Regress standing against progress. That is the gut-conclusion we reach when shown the images of black-clad haredim standing as a monolithic angry mob out to protest at the shiny Jerusalem offices of the mega-successful microchip maker Intel.
At issue is Intel's Jerusalem factory and its continuing work hours on Shabbat, a day biblically set aside for rest.
Intel represents progress for the world. Running with the slogan "Intel Inside" or the newer and bolder ad campaign "Intel - sponsors of tomorrow," this cutting-edge international company powers global computing as 80 percent of the world computers run on Intel chips.
Intel also means progress for Israel: It creates much needed, well-paying jobs for people and helps boost the whole country's economy. In 2008 Intel directly employed 6,500 Israelis, with a few thousand more working as subcontractors. Last year, Intel was Israel's leading exporter - sending out products worth more than $1.3 billion. This year that figure will double.
And if that's not good enough, Intel took it one step further and has built research and development offices and a chip factory in Jerusalem, providing the capital with much needed economic and political support.
All this leads to one simple conclusion: Intel is good for Israel. So why are haredim so against it? Why are they attacking a great Jerusalem institution, pressing it to consider leaving the capital in favor of calmer pastures?
TO UNDERSTAND the side of the haredim, we need to step back and analyze this dispassionately. What did the protesters demand? Did they call to get Intel out of Jerusalem? Did they hold signs railing against globalization? Did they call for a boycott or rail against the general ethos of the communications revolution? No. It was one simple message: Do it, push the envelope six days a week, but please, just not on Shabbat.
If the haredim did not look the way they do, this could have been perceived as a liberal protest: workers demanding more free time from their employers, or citizens calling on a company to give the environment a break for one day. However, because Shabbat is religiously mandated, it never seems to fit liberal criteria, though the message may be liberal indeed. The overt religious look of the protesters, coupled with the branding that we have been taught to associate with them, automatically locks out any debate as to whether the haredi position may fit perfectly with progressive sensibilities.
IN A new book entitled The Tyranny of Email: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, author John Freeman describes the modern information-saturated lifestyle and the implications of our linked-in lives. Freeman reports that new surveys, like AOL's 2008 E-mail Addiction Poll, show an e-mail-crazed world. Sixty percent of respondents report checking their e-mail on the toilet, 62% respond to e-mail on vacation and 67% answered that they check their e-mail in bed in their pajamas.
What about cellphone usage? We live with the obnoxious ring, the "I'm in a meeting right now" short answer, the constant focus-shattering distraction. In December 2008, the US's 270 million cellphone users wrote more than 110 billion text messages, an average of 407 per user per month - double the number in the same month of 2007.
What about television consumption? According to Nielsen ratings for the fourth quarter of 2008, the average American older than two watched television for 151 hours per month - that's more than five hours a day!
We are living in an age of addiction, where the devices that were supposed to set us free are actually enslaving us. The more free from wires they become, the more tethered to them we are. This is not to say that the Internet-empowered multimedia cellphone isn't great - it is - it's just that we have a hard time turning it off.
The modern world needs a powerful counterweight to correct the disharmony that has arrived along with the technological revolution. Visualize our fast-paced society humming along with cars honking, cellphones ringing, wireless routers blinking, inboxes flooding, news media ticking along and all the rest. Now imagine that we do that for six days a week, but on the seventh day we voluntarily rest. We turn off our cellphones and unclip them from our belts, we unplug the TV (so that even that standby light goes out), we power down the computer so that it, too, can rest.
Imagine if we, as a society, took this seventh day concept even a step further - all of us decide voluntarily that we walk instead of drive for a day so that our collective lungs can take a break from the fumes. Oooo, smell that fresh air! Smokers, too, could use Shabbat as an excuse to give their lungs a break for a day, maybe even as a first step toward quitting. If branded right, Shabbat could be seen as a day of environmental consciousness.
Jerusalem is the natural choice for the world's first citywide Shabbat experiment. Visualize walking in the streets toward the Old City, no honking, no smog, no tension, a true serenity over the city of Shalom, peace. People the world over would flock to Jerusalem to take part in this cultural phenomenon, turning off their cellphones gladly.
But while in Jerusalem Shabbat would be natural, in Tel Aviv Shabbat would be a revolution! Tel Aviv needs a break from its breakneck pace and would relish a day of back-to-basics. Tel Avivians need some form of Shabbat more desperately then do Jerusalemites, an excuse for the exhaust-exhausted to sit in the park, to read a book, to commune with the spirit.
In the end Intel and the haredim will reach a compromise. Intel's Jerusalem factory has technical reasons why it cannot stop the production line for even one day, but Intel is savvy enough to come up with technical solutions to that problem. Similarly, the haredi rabbis, though stringent, know that Jewish law has built-in flexibilities which allow for creative Shabbat solutions like the ones utilized on farms where cows need to be milked on Shabbat.
And just as Intel and the haredim should find a middle ground, so our society needs to find a healthy balance between modernity and sanity. Never before have we been so inundated with information, so enticed by entertainment, and so constantly on the go. We need Shabbat today more urgently then ever before.
To be sure, the haredi protests at Intel's Jerusalem plant have not conjured up the attractive images of a beautiful world taking a day off from the grind. However, we need not fall into the trap of externalities by throwing away an important idea just because it comes dressed in alien garb. Maybe it is we, the Internet-crazed, the Bluetooth-enabled, the ceaseless searchers for Wi-Fi, who need Shabbat, more than the Talmud-crazed, the sidelocks enabled, the ceaseless searchers for God.
The writer is the the founder of Kumah (www.kumah.org), the neo-Zionist lobby.