Seeing the rallies in Israel and London regarding the Israeli government’s controversial judicial reforms, does protest or people power matter or ever work?
My grandfather is one of my personal heroes. He coined the word refusenik, and was at the forefront of the UK part of a worldwide movement campaigning to free Jews who had become political prisoners in the USSR simply for wanting to leave and go to Israel.
In the 1970s and 80s, the protests of students, synagogue groups, women’s guilds, and many others may not have been the only thing that achieved the freedom of the Refuseniks, but it was certainly a galvanising part of being active in the Jewish community then.
People power doesn’t always work – we only have to look at the protests of Korach in ‘The Book of Numbers’. Korach couldn’t understand why his cousin Moses had all the power when he was from the same family. He wanted a bite of the pie for himself. Here we see that if a cause is rooted in selfish motivation rather than the benefit of all, it won’t necessarily have the success its protagonists hope for, even if the leader brings people with them.
But if we look at Jewish history through a wider lens, we can see that people power is key! In Exodus (23:2) we are told we should rule after the majority, and the Talmud and Jewish customs have largely followed this maxim. Sometimes this has meant the custom of the majority has overruled the law. Debate and discussion have always been a part of the community. 2 Jews, 3 opinions! And any minority voices are recorded in our texts, not silenced, because we may need their wisdom in future years.
Major movements have galvanised Jewish communities during times of struggle and upheaval, sometimes successfully creating change, and sometimes failing. The power of coming together to create change cannot be underestimated, and for me is one of the greatest strengths of living in a community rather than just being out there for myself.
Ensuring Israel remains a place of democracy, free debate, and fair judiciary is core to continuing the values of the Talmud, where how we treat the loser in an argument is key to who we are, and the debate is as valuable as the ruling. It is hard to know how the power dynamics will play out in an Israeli democracy built on allowing a voice to many small parties, but ensuring that justice and freedom are protected is crucial to maintaining a Jewish state.
By Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, part of the Rabbinic team at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.