame. If we listen carefully, we can hear another word buried at the heart of the same Hebrew letters, bet-vav-shin — the word that is actually the inversion and overturning of busha, the word that beckons to us now as we move through the month of Elul toward Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the word shuva. The same Hebrew letters, but turned around: from bosh to shuv, from shame to return — a return to ourselves, to each other, to the values that we hold dear, to the vision of Israel we aspire to, to the love and the hope that gives us strength to carry on.

I close with a prayer.

Elohei haruchot l’chol basar
God of the spirits of all flesh
We spend so much time saying no.

Saying no to a long list of ism’sSaying no
To the boot on the neck
The cage at the border
The torch in the hand
The hate on the tongue
The cold in the eyes.

Saying no
To the degradation
Of language
Of land
Of law
Of life.

Av Harachamim
Father of all fathers
Mother of all mothers
Source of all compassion —
We stand before You
And join the hundreds of thousands of Israelis
who are also saying

Yes to democracy,
Yes to a Torat hesed, a Torah of lovingkindness
Yes to a Torat Tzedek, a Torah of justice.
Yes to the sanctity, to the preciousness, to the dignity of all life,
Yes to the breathtaking beauty of our world —
And yes to the vital moral fabric of our lives.

To the forces that would tear that fabric apart,
We say:
We will always show up to stitch it back together.
We walk in the footsteps of our ancestor Abraham
Who “stitched together all who inhabit this world”
(she’icha et kol ba’ey ha’olam)
Who saw connection everywhere
Who was commanded to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.

We know that it is so much easier — and faster — to tear things apart than it is to stitch them together.
But we will keep showing up for as long as it takes.
We will stitch together what has been torn apart.

And with God’s help what we stitch together
will be even stronger and more beautiful and more whole
than what was before.
Ken yehi ratzon.
So may it be.

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