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Who Can Retell? The Problem of the ‘Other’ in Israel

Whether it is the religious other, stranger, immigrant, differently colored or sexually oriented from whatever “norm,” these struggles ultimately define its morality
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmiis the Inaugural Senior Rabbi of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation in Baltimore, MD. She is a well-known rabbi, speaker, author, teacher and institutional leader. Ordained at HUC-JIR in New York, Rabbi Sabath also earned a Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Deeply committed to pluralism, Rabbi Sabath has served congregations in the Reform movement, the Conservative movement and non-denominational synagogues including Shirat HaYam on Nantucket Island for over a decade. She also serves as a

At the core of the constant complexity of any society’s identity is its struggle with the “other.” Whether it is the religious other, the stranger, the immigrant, the differently colored or sexually oriented from whatever “norm,” these struggles ultimately define its morality.

If one should judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable, then the core moral message of the Bible – to care for and protect the most vulnerable especially – should make for a moral society. It recurs like a chorus of ethics throughout the Torah: Protect and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor person and the stranger. In the text (see Deuteronomy 26:12 for example) it is clear that whether we ourselves are in a period of feast or famine, we are to help feed and protect these vulnerable souls. In caring for them we ultimately are also defining ourselves, because how we treat them defines our collective morality.
Given the multiple kinds of “others” within Israel, how they are treated is a good gauge of the extent to which the ideals set out for us in Deuteronomy are being upheld. How might we now judge ourselves and our society today? This Hanukkah week, when we retell our own struggles as minorities denied basic rights, we ought to be especially mindful of the impact of such denial on the development of a people.
Given all the ways that we Jews have been strangers and oppressed and denied religious freedom in our long history, it is no wonder that our tradition stresses that we should maintain an undeniable moral sensitivity to the suffering of the other. As we light and sing and eat, we celebrate our survival of the darkest times, and celebrate our return to sovereignty. We should also be mindful of what we are meant to do with our remarkable survival and unprecedented success: ensure the rights and freedoms and survival of others who are vulnerable.
The creation and modern development of Judaism also struggled with these tensions, especially as Deuteronomy laid out the framework for an ideal society in the Land of Israel. Israel as a modern nation state, a sovereign society made up of Jews of differing cultural backgrounds and religious commitments from across the globe, has tested the still relatively young democratic State’s understanding of itself also – or primarily – as a Jewish State. Whether or not Israeli women or non-Orthodox Jews have equal access to public sites or to state funding is a complex matter, but we’ve gotten lots of attention from Jewish all over the world since last Hanukkah.
Yet our suffering from our “minority” status can hardly be called suffering in comparison to how the fully “other others” suffer.
I keep hearing my young children singing Hanukkah songs about light and darkness, about heroism and hope in times of darkness. We can’t help but question what we are really doing today with all our “light”, our gelt, our religious freedom and our unprecedented political, economic and military power. Are we using it to protect the vulnerable? Are we mindful of the needs of the strangers suffering in our midst? Are we sure we have done what we could to prevent and remedy the disastrous situations now taking place for Israeli Bedouin? For the asylum-seeking immigrant? For the orphan, the widow and the poor? Conflicting values and Zionist methodologies are particularly apparent in the current plans for the Bedouin of the Negev desert. While much needs to be done, current government plans and discussions seem to fail to recognize how other possibilities might preserve their historical connections to parts of the Negev, affirmed in early Zionist documents. But what lies at the core of the conflict is the dilemma of otherness of the Bedouin, and the failure of the larger society to live up to its moral mandate.
Despite the endless best efforts of many forms of democratic policies, social justice organizations, and aid programs, there remain several populations in particular whose otherness remains a constant and enormous challenge to Israel’s goals of being an enlightened democracy. How these challenges are addressed in the coming decade will ultimately define Israel’s moral character for the foreseeable future.
What we do now will determine whether and how this period of Israeli history will be worth celebrating.

Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

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