Last week the ruling coalition in Israel’s Knesset (parliament) took a unilateral vote that puts further strain on an already fragile situation. The following post is offered by the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations in response to these actions and in solidarity with those who seek democracy and the well-being of all in the region.

A unilateral vote by the ruling coalition in Israel’s Knesset (parliament) on Monday, 24 July, presents a challenging moment and distinctive opportunity for us as interfaith partners with the Jewish people. Here are a few details about what happened, what it means, and how we might respond.

What happened: Israel’s ruling coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu passed a law that eliminates the power of the Supreme Court of Israel to invalidate laws and governmental actions that are deemed “unreasonable.”

That standard is familiar in other legal systems that are legacies of British colonial rule and is used infrequently in Israel – at most, only a handful of times each year. Yet it is crucial in Israel’s democracy. In the absence of a constitution and a tripartite government akin to the US, this power of the court is one of the most significant checks on any government’s ability to rule by whim and dictate.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court in September will hear multiple petitions asking it to rule that this legislation itself is illegitimate. Stay tuned. Also, the Knesset goes into its late-summer recess on Monday, 31 July. Further legislative action on the coalition agenda will not take place until October. One hope voiced in Israel is that the break will allow for dialogue and negotiations in a cooler political climate.

What it means: This action is widely seen as a first step toward establishing the current coalition as the de facto administration of a virtual Netanyahu dictatorship. The US Jewish Reform Movement, in its response, “vehemently condemns” what it describes as “strongarm tactics [to] push through this divisive legislation which imperils Israel’s already-fragile democracy.” The conflict over the legislation underscores a deep rift within Israeli society about national identity, values, and priorities. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have been in Israel’s streets for 30 consecutive weeks in opposition to the coalition’s larger plan, of which “this is the first significant step.” The vote itself was unanimous only because the Knesset opposition beforehand walked out en masse in protest against the process.

The legislation is causing significant disruption in Israeli society, with repercussions for Palestinian Lutherans and the work of the Lutheran World Federation in the region, such as Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) in East Jerusalem. The hospital is a key provider of health services for the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank as a member of the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network.  AVH’s diabetes, dialysis, and pediatric oncology programs also benefit from close cooperation with nearby Hadassah Hospital.

That cooperation and AVH’s critical services could be severely harmed if there is a significant exodus of Israeli doctors from the country. Such a scenario is not impossible, as an organization has already been set up to assist Israeli doctors who choose to leave.

More broadly, the policies of the ruling coalition regarding Palestinians both within Israel and in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are already the harshest of any Israeli government to date. Those who have sponsored and supported the legislation have made it clear that they would seek further steps that include expanding the scope of the illegal West Bank settlements by Jewish Israelis, strengthening police powers against protesters and suspected terrorists, and narrowing civil rights for non-Jews. If this legislative victory stands, it means even more difficult days and nights for Palestinian communities in an already-dire circumstance.

What we can do: As in any crisis, a word of encouragement and solidarity with our Jewish neighbors in the U.S. who are concerned for the future of Israel’s democracy would be very timely. Supporting our Jewish neighbors as the political process works out in Israel is the most helpful thing we can do. The 1991 ELCA social statement, “The Church in Society,” includes a commitment to “work to further democratic processes throughout the territory of this church and the world, and to redress the persisting social and economic inequalities that prevent many from participating effectively in those processes.” Standing with and encouraging those who work to sustain and expand Israel’s democratic character is one way we can embody that commitment.

Israel is one of the “sancta” of the Jewish people, as noted in the recent ELCA study guide, Preaching and Teaching “With Love and Respect for the Jewish People.”  Jews around the world look to Israel as the national expression of their peoplehood. Public and private prayer on behalf of Israelis, the Jewish people around the world, and Palestinians who are affected by the crisis is certainly in order. See examples below from Pr. Peg Schultz-Akerson in Santa Monica, CA. Feel free to use them and adapt them as appropriate to local circumstances (as in the naming of other countries with which your own community may have particular ties).

Staying informed regarding the legislation and ongoing developments is also key to constructive engagement and interpretation.

Prayer Examples:
Merciful God, we pray for wise actions in response to these critical days in the Holy Lands. Especially we pray for the safeguarding of democracy for the State of Israel. Protect and empower all who courageously advocate for a sustainable future for all who share the Holy Lands, including the Palestinian people. Protect us from religious nationalisms that are divisive and intolerant. Strengthen all efforts for good. 
God of mercy, receive our prayer. 
Thank you, generous God, for the life-saving work of our Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. Bless its care for the underserved in the West Bank and Gaza. May the resources needed be multiplied to meet the growing needs, including the support given by the United States and others. Strengthen efforts toward positive change throughout the world, including in Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and in the United States.
God of mercy, receive our prayer.