A real, shared path: What I’ve learned from living in the divided society in which I live
Almost 20 years ago in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu ran against Shimon Peres – and won. To some, this was a catastrophe, an earthquake, destruction; to others, it was a new sun rising, a new hope, euphoria.
How can it be possible that an earthquake and destruction to one person is a sunrise and redemption to another? How can we deal with the tension, the pain, and the joy, all at once? And most important, how can we build a society together in the face of this?
There are a number of possibilities: To be filled with joy, to be filled with hatred. To wish failure upon the opposition, to dance on their blood. Or there is an alternative: one that requires patience and time (though preferably not too much). The alternative is to join together and to cooperate with one another to try to build together a relationship whose end game is a new society.
Yes, a new society, not what existed before. Something has happened – and so something must change in our understanding of how we live together if we want to work together.
In democracy, it’s a good thing to have different, opposing dreams that coexist together and compete within the same society for realization. When there is only one language, one idea, one dream, or one way, this is dictatorship, not democracy.
The first step to living in a divided democracy, I’ve learned from living in Israel, is to understand that on the other side, not everyone is crazy, not everyone is a racist, not everyone is a hedonist, and not everyone is disconnected from reality. Extremists who wish only to destroy will always exist. On the edges, however, are people with real stories, not only with pain, but also with rationale, with thought, and with empathy. We need to understand these people and their stories until we have empathy with the other side. We don’t need to agree, and we certainly do not need to forfeit our own opinions, but we need to understand and to feel from where these things are coming. And who these people are – not just via the television and the newspaper.
This is not something that can happen in a month or a year. But the work must begin and the first step must come from the victors. However, they cannot do this alone. In war, one is enough; in peace, you need at least two.
Do words have meaning? Are we permitted to say anything? Can we call something black today and tomorrow declare it white? The answer is apparently yes, but this does not mean that words have no meaning. They do. And they stab inwards, and burn and are even passed from parent to child and onward – insult, frustration, hatred, and the like. Words are hard to fix. And worse, the feelings as a result of words are passed on from generation to generation. They do not disappear. And we need to understand that.
What one word damages, another word cannot easily fix. It is easier to destroy than to build up. That is clear to all of us. So what do we do? You can’t put a band aid on an open wound. It doesn’t help and it can be dangerous. And it is even insulting. More substance is required.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 20) says, “Any dispute made for the sake of heaven will endure.” In other words, any disagreement which is for the purpose of finding truth, for bringing good for everyone and not just for the individual, will eventually reach its goal. This is true, but it promises us nothing, it does not guarantee us what the path will be, and the way is much more important than the ultimate goal. It’s not enough to say “let’s join together and build our society.” Both sides must find a real, shared path to that end.
So here are 10 lessons I’ve learned over many years living in a divided society:
- Don’t look at the other side as if everyone there is strange, unreasonable, and scary. We need to understand and see not only where these ideas are coming from, but their very essence, to ask if perhaps there is not only venom, but also truth in their words.
- A person sees complexity in those things that are close to him; that is, I see complexities in those opinions that are close to my own. To the same degree, when you come to examine someone else’s opinions, give them as wide a perspective as you give yourself and those close to you.
- We need to understand that the feeling of anger, and especially the feeling of insult and discrimination are feelings that are passed from one generation to the next within a family. Think about the future of your society, and not just about those who anger you. And by the way, from one generation to the next, the feeling of anger stirs and grows.
- Usually, a strong and enthusiastic minority leads the majority; the majority does not lead the majority. Pay attention that it is not the extremists who lead you.
- If you don’t work on minimizing the gaps and the hatred, they will only grow.
- A society can make change and move forward when it is united; when a society is divided to the extreme, it is very difficult to move in any direction. And everyone loses.
- In order to allow real dialogue to take place, you need to stick to your opinions and not concede or minimize them. Otherwise, the conversation will be dishonest and prevent real building. At the same time, remember that the wise person learns from everyone (Mishnah Avot, 4). We have what to learn from those who think differently from us.
- Speak about the subject matter, not about the person.
- Time does its own work, for good and for bad. Issues don’t disappear on their own. Work to unite society again.
- It is true that for war you need only one and for peace at least two. But in order to find a partner, you need to work as if you know he is standing just around the corner. And the truth is, he usually is.
America, I wish for you peace and ease in this transition. And I mean that from deep in my heart.