By Barbara Green
Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. On this holiday we celebrate the Israelites’ acceptance of both the law and the covenant it brings with it.
It is also a harvest festival, especially for secular Israelis. When I lived in Israel decades ago I spent Shavuot on a kibbutz. It was thrilling to see children carrying baby lambs, goats and calves into the dining hall to show off the living fruits of the new harvest.
I’ve always wondered why we read the book of Ruth in the synagogue on Shavuot. This is the story of Ruth, a young Moabite widow who chooses to leave her home and cleave to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, as they make their way to Bethlehem in the land of Canaan, Naomi’s home.
The story of Ruth and the revelation at Mount Sinai both involve acceptance: in the former, of a new religion and homeland; in the latter, of the mitzvot (laws) that govern Jewish life. Ruth’s famous declaration to Naomi, “Whither thou goest I shall go; whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge, thy people shall be my people,” is the heart of the book. Ruth is viewed as the first convert to Judaism. Her descendants include King David and King Solomon.
Ruth and Naomi arrive at their destination at the time of the barley harvest — a theme writ large in the book of Ruth. The younger woman is told to glean in the field of her kinsman, Boaz, a plot point that determines everything that happens from then on. Gleaning is prescribed in Leviticus 19:9-10. It is the act of collecting leftover crops from the fringes of a farmer’s field. These remnants are specifically designated for “the poor and the stranger among you.” This is read as a very early expression of compassion for those in need as well as the resident alien, the outsider living among us, the stranger.
Are these ideas relevant today? In Israel, where the rights of the stranger (read: Palestinians) are about to be trampled as the country prepares to annex much of the West Bank, do the words “caring for the stranger” mean anything anymore?
Israel has been de facto annexing land in the West Bank since 1967. Now the government is moving to expand the extent of that annexation. Annexation is illegal under international law. The outcry against annexation from EU countries, from pro-Israel/pro-peace groups in this country and from Israeli security officials grows louder by the day. Even a right-wing supporter of Israel, Daniel Pipes, who blithely asserts that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is over “and they lost,” nevertheless gives six compelling reasons for opposing the move in his New York Times op-ed, “Annexation Would Hurt Israel.”
Despite this, the Trump administration has announced full support for annexation in contravention to decades of U.S. policy, which favors a two-state solution. And our tax dollars support massive military aid to Israel. This is a very difficult time for American Jewish supporters of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
But we still have a voice and what we do now will help shape what happens in the near future. The alternative carries with it the strong likelihood that American Jews will distance themselves from Israel. They won’t support an anti-democratic apartheid Israel. Younger Jews have already demonstrated a lessening support for Israel. This trend will certainly accelerate as they are asked to check their liberal and progressive views at the door.
The time is short; the situation is critical. If we are to prevent Israel from becoming an apartheid country, we must use all of our resources to prevent annexation. We must write letters to the editor of our newspapers, talk to our friends and neighbors and contact our elected representatives to show that American Jews oppose unilateral annexation. Above all, we must support our colleagues in Israel who are pushing back as hard as possible. There’s no time to lose.
Barbara Green is a retired lawyer and non-profit executive active in several pro-Israel/pro-peace organizations in Washington.