As Israel’s Knesset passes three unusually significant bills this week, seasoned Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu seems less than enthused. Instead, he is showing himself to be an astute politician by all but apologizing about the most central of the three laws, the draft of yeshiva students so vehemently opposed by the haredi (ultra-orthodox) sector.
Bibi knows that if the peace process eventually gathers steam he will have to dump the Jewish Home party, and then he will likely need to turn to the haredi parties for support. At that point, they will demand that the new draft law be completely revised or scrapped altogether. In fact, it is perhaps with this mind that the legislators have made most provisions of this law only take effect several years down the line.
Along with a law requiring the popular approval of territorial compromise and another one raising the threshold for small parties to enter the Knesset, the haredi conscription law is about a majority demanding more power in a system where minorities have continuously and sometimes shamelessly used their leverage to protect their special interests, even when these interests were anathema to the rest of society. But Bibi knows that none of the laws of this week really changes this system.
Yair Lapid’s dream of a united Zionist majority that can demand its vision of national responsibility and still negotiate with the Palestinians is actually farther off than ever. If his party’s success and that of Sharon’s Kadima do show that the rifts between right and left are not what they once were, they are still marked enough to keep out of reach a Zionist consensus on what and how to negotiate. Add to that a religious sector that keeps growing and has a third and fourth (and possibly more) vision of what the Jewish state should look like, a national consensus about anything of real import becomes a pipe dream.
At the same time, the problems that Lapid is trying to address do need to be dealt with. A growing haredi sector whose leadership refuses to acknowledge the problem created when a large community makes itself completely dependent on a larger community whose values it contemptuously rejects. Rather, it perpetuates an unrealistic, and therefore, counterproductive model that exacerbates social tension within and without.
So too with the peace process. Like the haredim, the Palestinians don’t seem to realize that they are the ones who will suffer most if the current impasse is not overcome. But it is not as if we can ignore this conflict either. Even without threats of boycotts, there is no question that we have much to gain by a negotiated settlement. Hence it is less than helpful to use the intransigence of the powerless as an excuse not to work harder to find a solution and a fresh approach. But instead of really looking for a way to recreate our political system and society, people like Lapid pretend that the ultimately incremental changes he is forcing on the current government really make a difference.
Perhaps real change would be better found from a different member of Yesh Atid, from Ruth Calderon. As opposed to Lapid, Calderon entered the Knesset with two potentially game-changing messages. 1) She spoke about the tremendous importance of mining the Jewish wisdom of the Talmud and using it to help Israeli society find its way. 2) She also used that very wisdom to show the critical nature of understanding the other in contemporary Israel.
In line with these sentiments but concerning the matter at hand, the Talmud’s R. Abba b. Kahana makes an observation as profound as it is ominous: The removal of [Achasverosh’s] ring [to give Haman permission to wipe out the Jews] was more effective than forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel; for all these were not able to make the Jews improve, but the removal of the ring did make them improve (Megilla 14a). In other words, serious structural change usually only comes when the disastrous results of not doing so are already present. When it is almost too late, however, even if a society is able to survive the cataclysmic change needed, it comes with a very heavy price.
True, in the Purim story, the willingness to finally change and implement a Jewish moral and spiritual revival was able to turn back history and effect a miraculous change in the policies of the Persian king. Yet as this same tractate of the Talmud points out, miracles don’t happen every day. It is far better to think in the terms of a third rabbinic statement, that true wisdom comes in seeing the eventual results of our actions and so, to act in accordance right now.
May we indeed become more wise!