unity diversity 88.298.
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What's the point in talking to them? They don't understand and never will."
This attitude did not cut it with two former South Africans - retired acting Judge Henry Shakenovsky of Ramat Hasharon and Maurice Ostroff of Herzliya - who some six months preceding the evacuation of Gaza formed a group of English speakers from opposite sides of the political spectrum to thrash out the most divisive issue on the national agenda.
Two weeks ago the group, newly named Unity in Diversity, met for the fourth time, at the Shiftei Yisrael synagogue in Ra'anana - their first session since the disengagement.
What had changed?
"A dramatic change in focus," says Shakenovsky, who acted as moderator at the previous meetings.
Early on in the year, with the disengagement imminent, the group of mainly former Southern Africans, Americans and immigrants from the UK joined fellow Israelis from both sides of the Green Line to exchange views on issues that were dividing the nation.
"We also aimed to explore whether there were shared values which, despite our differences, could unite us," said Shakenovsky.
By all accounts, they were tough meetings. Some who came to the first meeting said, "That's enough. I'm not wasting my time again."
Participants were at loggerheads over fundamental issues. Even the choice of words by a participant could cause a furor. Was the disengagement an "evacuation" or an "expulsion"?
"We wanted to move away from the ugly trend that had taken root in our society of demonizing each other," explained Ostroff. "Whatever our political views, we set out to prove that ideological opponents could engage each other in rational debate and in a civil manner."
While MKs were hardly setting an example, this group felt it was up to them to create a fresh dynamic of intellectual discourse.
"Our aim was never to try to change the views of the other side," said Shakenovsky. "We wanted to establish a forum for dialogue where people would be free to express their views to an audience that would listen."
What was most disquieting to him was what he termed "the dislike of the unlike."
At the first meeting, Johannesburg native Rabbi Bernard Paz from the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Jericho expressed his distress "at what the disengagement is doing to us as a people. There is such an ugly divisiveness, a stereotyping of settlers and too little dialogue."
It was this sentiment that had inspired Ostroff, Shakenovsky and his wife, Ruth, to call that first meeting.
For Paz, "The bottom line is the different way people see Eretz Yisrael. I cannot understand how fellow Jews can be so casual in forsaking Hebron, Shechem, Jerusalem or Gaza. For me it would be like an amputation." He expressed surprise that so many Israelis are "cold" to this concept.
Former American Phyllis Bloch of Kfar Saba took exception to Paz's implication that "I am any less a Zionist for not sharing the same passion for the territories."
An ESRA vice chairperson, Bloch said, "I always thought we're more a people of the soul than the soil."
Shakenovsky categorized the discourse during the run-up to the evacuation as a "Tower of Babel situation: Speaking different languages, we don't listen to each other."
In agreement was former Englishman Rabbi Daniel Beller of the Shiftei Yisrael Synagogue, who lamented "this lack of a shared lexicon. There is a humanitarian language in Judaism, but what has happened is that the Left has taken the humanitarian aspects, while the Right the more nationalist. The result is that we assume we are speaking a different language, when in fact it is more like different dialects. Sadly, these dialects have become almost unintelligible to each other."
And so the group continued to meet, sometimes in the Sharon region, other times at a settlement over the Green Line.
"As a sign of mutual respect, we felt it important to meet in each other's neighborhoods," said Ostroff. Socializing over a meal before each session, the participants in time began to warm to one another. They also began listening to each other.
At the post-disengagement meeting, it was evident that much had changed. As Rabbi Beller expressed, "So much energy had been expended prior and during the disengagement, there was nothing left in reserve for the tragic fallout," namely the current plight of evacuated settlers, many of whom are housed in caravans, tents and hotels as they muddle their way into an uncertain future.
"People today are not interested," lamented Ruti Greenglick of Ra'anana, who works as a therapist dealing with the evacuees' psychological problems.
"When I asked a reporter from Maariv why there was hardly any coverage of the conditions under which the evacuees are living, he said, "It's no longer a story. Who's interested?"'
What had changed at the meeting was not the nature of the dialogue but its scope. Shakenovsky said, "We are not interested in the blame game. If we're seriously interested in dialogue, then irrespective of whether one supported or opposed the unilateral evacuation of Gaza, we should at least try to empathize with the plight, not of 'these' but 'our' people."
Whereas previous meetings took the form of discussions on the impending unilateral withdrawal, the Shiftei Yisrael gathering focused on hearing reports on the conditions of the settlers and what could be done to alleviate their plight.
For a first-hand account of what life is like for an evacuated family, former South African Michael Goldschmidt and his wife, Rivka, spoke of their experiences. Residents of Gush Katif for 28 years, they are living in a trailer park at Yad Binyamin - a far cry from their 65 family-strong settlement of Ganei Tal. Their story resonated with the audience as Rivka passionately related how "We never in our wildest dreams thought we would ever have to leave. We feel hurt and betrayed. We moved to Gush Katif at the time of Rabin's Labor government in the 1970s for purely ideological reasons."
They had opted to exchange their 127-square meter apartment in Rehovot for a 40-square meter home in Gaza.
"We felt we were fulfilling the Zionist vision of settling the land," added husband Michael, who had built up a successful business cultivating and exporting flowers.
While admitting he was touched by the accounts of the lives of the settlers, Telfed (Southern African Jewish community in Israel) vice-chair Dave Bloom from Kochav Yair believed he was not hearing the full story.
"I heard a lot of anger - against the government, the media and the IDF - yet not a single word of shared responsibility. I find it hard to believe that it didn't occur to these people that their lifestyle was not without risk. After all, they had been living there for nearly 30 years in one of the most densely populated areas in the world."
Also irksome to Bloom was the argument that the settlers were encouraged by repeated governments to settle in these areas and therefore deserving of special attention.
"What of the thousands of people who were encouraged by successive Israeli governments to settle in development towns like Dimona, Kiryat Shmona and Sderot and today endure unparalleled economic hardships? How concerned are we for these struggling residents? When I hear that 300,000 children in Israel are living below the poverty line, should I be more concerned with the evacuees who at least will at some point be handsomely compensated?"
Despite the divergent viewpoints, most participants felt that whether they agreed or disagreed with the disengagement, the government owed the evacuees a responsibility. They were disturbed to learn of the "horrendous bureaucratic hurdles" placed in the path of relief and felt the media had shamefully ignored its aftermath.
"We need to ensure that this matter is not left on the back burner," said Shakenovsky. "This is not a political issue but a humanitarian one."
"It's about Jewish values," said Paz. "Jews should not let their fellow Jews down in times of need."
And yet at the back of everyone's mind was the West Bank. Whereas at previous meetings there were many who believed that the evacuation of Gaza would not take place - even alluding to divine intervention - no illusions remain as to the future.
"Who's next?" bellowed Rivka Goldschmidt to an audience that knew there would be many more such meetings.
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