In a divided Israel, Jewish unity is more important than ever

We need again to feel that we are all involved in building the State of Israel. Then, perhaps, the tribes, instead of fighting, will remember that we are part of the same people.

 A CRY for unity at a March 11 protest.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A CRY for unity at a March 11 protest.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

At a lecture in New York many years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told a story. As chief rabbi of Great Britain, he was invited to an official government ceremony when Tony Blair was prime minister. After the ceremony, Blair approached him and asked if he would be willing to study Bible with him. Sacks was delighted at the invitation and agreed.

They met weekly for months. One time, they were nearing the end of the Book of Exodus. Blair said, “Here comes the boring part, about the Tabernacle.” Sacks said, “What do you mean?” To which Blair answered, “Well, it does go on.”

Sacks then responded, “Let me put it this way. The Torah in Genesis tells the story of the creation of the universe in 31 verses, whereas the story of the building of the Tabernacle covers over four Torah portions (440 verses). It appears that for the infinite God to create a finite universe was relatively easy, but for finite man to build a sanctuary for the infinite God is very difficult.”

After that meeting, Sacks was bothered by this question. He then came to a different conclusion. The Jewish people left Egypt as 12 tribes. These tribes had developed under slavery for generations. Now, with their newly acquired freedom they needed to learn to get along as a people and not just as separate tribes. How can this be accomplished? So God gave them a project in which they would have to work together to build a sanctuary in the desert.

What do Diaspora Jews not have to deal with?

As a people, we have lived in exile for 2,000 years. The newly founded State of Israel, in 1948, offered a new alternative to the Diaspora – not just to be citizens but to run your own country. Running a country entails, of course, responsibility, which the Diaspora Jew does not have to deal with.

 OPPOSITION CONCESSION: Former MK Haim Ramon in the Knesset, 2012.  (credit: YOAV ARI DUDKEVITCH/FLASH90) OPPOSITION CONCESSION: Former MK Haim Ramon in the Knesset, 2012. (credit: YOAV ARI DUDKEVITCH/FLASH90)

Another issue which the Diaspora does not have to deal with is Jewish unity. If I don’t like someone, I can just move to another location. The secular Jew need never meet the religious Jew, the haredim can live in their insular neighborhoods and never see a Modern Orthodox or a secular Jew, and so on. In Israel, however, we all live in the same boat, even if we occupy different cabins and decks.

My father used to say that in life there are things that are urgent and things that are important. If I am hungry or thirsty, I urgently need to eat and drink. If I am homeless, I need a shelter where to live; and if I don’t have income, I need some type of work to support myself. These are all urgent. However, the important things are the long-term goals which do not change even when my needs are met, such as learning to be a moral person and educating myself how to live my life. In Judaism, this includes not only the aforementioned elements but also my relationship to God, to my spiritual and intellectual development, to the Jewish people and also to tikkun olam (making a better world) – a tall order.

On the collective plane, the political arena is one of urgency. Issues such as national security, treating poverty, solving the rising cost of living and housing, supporting the ongoing institutions needed for society – these are all urgent. In contradistinction to this, the important issues are not political; they are values and ideals that shape human beings.

In Judaism, these important goals include the unity of the Jewish people. The Halacha derives it from the verse: “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the lord” (see Maimonides, Book of Mitzvot, positive command 206). Not surprisingly, this is the same verse from which the Talmud learns that one should not marry a woman without meeting her beforehand because it says you shall love your neighbor as yourself, and your primary neighbor is your spouse (Kiddushin 41a).

Since we all live in the same boat, we have to learn to get along. No one has the option of drilling in their cabin, claiming they are not trying to sink the rest of the boat. So people say to me (on both sides of the political fence): “But there are people who don’t care about Jewish unity.” My answer is: “So what? You do.” Besides, many more than you think, do. This is not weakness; it is a truism about our existence in this country. When urgencies of politics and important values clash, we have a problem because politicians argue issues like basketball players competing in the national championships. It is all about winning, and the end justifies the means. This does not always work.

Healing the judicial reform divisions in Israel

THE CONTROVERSY over judicial reform is a real controversy that has been argued for the past two decades. The government has been working on it at least since 2015, and many in the opposition sympathize with the need.

Despite this, no matter how urgent the government feels the issue is, by bullying it through the legal route it gives the impression of something not legitimate. I do not think that there is any party in the Knesset that has a goal of trying to undermine the democratic nature of the Knesset. It is a given for them all. However, as Prof. Alan Dershowitz wrote, it would be wise to explain the issues to the public in open debates on television, presenting the various sides of the problem.

I assume the easiest issue to understand is the lack of diversity in the Supreme Court. All the presidents have been Ashkenazi and secular, and 13 out of the 15 current justices are Ashkenazim as well, as President Isaac Herzog hinted in his call for discussion.

However, even if there are real issues, the issue of the judicial system is a sensitive one, and in a democracy it’s not enough to be right; you have to explain your position and strive for a large base of support within the government.

There are many in the opposition who would support a compromise, but in politics there are multiple forces at play. As former MK Haim Ramon (Labor) said: Under the present atmosphere, no one in the opposition would dare to admit that reform is needed. Therefore, the desire for discussion has to be spearheaded by the government in answer to the president’s request.

There are elements on both sides of the political fence that are interested in exacerbating the situation for political gain. This is easily done, when both sides claim that they are saving Israeli democracy. The extremism must be stopped by the cooler-headed politicians who have the good of the nation in mind. If one side “wins,” both sides will lose. If there is a compromise, both sides will win, and it will set a precedent for future problem-solving.

THOSE WHO believe in the importance of the unity of the Jewish people need to understand that this is not a cliché. We do not just tolerate the diversity existing in the Jewish people; we welcome it because it teaches us the need to be tolerant of our brethren and of others. However, it only works when all sides understand this.

We want there to be differences of opinion on real matters. We don’t have to agree with every opinion, but we need to learn to respect and to listen. There is always what to learn from opposing views coming from sincere concerns.

I think we need to create a nonpolitical body, a form of an Israeli senate, of nonpolitical ideologues, appointed by all parties of the Knesset, whose job will be, under the authority of the president, to discuss sensitive issues when they arise and submit possible compromises that the politicians can use to defuse situations that create a public rift, which in the end are a threat to us all.

We need again to feel that we are all involved in building the State of Israel. Then, perhaps, the tribes, instead of fighting, will remember that we are part of the same people. ■

The writer, a rabbi, is a lecturer in Jewish thought at Bar-Ilan University.