This past year is finally over. It leaves a bitter taste of contention, divisiveness, discomfort and ill will. The ten days of reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer an opportunity to look closely at the missteps of the last 12 months and to find ways to chart a different course both personally and collectively. The most defining feature of the outgoing year — bad faith — can be systematically reversed, but only if every individual takes responsibility, in word and in deed, for injecting large doses of goodwill into the rancid atmosphere that has come to envelop us all.
Goodwill is propelled, first and foremost, by the golden rule: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Israel of 5777, however, was not always the most pleasant of places. Although some revel in the boisterousness of daily life in the country, few passed the year without ugly exchanges in long queues at the supermarket, jostling for rare parking spaces, or hanging on for dear life against the influx of bikers on pedestrian walkways. Hardly anyone has avoided epithets slung carelessly or lewd gestures proffered in the heat of the moment. These have, in truth, been returned in kind. A day out in town, or even at home, has all too often become a struggle for the survival of the fittest. And since nobody wants to be the proverbial “frier” (sucker), just subsisting has defied the basic notion of good neighborliness.
This does not have to be. A series of small experiments can easily morph into a new norm. Try apologizing before blaming (even when you firmly believe you’re in the right). A simple good morning to someone you’ve ignored can start off a better day. It really won’t hurt to say thank you more often than not. It’s not really necessary to cut off that driver who almost rammed into you. And, yes, the neighbor who plays loud music may often be won over with a smile and a good word. It’s worth a try. At least it’s better than living every day as if on a battlefield.
To be considerate of others in order to be respectful to oneself is not just an individual directive; it requires action on a broader level as well. As Hillel the Elder so wisely put in a nutshell: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow” (and all the rest is commentary). But Israel of recent years is plagued by social rifts, inundated by vituperative language and replete with continuous acts of discrimination both large and small. Most Israelis don’t want to live alongside Arabs or Jews of Ethiopian extraction. Ashkenazim, after all these years, still shun Mizrahim. Newcomers are barely welcomed by old-timers. The secular avoid the religious, who, in turn, evince nothing but disdain for the “non-believers.” And women constantly struggle to maintain a semblance of gender equality, despite apparent improvements in their status over the years. The diversity that is Israel is hardly accompanied by tolerance or respect for the other.
The unraveling of solidarity has accelerated to frightening proportions, especially when debunking particular groups serves the utilitarian purposes of those in office. Even though the Bible instructs that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself,” migrants and asylum-seekers have been hounded at every turn. Where essential notions of compassion are absent, hard-heartedness follows. Plans to formally demote non-Jews to second-class citizenship continue apace and will carry constitutional weight, should the bill to institute “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” be passed into law. Alas, incitement and hate crimes against non-Jews and Jews of divergent persuasions abound.
The lack of a sense of community at home radiates abroad. Never has the split between Israel and world Jewry been more pronounced; never have so many Jews felt that their identity is being rebuffed and their values are being belittled by the leaders of the one country established to uphold these tenets. Under the guise of unity, pluralism — the essence of Jewish life — is devolving into a void of uniformity.
None of these phenomena is inevitable. A bit of reciprocity can go a long way to mending frayed relationships. Little things help: a stop at an Arab restaurant on the way north; participation in a demonstration calling for equal treatment of citizens from Ethiopia, joining in an evening of Mizrahi music, attending a Reform service, sitting patiently in a traffic jam caused by disabled protestors. Public engagement may be as important: calling out particularistic demons disseminated by purveyors of fake news, insisting on equity for Bedouins as well as the ultra-orthodox, consistently admonishing against blatant acts of bigotry and prejudice of whatever sort. Civil society organizations are key vehicles not only for acts of benevolence for the weak and the downtrodden; they are also a means for the rectification of many of these wrongs. Their continued operation, by glorifying heterogeneity in a climate of tolerance, reinforces societal cohesion.
Treating others with the dignity they are due is a precondition for responsible decision-making. The adage, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” cannot be realized in a context which gives preference to one’s lineage rather than to one’s positions and values or to one’s formal status at the expense of the common good. Issues ranging from gay rights to the curriculum in the schools, or from housing prospects to taxation policies, have been tinged for far too long by extraneous factors which disallow serious debate and hence reasonable compromise. With no clear measures for policy-making, it is not surprising that corruption in high places has become a way of life in contemporary Israel.
If any idea emanating from the left of the political spectrum—even on matters of unemployment or pensions—is summarily dismissed because of its source, little progress can be made on critical matters and no real justice can be achieved. And when the judicial system, charged with maintaining justice for all citizens, is exposed to constant threats, the notion of justice itself is perverted.
Substantive discussion is a corrective that can enhance the pursuit of justice. Arguments and disagreements should be aired and decisions made on their merits according to the principles of equality and fairness — the basis for social solidarity. And where injustice reigns — either here or elsewhere — it must be decried. These are not empty words: insisting on justice being seen is a way of assuring that it is made.
In order to achieve this goal, it is vital that in 5778 we retrieve the true meaning of the refrain from the Torah service: “her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace”. Israelis constantly claim that they want peace, but most have done little to make it happen either at home, in the region or globally. To “seek peace and pursue it” implies precisely that: an unrelenting, unwavering and uncompromising quest for a violent-free existence here and elsewhere in this muddled world. Every effort at understanding, reconciliation, cooperation and, yes, goodwill, goes one step further in bettering ourselves and our surroundings (“Tikkun Olam at its best).
The Jewish heritage exhorts us to “Turn from evil and do good; to seek justice and pursue it”. The Israeli Declaration of Independence frames the vision of the country on “the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”. In Israel’s seventieth year, it is up to every person who wants to live a decent life in this country to contribute to make this vision a reality. It can be done if each of us, every day, makes at least one effort to make it happen.