We speak different languages but can we unite? - opinion

Can there be such a reality, in which everyone thinks the same thing, in which society is united?

The Tower of Babel (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/GOOGLE ART PROJECT)
The Tower of Babel
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language, dreamed that all of us here would speak Hebrew and his dream came true. But did he know that it is possible for us to speak Hebrew with each other and still not understand one another at all, as though we were speaking two different languages?
That is just how I felt 25 years ago when our prime minister was assassinated. That everyone speaks Hebrew here but at the same time speaks different languages and does not want to – and are almost unable to – understand one another.
Last Shabbat we read Parashat Noah, which includes the tale of the Tower of Babel, when God set out to destroy a society that did not know how to accept different opinions, as we read (Gen. 11:1): “The whole earth was one language and devarim ahadim.” The last phrase an odd combination of oneness and multiplicity, something like “one [set of] words.”
Can there be such a reality, in which everyone thinks the same thing, in which society is united? This is the dream of many leaders: that everyone should think alike – the government, the courts, the police, the prosecutors and so on. I trust you’ll agree with me that one language and one type of speech is not democracy but dictatorship at worst, or a democracy with a somnolent public devoid of critical sensibilities at best.
In any case, that society wants to build a tower “with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves lest we scattered over the face of the whole earth,” and the good Lord gives it back to that rotten society, measure for measure. God essentially destroys the society that did not know how to accept different languages within it, to be inclusive of controversies and of differing opinions, by granting it different languages that did not know how to understand each other. This conversation of the deaf unravels society into factions. And indeed, the Lord scatters them over the face of the whole earth, to the point where there are different languages that are unable and unwilling to speak with each other. That is a dangerous thing. That is a surefire recipe for destroying a society, a country and even all of humankind.
Today in our country there is no dictatorship and our critical faculties remain, but there are different languages. We all speak Hebrew, but everyone speaks his or her own Hebrew. Rabin’s assassination, the anniversary of which will be observed at the end of the month, revealed that among the panoply of languages spoken in Israel there is also another division – there is the Jewish language and there is the Israeli language.
ON ONE SIDE are those who shout about “the law against endangering life” or “the law against informer” or “the law of the land” or “respect for our teachers” – all categories from classical Jewish jurisprudence. And on the other side there are those who shout about “democracy” or “political murder” or “peace” or who sing familiar lines from protest songs. Everyone shouts; no one wants to listen to the other side, and even if they were to listen, they would not understand. They speak a different language.
It is as though Judaism belongs to one group and democracy belongs to the other. Since Rabin was murdered, some good things have sprouted up in Israeli society related to education, clarifying our identity here and creating a shared language. But we have also experienced processes that have been divisive and corrosive and that have increased hatred. It doesn’t happen by itself. Instead, we are led there all too easily by our leadership.
Rabin knew he led the country, that he stood at the head and the responsibility was on his shoulders. He surely never imagined that a political murder could take place in Israel, but since that accursed day 25 years ago, we know that it could happen again, tomorrow or even today. Political murder requires flaming hatred, and that already exists in today’s Israel, as do the denial of legitimacy to whole groups of people. And an intention to fan the fires has been our lot for some time already.
Have we learned our lesson? I’m not sure. Is there much distance between what Yigal Amir did and the person who sees a demonstrator and, without knowing her, is filled with hatred because she does not agree with his views and hits her? To my chagrin, the similarity is greater than the difference. In both cases, the result shows us not just the tip of the iceberg, but the iceberg underwater that is many times greater.
COVID-19 has created a pressure cooker of frustration, fear, insecurity and more. Such situations can unite a society or they can divide and fracture. Sometimes that occurs by design, but not infrequently it is just too much for us to handle. We have planted a bed of hatred and division for political reasons of one sort or another, and now, when the genie comes out of the bottle, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to put it back, as long as our leaders do not understand that this is its first task. It is very difficult, though, to believe that they will come to understand that.
Rabbi Yoav Ende is the executive director of Hannaton Center for Leadership.