The New Community
By Bambi Sheleg | 22/07/2010
Today, during the hard times we are experiencing—not knowing when or how they will end—there are certainly things we can do. From beneath the wreckage of entire sectoral dreams, another dream is merging of a new community made up of people who come from all of Israel's worlds. A community that sees its responsibility for the future of the entire nation as far greater than its responsibility for the fate of its own sector. A community which knows that reality is made up of pieces of dreams and not whole, absolute ones
Illustration: Vered Zaykovsky
The remark “there's no such thing as totally devoted moderates” has stayed with me my entire adult life. Since my youth, I've found myself in social circles that venerated “authenticity,” that is, political, social, and religious extremism. “Compromise” was, and remains, a dirty word—the sign of a basic personality flaw, of ideological and emotional weakness, of unwillingness to “see things through to the end.”
The pursuit of perfection has been part of man's makeup since time immemorial. It is as ancient as the quest for the “one and only” truth. But the search for truth is an elusive process: “I thought I could fathom it, but it is beyond me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23).
These past few years, we in Israel are learning, in the most painful manner, the price that we pay for attempts to apply perfect “truths.” In essence, we are confronting a process that proves to us, in a multitude of ways, that there is an unbridgeable gap between certain beliefs—however pure and just they may be— and reality. It seems to me that one of the reasons for the profound distress we are experiencing is the attempts by all camps to demonstrate to one another that “their belief” is the entire truth and hence also the right and proper one to be realized here and now.
For many of us in the early decades of the state, everything seemed clear. Socialist-Zionist ideology, which also spoke in the name of social solidarity, swathed us all in a broad embrace. But the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War erupted, sparking a bitter debate over the future of the territories conquered by Israel and the attitude toward the Palestinian population. So preoccupied were we with this debate, and so fierce it was (and is still), that we failed to turn our attentions to the other spheres of our lives.
While we were busy arguing, our streams turned into conduits of sewage; many of our local councils became rotten with corruption; education went private; parts of our natural resources were transferred into the hands of private individuals with the right connections; army service became a political question devoid of morality; and the rights of numerous wage earners were trampled. The social gap has reached a global peak, and many foreign workers are suffering in our midst. While we were busy arguing, aggressive capitalism has taken over parts of the Israeli economy, and severely eroded our social solidarity.
So great was the argument over the future of the Land of Israel that our society, which had been swaddled in a socialist-Zionist blanket, disintegrated into its original parts. As a consequence, something strange happened to Israel. From a nation that was the ultimate “other” of mankind, we became a society in which each group sees the remaining groups as its “other.” The Zionist fabric was torn, leaving a gaping hole at its center.
This vacuum, which we experience so powerfully, is most conspicuous in the excessive privileges enjoyed by various sectors of Israeli society at the expense of the rights of the majority. These privileges take many forms: They are reflected in the taxes imposed on lower- and middle-class employees in Israel—and the lack of parallel taxation on the capital market; in the fact that only some Israelis serve in the army, and even smaller numbers do reserve duty; in the inflated salary and assorted benefits enjoyed by some senior civil servants, as if the public coffers were their private inheritance. They are reflected in the scant media presence of those groups that do not belong to the particular social class that spawns most of Israel's journalists. They are reflected in the socially and ideologically one-dimensional composition of the Supreme Court, and the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over matters of personal status and conversions in Israel. And these are but a few examples.
It goes without saying that in the absence of moral leadership, all the above failings are somehow glossed over. And you ask yourself: How is it possible that all these flaws are plain to see, yet nothing is done to halt this rampant destruction? Is there no way to stop the reign of guilds with vested interests that are amassing power undisturbed?
Reality has its own way of informing us that a historical era is coming to an end. The events of the past year and a half are proclaiming for all to hear that the time of absolute truths is dead and gone. Instead, the time has come for far-reaching compromises.
Hard times in history bring benefits of their own: they allow us to look beneath the surface of reality, and explore the parts that are obscured in easier times. They separate with surprising ease between the wheat and the chaff, the essential and the trivial. One of the things that has become abundantly clear to Israelis in recent months is that the sectoral party is over. Cultural relativism will not work here—not now and not in the foreseeable future. If Israelis wish to survive, they must actively create a cultural-social-moral core without which a society made up of people from seventy different cultures who are engaged in a constant existential struggle cannot be consolidated.
A Lesson from History
The rabbinical sages, who foresaw the destruction of the Second Temple, bequeathed to future generations the notion that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, that is, blind indifference among the Jews themselves. The culture of dissension that the sages developed in the Second Temple area would later give rise to generations of scholars who glorified the Torah and imparted spiritual strength to the Jews throughout the long centuries of Exile. Yet this same organism erected massive walls between the Jews and the non-Jewish world, far beyond those demanded by the biblical Torah, with the aim of bolstering Jewish national existence in the Diaspora; at times, moreover, it raised barriers among the Jews themselves. In current academic jargon, this is called a “culture of exclusion.”
The Holocaust that was visited upon our nation in the 20th century led to the establishment of the State of Israel only three years after the close of World War II. Following waves of aliyah, while coping at the same time with numerous wars, it became clear that the Jews who went up to Zion were not a monolithic group. The differences are not just between Left and Right or between religious and non-religious. When I observe Israelis—this unique human collective—I ask myself: What did the Jews bring home with them from all their places of exile? My answer is that they Jews came home with the totality of human experience, for better or for worse.
While still caught between East and West, Israeli society is called upon, as I see it, to undertake the opposite of the process that rabbinic Judaism engaged in when it went into Exile. What is demanded of it is a process of inclusion. If that Destruction required the nation to erect walls in order to survive, now we are speaking of a contrary process. Paradoxically, out of a sweeping responsibility and commitment to the future of the nation, we must first take down the internal walls. We must pursue fundamental compromises—between Left and Right, between religious and non-religious, between the various currents of Judaism. We must make room for all who are here and those we expect will come. The purists, who offer us an entire, absolute way of life, do not leave room for too many people in our midst. According to their ideological approach, there will always be those who are left out. The purists sound more authentic to us than the compromisers, because the notions of the Second Temple Jews—with their appealing all-encompassing absoluteness—have been coursing through our veins for over 2,000 years.
Today, during the hard times we are experiencing—not knowing when or how they will end—there are certainly things we can do. From beneath the wreckage of entire sectoral dreams, another dream is emerging of a new community made up of people who come from all of Israel's worlds. A community that sees its responsibility for the future of the entire nation as far greater than its responsibility for the fate of its own sector. A community which knows that reality is made up of pieces of dreams and not whole, absolute ones. A community that has learned the power of values like humility and uncertitude. A community that is willing to make enough room in its heart for all Jews who have returned to Zion and for those who are doubtless yet to come. In my eyes, this encapsulates the meaning of the “ingathering of the exiles.”
The doubters will ask: And what of the Arabs? Well, I have faith in the process of inclusion accompanied by overall responsibility. If we succeed in creating a community committed to the future of the Jewish people; if we emerge unscathed from the battle to root out baseless hatred; if we are able to consider those Jews whose very essence challenges what each of us perceives as our core beliefs—we will certainly find peace with the Arabs as well.
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