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‘Not Us’ + ‘Not You’ = ‘Not Anything’

The many Israelis who hold themselves apart from everyone else do no worse than the leaders who exempt themselves from the rules they impose on the rest of us. All to our detriment
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Avner hold a Passover Seder, April 8, 2020. (video screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Avner hold a Passover Seder, April 8, 2020. (video screenshot)

My mother speaks to us one day a year. We speak to (and before the plague, visited) her every day, but for reasons neither we nor her doctors can ascertain, she doesn’t really respond. The silence had begun even before our father died almost five years ago, so it’s not that. We get one-word answers to all our questions. “OK.” “Fine.” “Good.” When we tell her what’s going on with us, she clearly understands, but she doesn’t ask or say much. Seeing her great-granddaughters on FaceTime used to elicit a smile, but now, even that is rare. She’s veiled behind a wall of silence of her own making.

Except for one time a year – the Seder night. For years, now, we’ve been stunned on the first night of Pesach. Seated around the table with some of her children and grandchildren, my mom returns to us. She sings. She laughs. When we ask her about her Seders as a child in Borough Park, she tells us. During dinner, as the conversation meanders, she peppers us with comments, questions, occasionally even a joke. Something about the melodies she’s heard for 85 years, the tradition she’s observed in almost identical ways for four score and five years, unlocks what is usually hidden. And each year, we get our hopes up. Maybe this year it’ll last. Perhaps when we visit her tomorrow, there will be more. But there never is.

This year, of course, the prime minister announced that no one in Israel was to have anyone not living with them join their Seder. No one, he stressed, time and again. No one. Not having my mother at our Seder this year meant that we’d probably lose the one chance we’d have this year to have her back. So hoping for the best, we Zoom’ed. Since we wouldn’t be able to offer tech support on the holiday, we rehearsed with her caretaker, made sure she had a Haggadah identical to ours so her caretaker could help her follow along. We had a Seder plate and fancy food delivered to her apartment – and hoped that despite the distance, maybe she’d come back to us this year, too.

But she wasn’t having any of it. This is not how you do a Seder, she essentially communicated with her sullen silence. Only a short while into the reading of the Haggadah, she said she’d had enough. We tried to coax her to stay a little longer, so suggested that she eat while we continued with the Haggadah. She stayed, but she made her disinterest palpably apparent. When we got to our meal, much earlier than we usually do, she said she wanted to go to sleep. So her caretaker left the Zoom meeting, and Elisheva and I soldiered on, just the two of us. We actually had a great time, weird though it was to have a Seder like that, but not long after my mother left Zoom, Zoom timed out, and shortly thereafter, of course, the laptop shut down. Our two-person Seder went on for a while, but adorned with the black-screened laptop, which we could neither touch nor move, sitting in the middle of the table – a brooding reminder of what this plague had robbed us of this year.

It was therefore with a measure of disgust that we read after the holiday that Bibi had apparently violated his own rules and brought his son, Avner, to celebrate the Seder with him. It then became clear that the video of them chatting had been made before the holiday, which meant he’d also violated the self-isolation he’d said he was in, since he had been exposed. No one was terribly surprised by any of this, since intersections between our prime minister and truth are coincidental at best. But when I thought of him and then of our table with the dead laptop, I was sickened.

Had Bibi been the extent of the phenomenon, it would have been bad enough. But a day or two later, the Israeli press reported that President Rivlin, by all accounts a thoroughly decent and honest person, had had one of his daughters join him. One can clearly understand. Rivlin lost his wife 10 months ago, and I’m sure that the prospect of a Seder without any family with him was too much. But it was too much for my mom, too – yet she didn’t get to break the rules.

And then, of course, it was Avigdor Liberman, the supposed powerbroker who can make or break coalitions. Liberman, the press reported, had had his son join him. All three men responded to the allegations precisely as expected. Bibi denied he had done anything wrong. Rivlin apologized. And Liberman attacked Bibi for violating the rules.

