A host of public figures including academics, authors, journalists, politicians and social activists held meetings across the country 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.
The Sderot Conference for Society and Sapir Academic College staged the evening of debates and discussions on the eve of the Tisha Be’av fast. Readings of the Book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the eve of the fast, were also staged.
One of the participants was Shivi Froman, a social activist, teacher, and son of the late champion of coexistence Rabbi Menachem Froman, who spoke at an event in the capital’s French Hill neighborhood.
Talking to The Jerusalem Post ahead of the event, Froman argued that in a country and society which is maturing, a certain amount of radicalism and departure from the mainstream is to be expected.
Just as adolescents in the process of growing up can frequently act in wild, rebellious manner, elements within a maturing society can act in a similar way, said Froman, 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.”
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Froman 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 that seek to physically harm the state.
“For example, the Islamic Movement 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.”
Froman said that another example is the so-called “hilltop youth,” radical and intensely religious young Jews 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,” Froman said.
“We need to think about how we can give an attentive ear and a place to their positions,” he continued, while again emphasizing the importance of preventing harmful actions MK Yossi Yonah of the Zionist Union, who also spoke in Jerusalem, at an event in Baka, emphasized the need for different societal groups to take responsibility for Israel as a whole, and to therefore compromise on their desires and goals.
The lawmaker said in particular that the Israeli Left has accepted to a large extent the need to include settlement blocs inside Israel’s borders in any future two-state solution, and warned that those seeking territorial maximalism would be biting off more than the country can chew.
“We’re letting the extreme rightwing 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 binational state or on the other hand having an apartheid state, neither of which anyone wants,” said Yonah.
The MK said that it was the responsibility of the Center and Center Left to emphasize to the public 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 socioeconomic gaps as another serious challenge facing the nation, as well 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.”
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.
Author, lecturer and novelist Yochi Brandes spoke at an event in Ariel. Speaking to the Post, she highlighted what she believes to be the decreasing rigidity with which the majority of Jewish Israelis view their Judaism and their observance of the religion.
She noted that in the past, there was a very definitive group of secular Israelis who were uninterested in religion whatsoever, but said that in the last 20 years this had begun to change.
“Young people don’t necessarily like to learn about Judaism, but they do want to observe some of the religious practices, they are okay with integrating different aspects of religion into their lives, they take a bit from their grandmother, a bit from experiences they had in India perhaps,” said Brandes.
She described this phenomenon as “the victory of Mizrahiut,” the attitude toward religion which many Middle Eastern Jews in Israel have adopted, where religious life is observed but in a more relaxed manner than strictly observant Jews have done.
“This kind of Judaism without the requirement for group affiliation has taken hold, and I think the majority of Israeli society is more accepting and saying ‘I’m a free Jew, I do perform commandments but no one will tell me how to do so.’” Brandes acknowledged that this sentiment has not yet entered the political realm, but said that divisiveness in Israel was frequently brought about by politics itself, as well as by the media.
“But large parts of Israeli society are not there anymore. People are more relaxed, especially youth, people don’t want to fight and have an attitude that we are all Jews, we are all Israelis, and are happy for others to do as they like if they are allowed to do the same,” she opined.
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