National divides

I have always felt that the worst of our enemies are those within our own borders. Those who betray Israel by demanding it adhere to policies that weaken our ability to withstand our enemies; those who serve some great humanitarian ideal to which no other nation adheres. Those who, in the name of God and religion, suggest that there are those less worthy, less important, or of less value.Those who, in the name of enlightenment, suggest that all that made us what we are, is meaningless and those who follow these traditions are backward, inferior, less educated, and of less worth.

I have always believed that if we were to solve our internal problems, our external problems would be so much more manageable and our lives as a whole so much more meaningful and enjoyable. To walk down a street in Israel and greet a stranger is a present we give to ourselves.

Recently, I escorted a valued guest from India around Jerusalem. In the space of 30 minutes, two amazing things happened. The first was a woman, a complete stranger, approached me, handed me a cup of warm soup, and asked me to give it to Shoshana.

“Who is Shoshana?” I responded in Hebrew. She is the woman who sits near the bottom of the steps on the way to the Western Wall plaza. Oh…okay. What could I do? I found Shoshana and gave her the warm soup.

As we were leaving the Old City a short time later, a woman approached me, held out her arm, and asked me to help her clamp the bracelet around her wrist. What could I do? I helped her secure the clasp.

My guest from India was a bit startled at the intimacy between people in Israel. No, that would never happen in New Delhi – or in New York. It is what makes this country what it is and part of why I love this country so very much.

The great truth of the election several weeks ago is that it was more about negatives than positives. Those who hate the Haredim; those who hate the settlers. Those who believe the left will surrender and weaken us; those who believe the right will force us to extremes.

Yair Lapid called for unity – and then refused to sit in the same government with the Haredim. The Haredim are angry at the Likud and Jewish Home and so have promised to support the left. I thought the left would choke on the idea that they would sit with the Haredim they have vilified in the past as baby-producing, lazy, non-serving, religious fanatics, but apparently all is good in the name of politics and so the Haredim will be welcomed with open arms (and no handshakes for the women).

Bennett rose to glory because he is young, dynamic, and called on the right to unify, to come together under his party. He gave many on the right a face with which they could identify; only to create a bond with Yair Lapid. I thought many of my National Religious friends would choke on the Yesh Atid-Jewish Home alliance, but apparently all is good in the name of politics and so I once again am grateful that whatever comes from this match, my name will not be on it.

Bibi’s first coalition deal was to bring in HaTnuah. I thought loyal Likudniks would choke on the idea that they will now sit with the woman who has spent the last three or four years vilifying all real and imagined flaws with the Likud, but  apparently all is good in the name of politics and so I am only wondering when Likud will finish the joke and ask Amir Peretz to be Secretary of Defense.

It was, overall, an election based on negatives and it will, apparently, be a government built on this as well. I have always felt that Haredim should serve – in the army or in some national service. This is as much for their benefit as for the rest of the country, but I cannot get out of my mind the image of Yair Lapid addressing an audience of Haredim in Kiryat Ono with the opening line, “YOU won, and WE lost.” From this position, we cannot win; we cannot find unity.

When I moved to Israel almost 20 years ago, I was amazed when someone asked my husband if we would mind living in a community that was mixed – half religious and half secular. I remember laughing and telling him to answer back that we come from a block where there are no Jews; the nearest Jewish family was a 10 minute walk away. I was in heaven thinking that finally the nearest Jew would almost always be one door away. I would be surrounded by Jews, my people; in my country.

In the twenty years that have followed, two of my children have married Sephardim; three of my children have served this country; five if you count my adopted sons; seven if you count my daughter in-law and son-in-law. While I now live in a religious neighborhood (all of a two block area), my city is a mix of so many levels of religious observance from dozens of nations.

Whatever divides there are in politics, we – the people – must learn from the mistakes of our politicians. True unity will not start in the government. There, the very concept of unity was used and abused, as so many of our other important values were, for politics. It was all words. When it came to forming the coalition that will rule us until the government falls again, the great parties that preached unity, failed to practice it.

But from those words, or perhaps despite those words, we – the people – must learn. So long as we see the Haredim as “you” and not as part of the “we” – we ALL suffer; we all lose.

Israel is lessened when we think of another Jew as them and not us; it is our allowing someone to speak to a segment of the population as “you” and not “we” that strengthens our enemies – those outside our borders; those across oceans, those who live within Israel, and yes, those who serve in the Knesset.

We will build this land. We must serve the people of Israel. We must find a way over the greatest divides and this will only start when we can look at a secular person and not let the length of their skirts or what is on their heads determine how we speak to them. We must find a way to look at a   man with a long beard and black coat, or a woman wearing a scarf or a wig, and remember there is a brain inside, a heart, a person.

They, whoever they are, have the same challenges that we do. They love their children, just as we do. They may drive on Shabbat but that does not make them bad people. They did not have seven children so that you would pay for their grocery bills. They…they don’t exist because they are part of us. They are us.

We must learn to accept each other. Too many of our politicians feed off the divisions, barter on our hatred and prejudice to buy our votes. The next time you see a secular woman struggling to lift packages, offer to help her; the next time you see a religious woman struggling to get a stroller on the bus, offer to help her. If someone hands you a cup of soup for Shoshana, ask her where Shoshana is sitting today. This is Israel.

The next time you see a soldier – religious or not – wish him well. Say a silent prayer for his safety, or if you do not pray – think a good thought for him and for his mother and father.

And the next time you hear someone speak of them vs. us – understand that they are the cause of the greatest problems in Israel today. What will happen with Iran will happen and we as a country will deal with it (hopefully not while Amir Peretz is Secretary of Defense).

Housing prices…food prices…the quality of our educational system…healthcare, etc. – these are all universal problems that all Israelis want to see improved, made more reasonable. In all the fighting, what we have forgotten, what our politicians continue to blur, is the simple truth that that which unites us is so much more than that which divides us.

I do not believe there is another place on earth where someone will hand you a cup of soup to deliver to a stranger; where someone will approach another to fix the clasp on her bracelet. I do not believe there is another nation that will worry over the fate of one soldier for five long years and then, despite many very logical arguments why it shouldn’t happen, agree to exchange over 1,000 for the life of the one.

I do not believe there is another place where soldiers are regularly handed sweets and drinks; where complete strangers open their homes to residents that come under fire.

And I do believe that what unites us will always be stronger than that which divides us. I believe we will overcome our enemies, those in Iran, Syria, Gaza and beyond…my only real worry is whether we will ever overcome that part of ourselves that brings weakness to us all.

About the Author
Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running for more than 5 years. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write her thoughts and dream of a trip to Italy, Scotland, and beyond.