Ancient tragedy and modern democracy

As noted, much is spoken about unity as an ideal that Israeli society must strive for. That is certainly true, but we make a mistake when we confuse unity for uniformity.

By DAVID STAV
July 25, 2019 22:02
3 minute read.
2019 election

Election tickets for the 39 parties who ran in the 2019 Israeli elections with the envelope voters must insert their ballot into, April 9, 2019. (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)

There is no disputing that an election cycle in all countries – and Israel is certainly no exception to that rule – brings out some of the worst traits in humanity. People who at other times can be the best of friends and neighbors suddenly find themselves in heated debates, and screaming matches on street corners are almost commonplace.

This is a sad reality and one that demands examination particularly during this time of year when Jewish tradition mandates us to seek out unity so we can avoid the tragedies of the past. The period of the Jewish calendar classically referred to as the “three weeks,” is a time of self-reflection, when tradition inspires us to ask what we can do to limit such conflict within our societies so that similar tragedies need not repeat themselves.

While divisions that result in destruction and death are obviously tragic, it is important to acknowledge that within Jewish tradition – and indeed within human interactions in general – the very existence of differing viewpoints is not a negative. It is the question of how we deal with them that transforms them into a positive.

The very fact that we live in a society that thrives on our ability to speak out and debate issues in public is nothing short of a miracle, one that we deserve to celebrate. In ancient times, it was commonplace that disputes of all types were resolved in the most violent of means. In modern Israel, as heated as election cycles and parliamentary debates might be, we can take pride in knowing that they are designed to be concluded with our legal right to vote and that the results of those elections will be respected. Or the results of the following elections, as the case might be.

It is also important to understand that the objective of our political process is not to impose one way of life over another. Even the bitterest Left-Right disputes in Israeli society are predicated upon the understanding that we all have a desire to live together. Specifically how and where the limits of that existence might be are up for debate, but at the end of the day, we as a Jewish people share a common desire for the others’ right to happiness and success.

As noted, much is spoken about unity as an ideal that Israeli society must strive for. That is certainly true, but we make a mistake when we confuse unity for uniformity.

The beauty of Jewish life throughout the ages is that we recognize that differing viewpoints have the right to exist without impinging upon our ability to thrive as one people with one heart.

The rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, commonly known as the Netziv, lived in early 19th century Europe and wrote that a main cause for the destruction of the Temples was that people tended to think that those who thought differently were ignoramuses. All too many of us tend to believe that if someone disagrees with us or lives differently then we might, then that is a legitimate reason for disunity. But the reality is that we can, and should, think differently and still be able to live as brothers and sisters.

Certainly, that is an ideal which is far easier to embrace in theory than in practice and contemporary society is a very real example of that challenge.

But if there is any lesson that we can take as we approach yet another election cycle – and one that has all the potential to be particularly contentious – it is that our people’s divisiveness must be recognized as a sign of our individuality, rather than our disunity. It is that character that has allowed us to thrive throughout history, and one which must be embraced as we continue to build a nation defined by all its people and communities.

The writer is a rabbi, and chair and founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.


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