David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

Divided we fall

When this devastating war is over, we will need to prioritize reconciliation over recrimination

Never in the last 50 years has Israel’s survival depended on the vigor of our societal resilience as it does today. Yet never since the destruction of the Second Temple, attributed to the baseless hatred rampant at the time, has that resilience been more precarious. The terrifying horror of what has transpired on what was to be a day of rejoicing with the Torah is still unfolding, its long-term implications not even on the verge of being understood. But even in the midst of our mourning, let us already imagine a better morning after.

As our government, army and intelligence agencies struggle to regain control of the situation and dispel the uncertainties engulfing us, the one thing we can unfortunately anticipate with some certainty is that recriminations will soon be flying fast and furious from every direction. The right will be blaming the left for long ago not having met our enemies with an iron fist; the left will be blaming the right for never having done enough to advance peace with our neighbors.

My opinion on the matter is irrelevant. I’m neither a military expert nor an authority on conflict resolution. Still, as an unassuming citizen of Israel there is one thing I am prepared to weigh in on. Once this horrific war that Hamas has inflicted upon us is over, a very real danger to Israel’s existence will remain.

Long before the current acrimonious debate over the right way forward to ensure that Israel remain a Jewish and democratic state, Israel’s highly respected Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) warned that the greatest danger to Israel’s long-term survival is the unraveling of our delicately woven social fabric. Already in its 2020 report, “Challenges to Societal Resilience,” this thinktank highlighted “an accelerated trend of weakening social solidarity within social groups, between social groups and the state, and between the individual and the state characterized by deepening public disputes stemming from diverse worldviews, especially regarding the necessary balance between national and religious values and democratic, liberal, secular ideals…” and expressed concern over the possibility of “the transformation of the public discourse in Israel into a violent struggle of hatred and exclusion of the ‘other’.”  Its 2022 review of the situation determined that this polarization had only intensified since its initial assessment, a warning that the concomitant process of estrangement posed an existential peril to the country’s capacity to endure. That Israel then went to elections five times in less than four years due to the inability of our fractured society to come together is abundant evidence of the regrettable correctness of the worrisome INSS findings.

This, then, is not the time for finger-pointing or a cacophony of “I told you so.” Rather, this is the moment to recognize that the 250-plus who were slaughtered on Shabbat, and the more than 1,500 wounded in this latest round of unspeakable terror include those on the right and the left, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, straight and gay, Jews and Muslims (Bedouin being among the victims). The 3,000 indiscriminate rockets streaming into Israel are not being aimed at one sector or another of our diverse society. And none of the dozens of youth, men, women, children and infirm who have been abducted and marched into Gaza were asked who they voted for in the last election.

Our internal disagreements, as profound and substantial as they may be, mean nothing to our enemies, and they never have. Sadducees and Pharisees were massacred as one by the Romans. The Inquisition made no distinction between one class of Jew and another. In Auschwitz, the ultra-Orthodox were gassed in the same chambers as the Bundists. How many more reminders do we need that our fate is one, even as our opinions are many?

We may not all have planned to dance with Torah scrolls in hand on the holiday, but I would like to believe that one of its fundamental ethical pillars, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a teaching embraced by all – however disparate our world views, origins, positions and levels of observance.

There is little any one of us can do individually to impact on Israel’s response to the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas. But individually, we owe it to those whose lives were stolen or ravaged today – and we owe it to ourselves – to consider how we might temper the vitriolic vituperation currently characterizing our public discourse (and, I’m afraid, our private thoughts as well). A commitment to restraint in our dealings with one another need be the Simchat Torah takeaway this year. If we are not able to do that, we risk handing Hamas a victory without it needing to fire a single rocket more.

It would be easy to dismiss this call for moderation as a mere platitude, but it is no less vital for being lofty in its aspiration. Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, long lauded and admired for his dedication to advancing social cohesion within Israeli society, recognized decades ago that “it is our capacity for dialogue across different segments of society that fuels our strength and resilience” and it is strength and resilience in the face of terrorist bestiality that we require today. I am well aware of just how divided our society was before this war. I am not so naïve as to imagine that the tragedy of it will bring about anything close to full reconciliation. But I am convinced that the more difficult – even impossible – bridging our divides might appear to be, the more critical and the more urgent the effort to do so becomes.

Divided we fall. United we stand a chance.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is involved in a number of initiatives to make of Israel the truly shared society envisioned in its Declaration of Independence. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.