Israel: why unity and uniqueness can coexist

Take Jerusalem, where so many different communities live together despite their differences. It is possible here, but I believe it is possible anywhere.

The finalists in the high school English-speaking contest flanked by the two judges (photo credit: SHIMSHON SHIR)
The finalists in the high school English-speaking contest flanked by the two judges
(photo credit: SHIMSHON SHIR)
Some 300 junior and senior high school students from 40 schools across Israel participated in the Harry Hurwitz National Speaking Competition at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center on January 14. The contest is the brainchild of Ann Kirson Swersky, founder of Si’ah Va’Sig – the Israel Debating Society, and its theme this year was “Unity and Uniqueness in Israel and in the Global Village.” The following is the winning speech in the high school English competition by Ynon Reiner of Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono, who thanks his “coach,” Ruti Bardenstein.
How many of you identify with the Sigd holiday, celebrated by the Ethiopian Jewish community every 29th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan? Today I will speak about why unity and uniqueness can coexist in a delicate and ever-changing balance, specifically in an immigrant state.
I will begin by defining the terms relevant to your understanding of this speech, leading me to present the dilemma of being unique versus being united in an immigrant state. We will then dive into the complexity of both concepts and explore the disadvantages of their extremes.
Shall we? The definition of the word “immigrant” by the Cambridge Dictionary is as follows: “An immigrant is a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently.” This is a dictionary definition. There is, however, no formal definition for international immigrants.
What are immigrant states, according to this definition? Immigrant states are states comprised of an immigrant majority, or a majority of people whose origin is from a different state than the one they live in. This means that states such as Israel and the US are historically immigrant states, which raises a special dilemma in these countries.
That dilemma is being unique versus being united. A state needs unity in order to survive as one solid, stable entity. This isn’t a new concept; we can track it way back to the Bible. Psalms 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
On the other hand, uniqueness and adversity supply the citizens’ basic needs for a community. A quote out of Sri Aurobindo’s book, The Ideal of Human Unity: “Collective life is more at ease with itself, more genial, varied, fruitful when it can concentrate in small spaces and simpler organisms.”
Let’s dive deeper into the concept of unity and over-unification. When a state wishes to unite its citizens, it is trying to morph several different groups into one homogeneous group. Trying to unite unwilling groups can bleach the individual’s sense of self. For example, we need to look no further than our own country, Israel.
When Israel was founded, millions of Jews from all over the world flooded its gates. The newborn state had to find a way to unite all these different groups into one nation. This led to the formation of the “ideal” Israeli image, the Sabra as we Israelis know it. However, not all of Israel’s communities identified with this ideal. This led to feelings of loneliness and inequality among Jews of different origins.
These feelings built up for years, and culminated in the Wadi Salib protests in 1959 and in the rising of the “Black Panthers” organization in 1971. Both events shook the country, and the impact is still felt today. In 2008, a group called “Black Panthers” ran in the Jerusalem municipal elections. The effect of these events took root in all of Israeli society.
The reason over-unification has such dire consequences is humans’ basic need for exclusivity and community. Quoting Frances Moore Lappe, an American author and researcher, “Community – meaning for me ‘nurturing human connection’ – is our survival. We, humans, wither outside of a community. It isn’t a luxury, a nice thing; the community is essential to our well-being.”
On the other end of the spectrum, let’s explore the problems of over-adversity. Here Israel serves yet again as a great example. We are currently heading toward our third round of elections within one year. This crazy situation is caused by different groups with differences that seem unsolvable. Some citizens, including me, sometimes feel as if there are two states in one.
A good analogy for the situation is Solomon’s trial. All parties want the baby (the state) for themselves and are unwilling to compromise. Like the trial, it’s inconceivable to cut the state in half. Someone must let go. On top of the need for community, humans also require a higher sense of stability. This sense of stability is supplied by the state and its unity. Over-adversity leads to the exact opposite.
How do we cram all this conundrum into a functioning, perhaps ideal state? The answer, in my opinion, is a constant balance between unity and adversity. I do not mean a set, unchanged balance, but one that shifts depending on the state’s situation. This balance requires non-stop involvement of the state in subjects such as education. It’s important to educate youth to see the bigger picture, the unity of the state while retaining education for the smaller picture, each community’s individuality. Quoting an article called “The Importance of Education,” “Having an education in an area helps people think, feel, and behave in a way that contributes to their success, and improves not only their personal satisfaction but also their community.”
In conclusion, unity and adversity can coexist, but under constant tweaking and supervision of both the state and its citizens. In fact, they already do coexist in a city like Jerusalem, where so many different communities live together despite their differences. It is possible here, but I believe it is possible anywhere.