The travesty that befell the Jewish people with the destruction of the Second Temple and the ultimate loss of sovereignty in its historic homeland which followed is often held up as the paradigm of Jewish disunity and the dangers such division brings.
And the Fast of the Ninth of Av which commemorates this tragedy is a particularly appropriate opportunity for national self-reflection regarding the state of the nation, the challenges it faces and the ways to overcome them.
To this end, the Sderot Conference for Society and Sapir College staged an evening of debates and discussions on the eve of the fast, on Saturday night, to discuss the abiding challenge of Jewish disunity and the concept of “the center and the extremes” in Jewish society, past and present.
A host of public figures including academics, authors, journalists, politicians, and social activists participated in such discussion groups around the country, where readings of the Book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the eve of the fast, were also staged.
One of the participants was Shivi Frohman, a social activist, teacher, and son of the late champion of coexistence Rabbi Menachem Frohman, spoke at an event in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.
Talking to The Jerusalem Post
ahead of the event, Frohman argued that as a country and society which is maturing, a certain amount of radicalism and departure from the mainstream is to be expected.
Just like adolescents in the process of growing up can frequently act in wild, rebellious manner, so too elements within a maturing society can act in a similar way, said Frohman, explaining that the country needs to undertake two sets of actions to cope with this phenomenon.
“Firstly, we need to build up the central narrative of our identity around our common denominator, and that needs to include Jewish, democratic and pluralist values,” he told the Post.
“But we also need to build a dialogue with the extremes, and we need to find a way to allow space for the extremes as well.”
Frohman argued that denying space for elements and forces at the extremes of society would only exacerbate their extremism, and demanding that everyone should be “mainstream and politically correct” is itself a form of extremism and doomed to failure.
He said however that it was necessary to fight “an uncompromising war” against those elements of the extremes that seek to physically harm the state.
“For example, the Islamic Movement is is a legitimate organization in Israel and we need to allow Arab society to give expression to its Muslim faith and allow Muslims to organize in this way. But at the same time we need to wage relentless war against anyone seeking to harm Israeli state and society, including extremists in the Arab sector.
“But a perspective that all Arab representatives and organizations are illegitimate is very problematic.”
Frohman said that another example is the so-called “hilltop youth,” radical and intensely religious young men and women who seek to establish new settlement outposts in Judea and Samaria, some of whom have been accused of violence against Palestinians and other minorities.
“Hilltop youth have a deep faith and love for this land and its connection to the Jewish people. The language they use is outside of the mainstream, but if someone feels he can’t express his opinion it will be translated into inclination to kick out, burn down and, destroy.
“We need to think about how we can give an attentive ear and a place to their positions,” continued Frohman, while again emphasizing the importance of preventing harmful actions such people have taken in the past.
MK Yossi Yonah of Zionist Union, who also spoke in Jerusalem at an event in Baka, emphasized a message of a need for different societal groups to take responsibility for Israel as a whole, and to therefore compromise on their desires and goals.
The MK said in particular that the Israeli left has accepted to a large extent the need to include settlement blocks inside the borders of any future two state solution, but warned that those seeking territorial maximalism would be biting off more than the country can chew.
“We’re letting the extreme right wing lead us into the abyss. Out of concern for the future, I am afraid that due to this perspective we will be in danger of either having a bi-national state or on the other hand having an apartheid state, neither of which anyone wants,” said Yonah.
The MK, who outside of political life has taught as a professor of political philosophy and philosophy of education at Ben Gurion University, said that it was the responsibility of the political center and center left to emphasize to the general public what he said were the dangers of such outcomes.
“We might compromise a sovereign Jewish state if we continue on like this. I’m not saying the Palestinians aren’t also responsible for the current stalemate, but we need to take responsibility too.”
Yonah also highlighted the large divides in socio-economic circumstances that have beset the country as another serious challenge facing the state, as well as what he described as “the growing influence of capitalist and neoliberal ideologies” which he said were responsible for a growing lack of tolerance for the notion of societal responsibility.
“We have solidarity against external threats, such as terrorism, but regarding the economic plight of other citizens there is growing indifference and a lack of concern, and this lack of social solidarity worries me a lot.”
Similar to the advice of Frohman, Yonah said that “creating a more homogeneous society glued together by common values and heritage and future goals” was the only way to create a greater sense of such social solidarity.
While both Frohman and Yonah noted some of the more problematic concerns facing Israeli society as the Fast of Av comes round once again, author, lecturer and novelist Yochi Brandes, focused on what she described as a positive development in the country in recent years.
Speaking to the Post,
Brandes, who spoke at an event in Ariel, highlighted what she believes to be the decreasing rigidity in which the majority of the country view their Judaism and their observance of the religion.