The Fast of the Ninth of Av, the date commemorating the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem and other catastrophes of Jewish history, has increasingly become a date for national self-reflection with numerous events around the country promoting dialogue between different parts of the population.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Michael Melchior, head of the Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation and a former government minister, urged the country to make greater efforts to overcome narrow, sectoral self-interest in order to deal with the problems facing the Jewish state.
One passage of the Talmud, Melchior notes, attributes the destruction of the temple to the fact that “they loved money and hated one another.”
The rabbi interprets this observation as referring to the different groupings of the Jewish people at the time, and money as a catchall for the different interests and particular demands of each separate group.
Today in Israel, Melchior said the different sectors are too focused on cultivating their particular interests and agenda at the expense of the bigger picture and the national interest.
“We are not looking at what is good for the entire Jewish people and the purpose for us being here in the State of Israel,” he said.
“There’s a reason why we have a Jewish state, it’s for survival, but more than that, it’s to keep the way of God by doing what is right and just,” he continued, citing growing gaps between rich and poor and uneven access to quality education as some of the more acute concerns for the country.
“You can’t look at the big picture if you’re hating each other. You can win small victories, make some financial gains, but we’re losing the holiness of why we’re here while we do so.”
Tisha Be’Av is an excellent time to start contemplating how to fix this and other problems, the rabbi said, mentioning the This Night We do not Study Torah initiative, now in its 18th year, in which different population groups engage in dialogue on the night of the fast in cities around the country.
Asked why he thought the country had become so divided, Melchior said that being part of a group is a safety zone where things are easy among like-minded people.
“Going out of our safety zone takes courage and leadership and there’s not so much of that around,” he said. “It’s more comfortable staying in these zones,” observing that the Israelites were similarly reluctant to leave Egypt because it was what they knew despite their enslavement.
In particular, Melchior said a greater effort on behalf of communal and public leaders, as well as populations more broadly, is needed to understand the motivation of other sectors of society in their goals and agendas.
Only by understanding the motivations of others can we begin to build coalitions to deal with the problems the country faces, he said.
“We don’t have to agree, everyone can have strong opinions, but we have to understand where the other comes from. This makes building a society together easier. If you can’t understand that others are very different from you, then you can’t live in this world and there is no future.
“In an orchestra everyone has different instruments and everyone contributes to create beautiful music in a harmony, but you can’t do that by breaking down the other instruments.”
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the ethics division of the Tzohar Rabbinical Association, identified two areas of Israeli life contributing to societal discord: the harsh tone of public debate and, in similar fashion to Melchior, a lack of trust between the different sectors of the population.
“The tone of the public debate is very violent, it’s divisive, it’s offensive, and it’s negative,” he said.
“We need to do away with this, speak more softly instead of using extreme language to grab people’s attention through hatred.”
The mutual suspicion of different sectors of society, he said, can be overcome by finding more opportunities to cooperate in different arenas.
Creating an alliance over issues such as environmental protection, which are less overtly political, could help break down stigmas and build greater trust if different sectors of society cooperated over it, Cherlow said.
The lack of familiarity of different social groupings has led to the creation of negative stereotypes that reinforce the divides.
“Building coalitions over any issue helps break down borders, and all cooperation in any field will help break down boundaries,” said Cherlow.
“Tisha Be’Av reminds us of the price of treating each other so poorly and this history should make us all turn the volume down, speak in a softer tone to each other and search as hard as possible for opportunities to cooperate and build coalitions.”