‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart… for the Second Temple was destroyed because of hatred of one’s neighbor for no reason.” (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 19:17)
Elie Wiesel famously said that Jewish history has no coincidences. According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the destruction of both Temples, as well as other tragedies that befell the Jewish people, did not stem from a hatred of Jews by others. It resulted from sinat chinam (baseless hatred) between Jews. Jewish history is littered with bitter outcomes when Jews become divided against each other.
Jews forget that they are among fellow Jews and become politically divided and hateful of each other, obsessed with the rightfulness of their own positions and blind to the tragedies of brotherly division. We are a fissiparous people, arguing about our religious divisions, culture and politics. It was perhaps inevitable that the Jewish state has become one of the slim-majority coalition governments with a short longevity.
This disunity between Jews is interesting and maybe even entertaining – until it isn’t. Israel’s political divisions threaten the shared future of the Jewish state and, through it, the Jewish people.
Divided families scream at each other in Hebrew at the Shabbat table, failing to appreciate the miracle that they are Jews, living and thriving together in Israel nearly two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jewish presentism is forgetting how Jewish history brought us here. Division blinds us to the fact that we have no future if we lose our unity.
The famed historian Paul Johnson wrote of “a terrible problem” for Jews. “One of their greatest gifts”, he stated, “was the critical faculty. They had always had it. It was the source of their rationality… But they were not only critical; they were, perhaps above all, self-critical”.
Israel embraces this problem. It must be the most self-critical state in history. Every action, utterance or sneeze must be scrutinized, explained or apologized for.
The Israel Defense Force, which ensures that Israel will be there tomorrow, let alone a decade hence, hosts an army of lawyers that ensure that every action derives its legal basis in self-defense. Israel’s Supreme Court, among the most liberal in the world, is open to citizens and non-citizens alike to petition at any time against government action or omission, and remarkably hears over ten thousand cases a year.
The Jewish state has created an industry of non-governmental organizations that are obsessively critical of Israel’s actions or non-actions.
This complex situation is compounded by Jews in the Diaspora, who feel the need to criticize the Jewish State because it reflects a part of their own identity. Perhaps, they wonder, if they were not self-critical would they be Jews?
Or, taken to the extreme, some Jews around the world feel the need to distance themselves entirely from the Jewish state, to apologize for its existence and its actions, in the false notion that the actions of Jews or Israel as the Jewish state, is a cause of antisemitism.
The proposed judicial reforms in Israel have generated significant and heated debates and deepened divisions among Israelis and, as if that isn’t schismatic enough, between the diaspora and Israel. Proponents of the reforms argue that they are necessary to address the imbalance of power between the judiciary and the legislative branches of government, while critics argue that the changes would undermine the independence of the judiciary and weaken democratic institutions.
Judicial reform debate exposes Israeli society fault lines
THIS DEBATE has exposed fault lines within Israeli society that have the potential to undermine the country’s social fabric, if not addressed in a manner that promotes unity and understanding.
What matters is not whether either, or any, side is right or wrong, or even that there are shades of gray. Israel is divided and that’s all that counts. It is the division itself, not the reasons for division, that needs our undivided attention. Israel is splintering for solely bad reasons.
There are competing visions of its future that need to be fused together. Political schisms are appearing in the culture, business and even, dangerously, in the defense establishment. Jewish factionalism is fighting itself over nuanced interpretations of how to promote, or protect, a Jewish and democratic state.
This instability within Israel is being exploited by Israel’s enemies politically and militarily. While Israel fights with itself, an enemy far greater, lethal and more dangerous than the ancient Romans is assembling at the gates.
Former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat quotes an analysis from an enemy of Israel in the Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen: “It is true that Israel enjoys military power and considerable economic strength, but the importance and value of these pale into insignificance in view of the weaknesses and the escalating internal conflict and polarization.”
It is imperative that Israelis recognize the importance of unity and strive to bridge the divides that have emerged as a result of this vociferous debate. The nation must engage in open and honest dialogue, where all perspectives are heard and respected, in order to find a compromise that will strengthen the country’s democratic institutions while addressing the concerns of those who advocate for change.
The Talmud speaks of the importance of unity alongside the value of diverse perspectives among Jews. Sanhedrin 17b states, “two make a court and three make a city.” This notion highlights the significance of Jewish community and the importance of unity for a common and strong future. There is power and continuity in a community of compromise and unity, and weakness in a court of division and disagreement.
Yet we often forget that we are a community, and not a court. Alongside this important teaching, we learn in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers, 5:17) the importance of “disagreements for the sake of Heaven.” Disagreement is valuable, if for the sake of reaching higher truths and understandings, rather than an endgame of disunity.
Ultimately, Jewish history is blind to present Jewish politics, opinions, leaders or governments. These come and go and will be recorded and remembered in a page or two of our very long book of life. What matters is the continuity, success and prosperity of us Jews as a People.
Israel is our best bet to ensure our survival and thus we need to work hard at its survival. We ought to do so for the sake of Israel, and the sake of Heaven.
The writer is national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF).