Many questions – military, political, economic, social, moral – were raised during the last war in Gaza. But the central question addresses the issue of cohesion and unity in Israel.
During the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, Israelis became aware of feelings, abilities, energies and strengths that many believed had been lost long ago. Support for the soldiers, expressed by donations of money, equipment and food. The love the civilians lavished on IDF soldiers. The caring and volunteerism. The conviction that justice was unquestionably on our side and that this war was necessary. These emotions had not been felt in Israel for decades.
Israelis’ goodwill, sense of unity, comradeship and cohesion in the summer of 2014 was comparable to the advice of a marriage counsellor: “Remember when you were in love with each other… Remember what brought you together…” Or in prophet Jeremiah’s words: “I remember to you the loving kindness of your youth…”
But will these feelings survive after the war, when the “Code Red” alarm falls silent? That was the big question during the summer of 2014.
In Hoshaya, an ad hoc initiative was started during Operation Protective Edge. The initiative was named BLITZ. At another time and place, BLITZ might have stood for “Bli Tzionut” (without Zionism), but the opposite was true: it stood for “Bli Tzini’ut”—without cynicism. Within days, BLITZ had raised tens of thousands of shekels, and, with help from friends in Israel and abroad, had arranged to support the soldiers of the unit in which one of our neighbors served. The BLITZ WhatsApp messages encapsulate the emotions. Men who during a normal summer would be busy with family, career, sports and summer vacation, were suddenly talking and writing about “Zionism,” “defending the homeland” and “unity of Israel.” Feelings and words that were always there but had become dusty and tarnished with time.
Initiatives like BLITZ sprung up in their hundreds during the war. In different forms, in various scopes, in some unexpected places – such as within the Ultra-Orthodox community – but all under the rubric: Unity and Cohesion of the People of Israel in the State of Israel.
Continuing the metaphor of the married couple, Israelis proved to themselves that they “still have it.” The special “togetherness” of being an Israeli in Israel is still alive and kicking. And here is the greatest challenge: Is it possible to maintain these elusive feelings even without an external enemy? Do we need a scourge to threaten us in order to be united?
This is not a straightforward question. The “scourge” has a historical role in the unity of the People of Israel. The Hebrew word “tzorer” (“scourge”) is reserved for the worst of the worst, such as Amalek or Hitler. Its root letters are Tzadi-Resh-Resh, which are also the root of the word tzror (bundle or binding). This shows a close etymological connection between facing a vicious enemy and national cohesion.
In the last couple of years I have been involved in a number of initiatives that focus on the unity of Israelis. These include: “Meetchabrim”, which creates a network of organizations and people around the country; the “Israeli Shabbat initiative” of the Beit Hillel organization, which arranges encounters among Israelis around the Shabbat table; and the “Habakkuk Group”, which creates connections among people from every part of Israel’s varied society. The common denominator is that these are grassroots initiatives, led by skillful and charismatic people who decided to take action and leadership and work towards Israeli unity and cohesion.
Whenever talk turns to the possibility of peace with our Arab neighbors, someone will always quip, “If we ever have peace with our neighbors, we’ll start fighting among ourselves.” This is probably not a joke. Even without peace in the offing, Israeli society is facing an enormous challenge: How to maintain unity and cohesion without relying on enemies. The need is clear. The will exists and is growing. The ability? Of course that exists. Can Israel meet the challenge?
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His book “Son of My Land was published in 2013. Sagi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.