Will this be another Tisha B’Av event in Israel?

Historic Tisha B'Av painting depicting the Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. (By Francesco Hayez)

What is Tisha B’Av? It means the 9th of the Hebrew month, Av, which occurs sometime between July and August. This year it falls on July 27. Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting to remember and mourn tragic events in Jewish history. Both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on that day. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain also occurred on Tisha B’Av, as well as other tragic events; so it’s a day associated with sadness, grief and prayer.

Since the miraculous restoration of Israel in modern times, Tisha B’Av hasn’t played much of a role in the Jewish world. The cry at the end of the Passover Seder, “next year in Jerusalem,” was fulfilled for the many Jews who have migrated to the Promised Land in the past 75 years. Why remember the destruction of the temples and the expulsion from Spain when Jews are finally back in their homeland?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “what goes around, comes around.” I fear we could be at a “comes around” moment. I want to share a passage of Scripture from the prophet Zechariah – it’s about Tisha B’Av. Allow me to give some background. Zechariah prophesied during the building of the Second Temple. He lived around 520 BC. Jews had recently returned from the Babylonian exile and were living under Persian rule. There had been some disputes about rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. Zechariah prophesied that the temple would be rebuilt under Zerubbabel the governor, and Joshua the high priest.

In Zechariah chapter 7, as the rebuilding was taking place, some of the inhabitants of the land wanted to know if they should still mourn on Tisha B’Av, since the mourning was over the destruction of the First Temple, and the building of the Second Temple had commenced. They asked this question, “Shall I weep and abstain (fast), as I have done these many years?” “Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me saying, “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests: when you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these 70 years, was it actually for Me that you fasted?” The reference to fasting in the fifth month is Tisha B’Av.

But then the prophet continued – “Are not these the words which the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and prosperous along with its cities around it . . . Then the word of the Lord came to Zechariah saying, thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother, and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears from hearing. They made their hearts like flint . . . therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts . . . and I scattered them with a storm wind among all the nations. . .”

It appears from the text that judgment came upon the nation because justice, kindness and compassion were neglected and replaced with oppression against the lowly, the downtrodden and the stranger.

When Israel was formed as a modern nation, it began with these amazing words from her Declaration of Independence:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Like the Declaration of Independence of the US, Israel’s declaration was made before a real government even existed. After Israel’s War of Independence, a provisional government was formed to establish a permanent government. One of its charges was to form a constitution. For a variety of reasons, it was never done. Rather, a set of Basic Laws were set in place over time that constituted a type of constitution, including the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, that stipulate rights similar to those embodied in the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution.

Shortly after the enactment of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled it had the power of judicial review; in other words, to review laws passed by the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, to ensure they complied with the principles of the Basic Laws. This is exactly what the US Supreme Court did very early on in US constitutional history. Essentially, judicial review provides checks and balances in a governing system in order to prevent any one group from assuming almost dictatorial power by judging and ruling on actions that may transgress the very character of the country.

Herein lies the rub. Over the past thirty years the Court has struck down certain laws and decisions by the government, particularly those important to the religious community and right-wing nationalist groups. For years these communities have wanted to curb the Court’s power. With the ascension to power of a coalition government comprised solely of religious and right-wing nationalist parties, the current government saw its opening to strip the courts of the power to review its decisions, thus allowing it to pass almost anything it wanted.

Immediately after this current government’s formation this past winter, they announced they would seek to curb judicial review. This set off months of protests, threats, negotiations and strikes. The concern among many Israelis is that individual rights will be trampled upon by an extremist government, and that the character of the country will be forever changed.

The first step to do so occurred this week on July 24. The governing coalition passed legislation that stripped the Court’s power to strike down government decisions based on what is known as the reasonableness doctrine. The reasonableness doctrine was utilized by the Court to review government decisions, to determine if they were reasonable in light of larger society-wide principles. What, in part, drove the government to make this change was the appointment of the thrice criminally convicted Ariyeh Deri of the ultra-orthodox Shas party to be a minister in the current government. Current law prohibits anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude from serving in government for at least seven years. Deri was convicted of fraud and jailed for three years in the 1990’s. Thus, he was barred by law for serving in the government for seven years. After the seven-year period, he again entered the political arena and served in various governments. More recently, he was convicted again of fraudulent crimes, but in a plea bargain, the prosecution agreed to drop the charges of crimes of moral turpitude with the understanding that he would leave the political world. Once that agreement was reached, he again sought political office and was appointed by the current government to be a minister. Upon appeal, the Israeli Supreme court struck down the appointment just a few months ago, claiming that it was unreasonable in the extreme.

This decision enraged the governing coalition and led to the newly passed law. Members of the governing coalition have declared that this is just the beginning. Their goal is to restrict the jurisdiction of the Court. Unlike almost all other democratic countries, the courts in Israel are the only real check on government abuse. Without the courts, how will the grand statements of Israel’s Declaration of Independence be upheld?

“that the country will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Worse, remember the Lord’s words through the prophet Zechariah concerning Tisha B’Av long ago:

“dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother, and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

Because these things were ignored then, terrible calamities came upon the people. Tisha B’Av services remember and mourn the tragedies that fell upon the Jewish people that often coincided with this day. And here we are again, on the eve of Tisha B’Av. Will this be another Tisha B’Av event?

During Tisha B’Av services, the Book of Lamentations is chanted. The Book of Lamentations was written by the prophet Jeremiah, following the destruction of the First Temple. I will close with some of Jeremiah’s best-known words from Lamentations:

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.”
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Lord, let it be.