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On the Israeli elections

This week saw the latest round of elections is Israel, as citizens here voted for who should be elected to the 23rd Knesset, as members of the Israeli Parliament. As many of you will know, this is the third such election in the past twelve months, as the previous two rounds have produced a deadlock, with no-one able to form a Government.


The Israeli system features a near-perfect form of nationwide proportional representation. Any party scoring above a minimum threshold of 3.25% receives a number of seats in proportion to the number of votes cast. The main parties include the Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister since 2009, Kahol veLavan, the blue and white party led by Benny Gantz and very much opposed to the current Government. In addition, standing in this election were the Joint List (of Arab and Communist parties), the Left List (three parties combined including the Labour Party), two separate Jewish religious parties (Shas and the United Torah Judaism party), Israel Beytenu, a secular right wing party popular with Russians, led by Avigdor Lieberman, and another right wing party called Yamina. All these parties crossed the threshold and will receive a proportion of the 120 seats that make up the Knesset. The votes are still being tallied, and it’s still unclear whether a Government can be formed. Maybe a fourth round of elections will be required, and the joke here is that the parties may keep slugging it out for years.


The way Israelis tend to vote is tribal. If you know where someone’s grandparents came from, you can hazard a good guess as to how they will vote: Sephardim (or Jews from Arab countries) vote for Likud, very religious ones vote for Shas. Russians vote for Israel Beytenu. Arabs vote for one of the Arab parties. And the Left List tend to attract Ashkenazim (with ancestry from Europe). Of course this is a general statement and there is still individuality in the ballot box, but it seems that each of the major populations or tribes of Israel have their representatives. Loyalties to ethnic groups, religious factions and ideologies can be as important a factor in voting as views on particular issues e.g. left or right. The Israeli President, Ruby Rivlin, expressed this succinctly but differently in a major speech in 2015. He defined four Israeli tribes living alongside each other: a dwindling majority of secular Zionist Jews, and three minority groups: the ultra-Orthodox, the national-religious and Arab citizens. Each tribe has different cities as their strongholds, each tribe has their own newspapers and media, even television channels. And each tribe has its own ideas and education systems to envision the kind of Israel that fits their ideals and values. And the role of leadership - good leadership, at least - is to recognise these differences and to somehow, somehow, find a way to unite the disparate, sometimes hostile, groups and bring the whole of Israeli society together.


This is no easy task. But it is not dissimilar to the biblical story, a part of which Ellianna has read this morning. Moses’ struggles to lead the Israelites through the wilderness, from Egypt to the Promised Land, are well-known. As a politician he had one major advantage - God was on his side - and on several occasions this divine guidance and support dealt with the rebellions and disruptions that could easily have destroyed his forty-year career. Moses’ brother was appointed Cohen Gadol - Aaron was the High Priest - and so the religious leadership as well as the political leadership remained in his family.


But Ellianna’s Torah portion tells us of the importance of Aaron’s clothing, the ritual garments that were sewn together from the different offerings that were invited from the whole of the Israelite people. Everyone was encouraged to contribute. And the centrepiece of his breastplate shone with twelve different jewels. Each was a different gemstone and represented a different tribe - one colour for each of the twelve tribes. And this was a visual statement of both the diversity and the unity of the Jewish people. All the colours acknowledge how different we are from each other, but yet together we are one Jewish people. In the same way that a country such as Singapore, or the modern State of Israel, emphasises both its diversity but also the necessity of its harmony.


Ellianna - you enter your Jewish adulthood with a plethora of choices ahead of you. It’s for you to choose the colour of your gemstone, the tenor of your Jewish life. You know that as a Reform Jew our communities embrace all colours of the rainbow, and that a Tallit need not be with black stripes or blue, but can express your individuality and personality. Kippot - yarmulkes - also come in a range of colours too - and as a girl you have a choice in our synagogue of wearing one as well.


In the past three years your family have made a huge impact in our community. I remember meeting you for the first time with your mother in the UHC office, when your family were considering a bar mitzvah for Elijah very soon after moving to Singapore. It was great that he made the choice to do his bar mitzvah, and that you follow in his footsteps. Wherever in the world the future takes your family, I am sure that you both will encourage Emy to do so as well, backed of course by both your parents. They are wonderful models for the three of you, and have participated and volunteered in many different capacities. Your family will be missed when you leave Singapore but I am sure our paths will cross again before too long, as they did in Haifa this past Chanukah.


Wherever you end up in the future, there will very likely be a Jewish community close by that needs your colour and your participation. We do not always agree on everything, and sometimes the arguments can be noisy, but that’s part of the fun of being in a tribe and having an extended family. But know too that as Jews we bear responsibility for looking after one another, as it is said: “kol Yisrael arevim zeh Lazeh” - how you behave has an effect on the rest of us. So continue a path of excellence in your Jewish studies. They begin rather than end with bat mitzvah. A long life of learning awaits you, take it in your stride with your habitual smile and perseverance. Today you have achieved a lot by becoming a bat mitzvah - take your place as a member and a leader in the Jewish community, in its riot of colour and glory.

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