Israel’s Secret Weapon: It’s Not Personal

For those in the know, last night the Times of Israel hosted a get together of its resident bloggers at a discreet Jerusalem location. The ambiance and the instant camaraderie were quite striking. However, as I walked toward my car, I realized that the occasion embodied a deeper truth about Israel and its amazing staying power and resilience.

Let me explain.

If you read this, or any other, news source that covers Israel you cannot but be taken aback by the deep fissures that crisscross the local body politic. Right and Left, Arab and Jew, Religious and Secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi and so on. Debates and arguments on almost every issue have a distressing tendency to wax heated and, all too often, downright vicious. Discuss politics, or just watch people discussing politics (or your favorite soccer team, Yallah Betar), and you walk away with the sickening feeling that the country is about to implode. Or, as the Ben Gurion figure said in Cast a Giant Shadow, “If the Arabs would leave us alone we could have our own little war here, just among ourselves.”

Except that (with some notable exceptions) it’s all an optical illusion , what the French call a ‘trompe-d’œil.’ I’ll provide a few examples, if you wish.

Few places in Israel have a worse reputation than the Knesset. Unhappily, the impolite, disorderly and ungentlemanly/unladylike manner in which our elected representative comport themselves is a black mark on our parliamentary culture. So bad is the image that the Knesset projects that local folklore has it that pre-school teachers are reputed to admonish misbehaving children by saying: ‘Children! This is not the Knesset!’

What people don’t know is that all of this drama and violence is confined to the Knesset plenum. In the MK Dining Rooms, everyone eats with everyone else. The ostensibly bitterest opponents socialize freely in typical Israeli style (aka ‘sahbak’).

Personally, I first witnessed this ‘behind the scenes’ type of socializing in the late nineties when I had the privilege of participating in the bi-monthly meetings of a group that called itself Shaharit. It was a group of secular and religious educators, journalists, politicians and so on that was jointly convened by Amnon Dankner and Yair Sheleg. (One regular was the late, and much lamented playwrite Anat Gov ז”ל). The group met to study, debate, and explore a broad range of Jewish sources out of a desire to develop a common Jewish cultural language, during the terrible years following the Rabin assassination. When I first attended, I recall my skepticism that people whose public personae were so dramatically (and often virulently) at odds could discuss anything.

I discovered that the group melded and interacted respectfully and affectionately. Even when we met at a person’s home whose living room straddled the Green Line (and one person didn’t cross the room), no fuss was made.The fundamental respect and commonality of identity, purpose and (dare I say it?) mission transcended differences.*

I had precisely the same feeling of essential camaraderie last night. Israelis from all walks of life, who I know for a fact profoundly differ on a host of issues, bond together as volunteer bloggers and pundits and enjoy each other’s company and exchange of ideas for exactly the same reason. We care about our country, our people and our future.

The political pyrotechnics in Israel are not personal. The basic personal and interpersonal commitment is very personal. And that is our secret weapon.

*Shaharit disbanded in 1999, but it left its mark not only on the participants but on the country, through the Jewish Studies Festival that meets annually at Kfar Blum.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.