The two countries I love the most are in free fall.
Their democratic roots have been deeply shaken.
Their elected heads of state are in serious legal and political trouble, brought on by their own actions, though they blame everyone but themselves.
As faithful defenders of our country and Israel, committed to American and Jewish values of truth, morality and justice, how are we to respond to a president and prime minister whose words and actions have violated those tenets and dangerously divided their respective societies? Adding to the urgency of the problem, both the U.S. and Israel are headed toward national elections that will focus almost completely on loyal support or deep condemnation for the incumbent, and the results could tear their societies even farther apart.
Though we are in unchartered political waters, troubled times demand clear minds and firm convictions, beginning with separating fact from fiction and making note of the perilous parallels that apply to Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu is putting his country through another arduous election — the third this year — for one reason: He hopes a victory will also win him immunity from the serious crimes of bribery and fraud for which he is under indictment. The stakes could not be higher for him, with the prospect of either leading the country or facing a possible prison sentence. In refusing to step down, as other heads of government have done in such situations, he has placed his own needs above those of the citizens of Israel he is mandated to protect. In addition to this moral failure, the scenario of a prime minister “at war with the very law enforcement agencies that he oversees is intolerable and poses a grave danger to the rule of law and to public trust in our institutions,” observed Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
This troubling situation underscores the flaws of a country without a Constitution, and with an electoral system that could have Netanyahu running the country while on trial.
Here at home, we have come to learn that, however inspiring the words of our Constitution, they have no power of their own. They are dependent on being applied by those who represent us in Congress. But here, as in Israel, the party backing the embattled incumbent has shown more loyalty to him than to the oath they took to put principle above partisan politics.
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are very different in so many ways, most notably in intellect, diplomatic and political experience, and strategic thinking. But they are eerily similar in how they have responded to challenges to their leadership. They trust few if any around them; loyalty means little. Rather than seek to unify their citizens, they have focused on pleasing their right-wing bases of support, defining those to the left of them as dangerously suspect. Minorities in both societies have been made more vulnerable. So have key institutions of their democracies: the justice system, law enforcement agencies and the free and independent press, consistently labeled “fake news.”
In recent months, as Netanyahu has twice failed to form a coalition government after national elections, and Trump has faced impeachment, both men have framed the political efforts of the opposition as an attempted coup and called for investigating the investigators. There is real fear that if these two men prevail and remain in office, democracy in both societies will be in jeopardy.
How does all of this political upheaval impact on us as individuals, and especially as American Jews who value our liberties and take pride in the fact that human rights and the dignity of all men as God’s creatures are rooted in the Torah?
It is those beliefs and that pride that can strengthen us as we speak up for them and call out those who violate them. When our democratic institutions are challenged, decried and devalued, we must stand firm and cite the Torah’s many references to caring for the stranger and defenseless among us, and its clarion call: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue”).
My generation can recall an America that saw itself as the living embodiment of the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm of welcome, and an Israel whose defining generation of leaders had the courage to put national security above political self-preservation. But I worry about young people today. They were born after a time of political bipartisanship in Washington that took on racism and inequality, and after the clarity of Israel’s military victories against hostile neighbors who sought to destroy the Jewish state.
Do millennials and those younger have the inner resources — the connective tissue in their kishkes — to lean in to a belief in country and faith that exceeds today’s ugly politics?
Many of us feel frustrated and helpless because impending events in Washington and Jerusalem are out of our control. The impeachment process may be important historically, but its political outcome is fated to fail in the Senate. The Israeli national election in March is for its citizens, as it should be — not us, relegated to cheering (or jeering) from the sidelines.
But we do have the power to re-commit to the principles that give meaning to our lives, principles rooted in our history and heritage that transcend transactional politics and call on us to repair the world, each of us in our own way.