Taming the tempest in a teapot

Israel may be like one big family, but we must work to get past our familial dysfunctions.

Haredi yelling 311 (photo credit: Michael Lipkin)
Haredi yelling 311
(photo credit: Michael Lipkin)
Making Aliyah to Israel without family is something of a paradox for you instantly inherit thousands of aunts, uncles and cousins who, for better or worse, know what’s best for you and aren’t shy about telling you. Whether you actually wanted to put on that sweater in 90 degree heat, you know that the maternal advice comes from a place of love for all Jews and all Israelis. For all that people say about Israel being like one big family, as with any family relationships the people of Israel are plagued with ‘sibling’ rivalries and discord. Such typical family squabbles are a normal part of life and usually overcome. However recent tensions over inclusions, exclusions and even turf wars have begun to bubble over and if not contained could lead to, G-d forbid, civil war.
Disagreements and even clashes over religion is nothing new in Israel. Despite a majority of the citizens being Jewish, the vast differences in observance, culture and even politics have created seemingly infinite subgroups and subcultures including a number of unfortunate societal rifts with religion at their root. Hot button topics vary widely from issues such as army service, women in the public sphere and the power of the Rabbinate, to name but a few.
Unlike Jewish life in the Diaspora, in Israel life IS Jewish. It’s incredible to be a Jew in the Jewish Homeland. But define ‘Jewish Homeland’. Ask five Jews, you’ll get six responses. At least. We’re a colorful lot, we Jews. You can find the color in our hair, our skin, our clothing and our yarmulkes. Often these colors say something about who we are, where in the Diaspora we came from, how we practice – or don’t practice – our religion. It doesn’t have to, but it does anyway. We can wear our colors with pride, shining forth with our heritage and our choices, while graciously welcoming those of our neighbors. We could. Often we do. But sometimes we don’t.
Jewish people are a stubborn lot. Our stubbornness has served us well over the millennia. Enabled us to stay together as a people; held us to our traditions; retained for us our customs; preserved for so many centuries our dream to someday return to our Land. Look where we are today. Whoever heard of such a concept of a nation of people, a religion, a society, dispersed for 2,000 years, then coming together to found a state in their historic Homeland? As if they were long lost family members. Well, they are. A big, spread-out family with a strong, stubborn streak.
All these stubborn Jews, with their different opinions, have come to the melting pot that is Israel. Except, let’s face it, it’s not really a melting pot at all. More like a chulent pot. Yet lately it’s been more like a tempest in a teapot. Instead of ‘live and let live,’ it’s ‘my way is the RIGHT way to live.’ The thing is they can be right. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they ARE right. With the exception of illegal, abusive or anti-social behaviors, how one chooses to express himself is right for him. Period. You want to be a secular Jew? Your Judaism is cultural. Or maybe not even. Perhaps you fast on Yom Kippur, maybe you don’t. That’s your choice. It doesn’t work for me, but I would never judge you.  You want to be haredi? Separate men and women to whatever degree you wish, dress extremely modestly even on the hottest days. I admire your total sense of commitment, but it doesn’t work for me. And I would never judge you. Recently a number of particularly burning issues have percolated to the top. Some issues have to do with lifestyle choices amongst particular sectors of Judaism. Lifestyle choices. We must open our minds and make every effort to be sensitive to the sensitivities and sensibilities of our brethren. Other issues have to do with behavioral aberrations by fringe elements, disguised to blend in with their pious neighbors, whose actions are in the ‘illegal, abusive or anti-social’ category. Put simply, acts of criminals.
We must – MUST – condemn these thuggish actions in the strongest terms, and we must do it with one voice. We can. But we must be able to clearly differentiate between that which is wrong, and that which is simply not one’s cup of tea. Abusing or harassing women is criminal. Choosing to maintain separate spheres of life for men and women in one’s own domain is a lifestyle choice. You may not like either. You may even wish to protest all of it and try to impose your worldly life’s view on a society that is insular by choice. I will tell you, it’s a pointless venture to try and change people, but do it if you must. On a different day; in a different venue; in an entirely different way, than the full-force, no-holds-barred, utter rejection of the ‘illegal, abusive or anti-social’ malevolence that is currently threatening our children, our women, our society, even our standing in the world. Because we can only fight it if we are unified. And we can only be unified if we can accept each other’s differences like the brothers – and sisters – that we are. At least for a few hours.

The writer is a blogger and author of the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has spoken about Israel and Aliyah all over the United States and Israel. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her tweets at @laurabendavd.