Last weekend, perhaps without knowing it, a group of Israelis took part in an ancient biblical custom. They marched as one to the seats of power of Tel Aviv: The stock exchange, the banks and Independence Hall.
To most participants in this social justice protest, the evening had no particular sacred significance. But I could not help but feel like we were walking in more ancient footsteps. As we marched with our banners past late-night revelers and bewildered bus drivers, it seemed like the prophets of old had been brought back to life.
Admittedly, these palpable biblical overtones might have been stirred by the protester a few feet to my right. While many marchers brought whistles, drums and casseroles to bang on as they walked, he had opted for a more traditional noisemaker and intermittently blew a gigantic shofar as he marched.
But these musings are also connected to the period of time we find ourselves in, the nine days before the ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty over Israel.
Unlike subsequent calamities that have befallen the Jewish people, the biblical destructions of Israel are not portrayed as the anti-Semitic actions of other nations. In the traditional sources, the finger of blame is pointed squarely at the ancient Jewish people as the author of their own terrible fate.
According to ancient commentaries, the Jerusalem and Temple that was destroyed by Roman forces was “merely a structure of stone and wood.” It had already been emptied of national significance by a state that, through corruption and exploitation, made a mockery of the values of justice and mercy it was meant to symbolize.
The ancient prophets of the period before the fall of Jerusalem did not call for larger walls to be built or armies to be summoned to fight off the barbarian hordes. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, in the face of existential threat, were less interested in military strategy and more concerned about how the Israelites were treating their own society. Judge your people equitably, fight for the rights of the orphan and the stranger, this was their counsel in the face of crisis.
‘Zion will be saved through justice’
Modern-day Israel could use some of this prophetic advice. With existential threats from a pre-nuclear Iran and uncertainty in a post-Arab spring Middle East, we are being told again and again that Israel faces unprecedented security threats. The response of its politicians has been increased military spending, increased isolation, a country on war footing.
This is not enough. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the country engage in some serious soul-searching. The biblical problems have not changed. Poor communities in Israel continue to be marginalized and neglected. Residents of South Tel Aviv, a stones-throw from the affluent neighborhood of Neve Tzedek, are deprived of essential social services. African refugees, in an act of supreme historic irony, are being threatened with imprisonment and deportation to Darfur and Eritrea.
Israel, despite all of its existential and security problems, should find time to listen to its modern-day prophets. If it doesn't, all that will be left for the politicians to defend may be “sticks and stones,” the shell of a Jewish state.
As the focus of Israeli policymakers increasingly falls on security barriers, anti-missile systems and political pressure on Iran (all valid needs), they should remember these ancient lessons. In this time of peril, Israel cannot survive on security alone. In the words of Isaiah, now echoing off the high-rises and boutique condominiums of Tel Aviv, “Zion will be saved through justice,” or it will not be saved at all.
Menachem Freedman is the 2012-2013 Montreal Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and the chairman of the board of the Ghetto Shul in downtown Montreal