From rude to ruin: Israel’s uncivil society

Fundamentally Freund: The fury that has erupted, pitting Jew against Jew, has made headlines across the globe.

protesters- black and white 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
protesters- black and white 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Today is Asara Betevet, the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, when Jews around the world fast to commemorate the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar more than 2,500 years ago.
The blockade of the holy city triggered a catastrophic chain of calamities that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel.
Though many Jews are unfamiliar with it, Asara Betevet was a decisive turning point in our history, one that set the stage for considerable Jewish wandering and suffering down through the ages.
Despite its relative obscurity, this sad day could not have come at a more pertinent moment in our modern history, particularly in light of some of the disgraceful events of the past few weeks in which Jews have hurled insults, curses and even spittle at one another.
Indeed, the alarming fury that has erupted, pitting Jew against Jew, has made headlines across the globe, as Israel’s friends and foes struggle to understand why we seem to thrive on tearing one another apart.
And yet, despite all the punditry and commentary that has accompanied the mounting tensions, one of the key underlying factors behind the recent upsurge in fraternal animosity has all but gone unremarked.
Sure, there are plenty of religious, ideological and socio-economic frictions at work. But putting that aside, the sad fact is that we Israelis often treat each other in the most uncivil of manners – whether on the roads, in line at the post office or in a host of other situations.
OUR SOCIETY is pervaded by rudeness and discourtesy. If this is the starting point for much of our daily lives, then is it really such a surprise that more complex scenarios rapidly descend into spitting and name-calling?
After all, if we are constantly being brusque and gruff with one another, then that becomes the unfortunate cultural norm that permeates our lives.
And don’t think for a moment that all this doesn’t matter, that the daily indignities to which we are subjected simply melt away into the inner recesses of our psyches.
A number of psychological studies have shown the debilitating effects of exposure to rudeness.
Last August, for example, researchers at Baylor University studied the effect that rudeness in the workplace has on employees. According to a report in Science Daily, the study found that “stress created by incivility can be so intense that, at the end of the day, it is taken home by the worker and impacts the well-being of the worker’s family and partner, who in turn takes the stress to his/her workplace.”
In other words, it creates a cycle of insolence, one that quickly spreads far beyond the confines of the office.
As the author of the research, Meredith J. Ferguson, PhD, put it, this “underlines the importance of stopping incivility before it starts so that the ripple effect does not impact the employee’s family and potentially inflict further damage.”
Sadly, that incivility is all around us, from Knesset debates to the pages of the daily newspapers to the chatter on the airwaves. Affronts and slurs that would be considered out-of-bounds anywhere else seem to be par for the course right here in our own back yard.
Just look at what passes for acceptable “discourse” in this country.
Take Yossi Sarid’s comments in Ha’aretz last week, in which the former government minister lambasted the scandalous segregation of women on buses by asserting that “the source of the pollution is in Halacha (Jewish law) itself.”
Or Ra’anan Shaked’s column on Ynetnews entitled “Time for Israeli civil war?” There, Shaked insists that “at this time nothing that is less than rolling up one’s sleeves, hitting the streets and possibly a few headbutts aimed at painful body organs will bring change.”
Israeli comedians Shai Goldstein and Dror Rafael decided to go one step further. They rang in the new year of 2012 on their daily radio show by suggesting that Hitler’s “Final Solution” be implemented against haredi Jews.
Can you imagine such disgraceful language appearing in the major newspapers or on the radio in any other Western country?
Tackling the frictions between secular and religious in Israel is essential, but it can only go so far. In order to really address the problem at its root, we need to take steps to create a kinder, gentler society, one that is more courteous and respectful.
As we mark Asara Betevet, it is worth recalling the statement of the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that “the first Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder... the second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred.” Based on this, the Talmud then concludes that senseless hatred is equal in severity to idolatry, sexual immorality and murder put together.
A good way to mitigate the loathing and boorishness that characterize our society is to replace them with decency and civility – whether in our schools, our workplace or in public life. We must tolerate nothing less, because if our history teaches us anything, it is that the road to ruin is paved with rudeness and hatred.
It is time to pave that road anew before it leads us all down a very dangerous path.
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (, which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.