Chaim Y. Botwinick

Achdut part II: A modest proposal

Over a month ago, we woke up to the daunting headlines in the Anglo-Jewish and Israeli press regarding the shocking increase in uncontrollable street violence between our brothers in Israel.

The headlines in print and on social media platforms spoke for themselves: “violent clashes and burning buses in Haredi neighborhoods”  “vandalized trains” “cop shooting in the air as police lose grip on Haredi enclaves” and  “police and Haredi clash in violent fighting”,

These were just a few of the shocking headlines at that time….not including a startling headline which read: “we are not far from a civil war” — a stark warning from the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Just prior to  the Israeli elections,  we read about the venomous  rhetoric of a senior Israeli government official whose sole purpose for his comment was  to incite hatred and animus towards the  religious community in Israel.

These daunting headlines, stories, video clips and first-hand witness accounts of this deep-rooted violence and ideological divide in Israel are beyond belief. When will the hatred end?  And, what will it take to end this cycle of violence and unabashed hatred which has spiraled  out of control?

We must ask ourselves the questions…..How is it possible that the magnitude and intensity of  unabashed violence in the streets of Bnei Brak (and in other Haredi Israeli neighborhoods) can literally explode like a dry tinder-box with such intensity,  not unlike the frightening and horrific images of the  intifada. The difference of course was that today’s mayhem and violence is between Jews — a harsh reality with grave implications.

Where, when and how have we lost our moral compass and civility? How is it possible that this violence between brothers can spill into the streets of Israel with such deep rooted hatred and vitriol? and how is it possible to experience the spilling of Jewish blood in the streets of Jerusalem?  Why did we not hear calls for restraint and/or condemnation from governmental or religious leadership? And finally,  why was the violence even condoned by select “leadership” circles on both sides of the issue.

In retrospect, were Israeli government authorities and its municipalities justified in requiring serious  health and safety lock-downs and restrictions, against a backdrop of hundreds of COVID-related infections and deaths per day. To be sure, the death count and strain on the Israeli health system would have forced any democratic country  the size of Israel to institute some form of serious lock-down and restricted movement of it populous. On the flip-side, can anyone harshly criticize  the religious community for yearning desperately to daven  (pray) with a minyan; to enjoy the once in a lifetime wedding of a precious child or grandchild; to attend a funeral service for a high profile religious leader; to empathize with students  who are eager and thirsty to return to the hallowed halls of  Yeshivot and study halls….or more recently, to celebrate  Purim and Pesach with modest celebrations and gatherings.

My friends, the challenge was not the motivation or intent of the Israeli  government’s restrictions or lock-downs but rather the violent and at times insensitive manner in which these lock-downs were introduced, forced and maintained. There appears to have been a gross lack of sensitivity accorded to the religious community and to the  psychological disposition of the Haredi community which resulted in an explosive and violent response and  destructive exchanges between both camps. By the same token, the Haredi community did not display  restraint in its violent  responses and reactions  to these restrictions or lock-downs due to increased frustration, angered incitement  and naivety.

It is important to note that by-and-large, many segments of the Haredi community are and were totally unaware and misinformed about the serious nature of the COVID-19 virus. They do not have access to this information, and are naive about short and long term health hazards of the virus and ways in which to protect themselves and their families from viral spread…..especially within their small and cramped living/housing conditions. In addition, their living conditions were exacerbated by their unswerving commitment to religious practice which takes precedence over any and all restrictions. They therefore view community lockdowns and restricted movement as being  conspiratorial and/or insensitive anti-religious which fly in the face of their religious values, principles and beliefs.

These realities, complemented with an aggressive, insensitive and at times violent lock-down, are just a few of the many painful and perplexing societal challenges which now demand serious review, examination, and assessment….irrespective of ideology, philosophy or religious commitment.

Today in Israel, as  COVID-19 infection rates are diminishing and as vaccines are being successfully administered at record speed, the level of anger, frustration, hopelessness  and mistrust are still running high. To be sure, finger pointing on both sides are resulting in political and societal polarization and divisiveness which will continue to grow and fester…..until the next explosive crisis.

As an organized Jewish community (especially in the diaspora), we are very successful in producing  and disseminating pronouncements, position papers, and press releases regarding the  “common destiny”  and “the unity” of our Jewish people.  We have a tendency to talk a “good game” and camouflage our true feelings  behind  theoretical constructs and emotionally laddered touchy-feely slogans.  But, at the end of the day,  how many of us and how many of our communal, religious and civil  leaders have actually committed themselves to  rolling up their  sleeves in order to response to the widening divide  and polarization of  suspicion and mistrust that separate us?  This is not purely an academic or superficial communal exercise  It is a difficult, heart-wrenching  painful process anchored in generations of religious and cultural difference, indifference and mistrust.

