Polarization has caught up with the Jewish world. Whether separately in the American-Jewish Diaspora and in Israel, or jointly between the two, politics have been polarized beyond the level of normal discourse. It now incorporates anger, reciprocal blaming and demonization, a dangerous rhetoric that weaponizes antisemitism, weakens important bonds and debilitates the political system. Political differences are framed as issues of ethics vs immorality, good vs evil, heroic vs traitorous, even war vs peace, rather than complex issues that need bipartisanship to be resolved.
Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, said recently in Los Angeles that the “communities are holding different narratives.”
The communities have moved into new and different narratives, creating political polarization, which in turn creates unnecessary and harmful turmoil. Instead of dialogue, verbal attacks become commonplace, each side believing the other is wrong and extreme. Already strained relationships are further magnified among the different American-Jewish entities and between the Diaspora and Israel.
No one has a monopoly on the truth. We all have a need for humility to promote a civil culture.
Each side uses reports from ideologically sympathetic media and polls to reinforce their one-sided points of view. The media sensationalizes, exaggerates and presents doom, polarizing passions on all sides.
Both in the US and in Israel, one side despairs over their government’s executive, legislative and political directives; the other side believes such directives can finally reestablish control, saving their country and its population from real danger. Both sides feel resentful to see its political victories fiercely opposed.
How upset are we about the polarization and what is its cost? What is the overall damage to Jews when we are all polarized against each other?
This is when antisemites take advantage of our polarizing rhetoric.
Unique to the Jewish world (Israel and the American Diaspora), are polarization issues that no other nations share. They include:
The Jewish democratic state – a unique and complex issue where there are still reactions to its creation and on-going attempts against its existence, including the Iranian threat; laws relating to the nationstate and its Jewish and democratic nature; the settlements and annexation of territories; one-state vs two-state solutions for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
The secular versus religious framework – major animosity regarding the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) military conscription, coupled with the movement to create a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall; equality for Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel for conversion and religious marriage.
Equality in the face of danger – between border towns under direct missile threat vs the lesser threat to central population centers; equality of the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians.
In these times of immense opportunity for chaos, Israel needs unification and needs to be in sync with the Diaspora. We must decide if we are at war, in constant danger or just acting as an oppressive bully; decide if our critical discourse is compassionate or harsh because of deep shame over our actions; and whether we are demanding from ourselves more than we demand from others. Responding from existential trauma or from the need to belong and accepted, we need to find a middle ground for the truth and decide which comes first – Jewish or democratic?
The descriptions below can show us to which polarized side we belong.
One side believes: The “others” are racist, morally obtuse and dangerous; they sabotage democracy and its most scared institutions, and compromise freedom and equality. They are callous toward people from other religions. The very religious among them are bigoted, homophobes, zealots, intolerant and misogynists, imposing a theocratic order unto others and discarding humanistic values. Their military interventions are oppressive and take away the dignity of the occupied.
The other side believes: The “others” are dangerously naïve, unrealistic, self-righteous, believing they are the only one to hold the moral ground. Some are self-hating post-Zionists, who question the purity of the State’s birth; atheists who desecrate the meaning of the Jewish nation; secular assimilationists who negate Judaism’s historical rights to the Land and only espouse a national secular identity. They worry about the enemy’s and the migrants’ safety over the Israeli citizens’ security.
Fully polarized people see only the negative; they generalize from the extreme voices of the “other” to the whole group and concentrate on what’s wrong, rejecting any of the other side’s positive qualities, worthwhile point of views or actions. Healthy debates and political discussions are replaced by confrontations and name-calling. When someone disagrees with them, they simply stigmatize them and exclude them from the community. The more polarized and exclusive they become, the more they cause antagonism and sabotage their own safety.
Both sides are unaware of being biased. Ideological media contributes to each side, forming its own isolated (and distorted) truth. They both refuse to see there is a possible more centered position to polemical issues.
There is a whole technology to assist us to get back to our center and regain our moderation and civility. It can help us search for the common ground and develop stamina to handle the tension from the differences. It can help us reach the unity needed to combine the essential items of both sides, devoid of their polarization, to resolve the issues. Both are required for a healthy Jewish world, united in our fight against antisemitism.
The writer is founder/president of the International Trauma-Healing Institutes in the US and Israel, a specialist in individual and collective trauma and an author focusing her analytical work on the collective trauma behind politics.
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