Israel’s 75th anniversary comes amid one of the most worrisome internal crises the country has ever seen. Late at night, looking for some guidance for these trying times, I stumbled upon an extraordinary text by Martin Buber entitled “Hope for this Hour.” It was a speech he had given at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1952, about the Cold War, but its message resonates with the challenges we face in Israel today:
The human world is today, as never before, split into two camps, each of which understands the other as the embodiment of falsehood and itself as the embodiment of truth…Each side has assumed monopoly of the sunlight and has plunged its antagonist into night, and each side demands that you decide between day and night…
Neither I, nor Buber, argue for moral equivalence between the warring camps. The point is descriptive, not judging who is right, but pointing out that both sides see the world in black and white. The art of dialogue, the human ability to step out of one’s own experience, and to be curious and empathetic about the experience of others, the forgotten virtue of a cosmopolitan liberalism, is the unheralded backbone of democracy. And yet it has become an endangered species. Without it, we retreat into our own worlds, and increasingly see others, different from us, with growing suspicion:
Nothing stands so much in the way of the rise of a Civilization of Dialogue as the demonic power which rules our world, the demonry of basic mistrust. What does it avail to induce the other to speak if basically one puts no faith in what he says? The meeting with him already takes place under the perspective of his untrustworthiness. And this perspective is not incorrect, for his meeting with me takes place under a corresponding perspective.
In an Israel dangerously divided into two camps, each of us is perceived as part of a camp. “Mine” indeed often sees itself as the light against the darkness. The blatant racism and vile provocations of Itamar Ben Gvir make that assessment easy. It is difficult to see “the other side,” if I perceive them as variations of Ben Gvir. It seems pointless and a sign of moral weakness to want to climb the wall of empathy, to believe that there are reasonable perspectives on the other side that “we” were blind to, and to learn from them.
I do believe that this government’s proposals, their content and no less importantly their tone, have done possibly irreparable damage to the fabric of Israeli democracy. They have accentuated our faultlines and exponentially heightened the levels of suspicion and mistrust. But “my side” is not blameless in fostering division. By climbing the wall of empathy, I have come to learn that the “other” camp views “mine” with a similar sense of alienation, anger, and bitterness, perceiving liberals as condescending and moralistic, wielding substantial power for their own interests.
The divides in Israeli society will not go away, and all of us will still be here tomorrow. If we are to preserve our democracy in the long run, we must climb that wall of empathy. To those who question why we should seek dialogue and practice empathy with those who reject dialogue and refuse empathy with us, Buber responds, quoting Robert Hutchins, “It is no good saying that Civilization of the Dialogue cannot arise when the other party will not talk. We have to find the way to induce him to talk.” Otherwise, we shall continue to spiral down into an ever more dangerous moment.
As it turns out, a growing number of Israelis see it that way, as well. The spiteful tenor of this government – a crass, mean-spirited relationship to the “others” of Israeli society – has led to shifts at least in the polls. Rather than enflaming the culture wars, the move from both sides has been to the empathetic center, increasingly against the reforms – their content and their tone – while at the same time listening and building relationships and taking seriously the world as their political opponents see it. Political polls over the past months repeatedly show a converging effect. There has been a continual movement of the liberal left to the center for some twenty years now; the government’s reforms seem to have jumpstarted a similar movement on the right. Time will tell.
Protests fill our streets, pushing back on a “reform” that seems far more like a dismantling of democracy. And simultaneously, our WhatsApp and email accounts are filled with initiatives that are bringing people together to reach across the aisle, to climb that wall of empathy, and to see what the world looks like in others’ shoes. This counterintuitive combination of the push to defend a robust democracy with the pull to reach across the divides that this crisis illuminates as so desperately needed, that is our hope for this hour.