We now need leadership “skin-in-the-game”, not convenient and “safe” 20/20 hindsight public statements  which are now commonplace. Leadership is not only about reacting to violent divisiveness and polarization after the fact ….it’s about working tirelessly  to prevent and at best, try desperately to minimize its effect an negative impact in the Jewish community – both in Israel and in the diaspora,

In retrospect, and in anticipation of the next  (GD forbid) violent flareup between religious and non-religious segments of Israeli society, maybe now is the time for a grassroots, bipartisan entity to step into the fray and to begin a frank civil exchange of big and bold ideas based on unswerving respect, trust and understanding.

A Modest Proposal:

In light of the current levels of societal mistrust, acrimony and disdain, proposed is the establishment of an  Israeli Commission on Civil Non-Violence and Religious Understanding (ICNR), which would be comprised of representatives from all segments of Israeli society including, rabbinic, religious, academic, business and philanthropic leadership.

As envisioned, the mandate of the Commission will be to begin addressing top priority challenges facing the Israeli religious community in an open, transparent and frank manner. As a non-governmental entity, it will engage an intensive and extensive strategic  communal planning process in order to drill-down deep into the causes and effect of today’s religious divide.

In order to prevent the Commission from becoming a political entity for political expediency, it will need to grapple with the real-time deep rooted issues now affecting Israeli society.

Several of the initiatives to be undertaken by the Commission will include, but not be limited to:

  • Educating and sensitizing Israeli society regarding the religious, cultural and spiritual concerns, needs and requirements of the religious community;
  • Creating continuous high profile country-wide media campaigns in order to heighten awareness, consciousness and sensitivity;
  • Liaising with religious, rabbinic, non-religious and civic institutions in order to ensure greater respect and understanding regarding their differences;
  • Conduct high level  simulations and logic-modeling in order to help ensure appropriate and immediate responses to potentially explosive local and regional situations;
  • Conduct cultural and religious sensitivity training with Israeli policing institutions and the  IDF;
  • Help create and support an environment in Israel which publicly condemns acts of demonization, hate speech and anti-religious  incitement;
  • Convene religious, rabbinic and government leadership (via seminars, workshops, conferences, etc.) in order to help create and eventually inspire communal Shalom Bayit and Achdut; 
  • Develop print and non-print media resources for schools, Yeshivot, Community Centers and  governmental organizations to help motivate and  guide  these institutions engage in civil discourse;
  • Outreach to all segments of the Haredi and secular communal institutions in order to help inspire conversation, dialogue and thoughtful/respectful conversation and problem solving opportunities;
  •  Training of “Ambassadors for Achdut“, who will be deployed to neighborhoods in order to help create a positive climate by spreading goodwill and understanding; and,
  • Hold all Israeli politicians, civic leaders and members of the Israeli Knesset accountable to ensuring that the mandate of this Commission (and its resulting initiatives) are embraced and supported. In fact, the Israeli Government, irrespective of political party or affiliation should allocate funds in support of specific national and neighborhood initiatives aimed at creating, supporting and  fostering  Achdut initiatives which are well planned and sustainable over extended periods of time.

In the final analysis, the establishment of a proposed  Commission (as just presented) and the aforementioned recommendations regarding its mandate, will not be an easy undertaking. To be sure, its establishment may ironically end up being as difficult as the very issues, challenges and concerns it is endeavored to address.

For one to think that any of these initiatives can happen successfully with  the wave of a magic wand is both foolish and totally unrealistic.  At best, it is my fervent hope and prayer that the concept for such a Commission and its mandate can at least have a chance.

As Israeli society continues to grow and evolve, the current level of violent internal divisiveness and polarization will not be sustainable.  Jewish (Biblical) history has taught us that as an Ohr LaGoyim (light unto the nations)  and as an Am Kadosh (a holy nation) we must hold ourselves to a higher moral standard ……to a standard of civility, respect and Achduct.  Israel must continuously view and position itself a model and as paradigm for peaceful internal co-existence………and, we must ensure that Israel become and remain the bastion of Jewish civility.

As I conclude this Blog on the first day of Chol HaMoed Pesach, we am reminded of the manner in which we as a nation traveled and journeyed  from slavery to redemption, from suffering to safety and from anguish and despair to hope and promise. Today’s challenge is just an extension of this daunting “journey”. As we embark along this continuum of Jewish history, may HaShem bless us all with with the wisdom and fortitude to help create a community of true Achdut….of true unity.

Moadim L’Simcha and Chag Sameach to All !

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011