Interesting Times: Tribal tensions

Disagreements over how best to achieve peace and security manage to exacerbate old religious-secular differences.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
I remember standing near the dining table in our apartment in Jerusalem, having just moved to Israel a year before, listening in disbelief to the news that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot. Then, equally surreal, the news that he was dead. A couple of days later, I joined the throngs who came to the Knesset while Rabin's coffin lay in state, still trying to comprehend what had happened. I felt like the whole nation was going through what my family went through when we lost my brother, Alex - in a daze, just trying to absorb a new reality and get back to a place where life could continue. The truth is that it is not possible to recreate life from before a terrible loss, either personal or national. It is very possible to recover, but that does not mean life is the same, or should be. At the personal level, my family, like all those so bereaved, carries the loss, the groping for memory, and the duty to make up for a life cut short. Our national burden in Rabin's case is in some ways greater, since the killer was one of our own, requiring us to grapple with our own guilt and responsibility to fix fundamental flaws in our society and democracy. The fact that no Jew killed another Jew over disengagement, after many were convinced that blood would be shed (and was, in two terrorist attacks by Jews against Arabs), means to many that we have learned something from Rabin's assassination. Rhetorically, the settler movement widely denied the state's right to evacuate settlements, and asserted its own right to call for soldiers to refuse orders. In practice, the same movement recognized that it must not use force to overturn the government's decision. So we passed the most serious, life-and-death test. But we failed, and are failing, others that are critical to shaping our post-assassination society. That we came to a point when bloodshed was on the table as a very live option should in itself be considered a failure. The measure of democracy is not just lack of bloodshed. A major lesson of the Rabin era should have been that critical decisions affecting the nation's future should be made so that the vast majority accepts them as legitimate, even if a sizable minority disagrees. True, disengagement was not rammed through by single-vote Knesset margins, as was Oslo. But the fiasco of first calling for and then ignoring the vote within the Likud, then refusing to hold a referendum, left the strong impression that the prime minister was afraid to bring the decision to a direct popular test. The Rabin-Oslo era taught that a semblance of national unity should be a prerequisite for existential national decisions. Disengagement may have compared favorably with Oslo in this respect, but only barely. It could have been done differently. A broader failure, however, was also revealed by the fight over disengagement. Our political spectrum has become roughly divided along religious lines. There are, of course, secular right-wingers and religious left-wingers, but they are exceptions that prove the rule. The failure is not so much that there are divisions over our fundamental approach toward achieving peace and security, but that this debate has been fed by, and in turn exacerbates, the religious-secular divide. Rabin's assassination by a "religious" Jew on political grounds was the epitome of the confluence of these separate divides. A decade later, despite all the wonderful efforts at dialogue, disengagement shows that the negative synergy between these two divides is as strong as ever. I used to think that the key to healing the rifts caused by Rabin's assassination was for both sides of both divides - religious and political - to do their own soul-searching (heshbon nefesh). I have since given up on that, since both sides are so filled with their own sense of being aggrieved parties that they cannot accept responsibility for their contributions to the problem. Perhaps a better way is to work directly at breaking down the intense tribalism that exists in our society. Forcing everyone into a "melting pot" doesn't work and isn't desirable. But with the great and blessed exception of the IDF, the opposite is the case: we are separated into many tribes that have little contact or potential for understanding each other. What to do? Though the Keshet school in Jerusalem is an exception, parents are generally faced with a choice between all-secular or all-religious schools for their children. A good start would be to create a new stream in our school system where secular and religious students can study together. An even greater challenge is for the secular public to create an "Israeli" Judaism of its own. Again, the work has begun in places like Elul, a beit midrash where secular and religious can study together, and Alma College in Tel Aviv, but by and large the secular majority has joined in conspiring to bifurcate Judaism into an all-or-nothing proposition. What a terrible loss for this public; what a terrible failure for the Jewish state. The parallel challenge for religious communities, including the haredim, is to build a form of Jewish practice that is compelling enough to withstand interaction with the secular majority, rather than depending partly or largely on isolation for survival. If successful, the result of such interaction should be a net flow toward a more religious life rather than in the other direction. It is good news that, a decade after Rabin's assassination, and especially following the crucible of disengagement, that our democracy is in one piece. But our existential struggle continues to postpone reckoning with serious rifts and, in some senses, has exacerbated them. Though it may seem that the challenge of existence will never be behind us, this is perhaps all the more reason to attach greater urgency to finding a way to live, and learn, better together in this small country.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11