What’s done is done, and the Seder is behind us, one might say. But what is not behind us is the undeniable evidence that everywhere we turn, we are witness to a society fraying at the edges, or worse. “The rules don’t apply to me,” our leadership is essentially saying. They apply to other people, many of whom have lost their jobs, are out of money, have sick family members, or worse, have lost family members to this horror. They are the ones who should be alone – but “not us.”

“Not us,” of course, is what the Haredi community has also been accused of, to a large degree quite rightly. A great deal has been written on the tragedy of the Haredi response to COVID-19, much of it eloquently (and rightly) insisting that the Haredi community not be painted with one wide brush, admonishing Israelis not to use this hour to portray the entire community as the enemy. (“Not us” sounds a lot like the Wicked Son in the Haggadah, no? – take a look at the text.) Still, even Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily, has run columns urging Israelis to steer clear of incitement against Haredim. Leading Israeli public intellectuals like Amotz Asa’el,  Donniel Hartman, Yedidia Stern, and others have taken similarly nuanced positions.

Amidst the quite legitimate reminders that Israelis’ response to the utterly intolerable and dangerous Haredi response needs to be measured, though, it is worth considering the views of Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a writer from the Haredi community (though as someone with a BA and MA from the Hebrew University who also clerked for the Israeli Supreme Court, Pfeffer is hardly representative of his own community). Pfeffer himself acknowledges that:

… Charedi rabbis — to make a generalization that has some exceptions — do not recognize the authority vested in Israel’s official bodies, certainly not in the fundamental sense of the word. Yes, it is usually correct and expedient to follow State laws and regulations; as the Mishnah teaches us, “if not for fear of authorities, people would swallow each other alive.” But this is a far cry from … civic loyalty and national responsibility ….

Much of Charedi society sees itself as a kind of “state within a state” — the Charedi State operating within the State of Israel. Although the “Charedi State” depends on Israel for its funding, its infrastructures, and its basic services, in the Charedi mindset it also retains a large degree of independence…. With the general exception of actual wartime, a “them-and-us” ideology prevails that places Charedi communities and individuals outside the jurisdiction—in theory, and occasionally in practice—of official State mechanisms. Now and again, Charedi publications even sound the occasional call for establishing a Charedi autonomy. While absurd much more than an understatement for this proposal, it exemplifies the abovementioned Charedi attitude.

Too often, Pfeffer essentially acknowledges, when Haredim look at the rest of Israel, they say “Not Us.” This time, the results were deadly, and the worst may be yet to come.

But with Israel’s political stalemate back in the news, now that Benny Gantz has failed to form a government, it is worth remembering that beyond “Not Us,” we are a country also plagued by “Not You.” And if the “Not Us” reflects about 10 percent of Israeli society, “Not You” is directed at 20%.

The “Not You,” of course, is the attitude of many Israelis to the idea of including the (Arab) Joint List in any potential coalition. Both Bibi and Benny have said that they would not do so. Netanyahu went so far as to announce right after Israel’s most recent elections that he had won “among Zionists,” because “Arabs are not part of the equation.” That’s a fifth of Israel he’s saying “are not part of the equation,” a party that with 15 seats is the third-largest party in the Knesset, a party that also represents many hundreds of Arab doctors and nurses risking their lives on the front lines at this very moment.

To be sure, there are enormous problems with the Joint List. The list includes the Arab Party Balad, which is expressly opposed to Israel being a Jewish state and seeks to have Israel remake itself as a non-ethnic democracy. Anyone who understands the purpose of Israel’s creation can understand why no one will include Balad – which has counted the likes of Azmi Bishara (who has now fled Israel) and Hanin Zoabi (the Israeli MK notorious for having sailed on the Mavi Marmara, Turkish Gaza-bound boat which Israeli commandos ended up attacking) among its representatives. They are anathema to Zionists, and rightly so.

But if this plague has taught us anything at all, it is, one hopes, that virtually everything we hold dear can be very ephemeral. The people we love. Democracy in multiple countries. Our state? If the time has come to remind ourselves that not only ought we not paint all Haredim with the same brush, is it perhaps also time to look at Israeli-Arabs with similar nuance?

In March, when thousands of Israelis “gathered” for an online pro-democracy demonstration, one of the many speakers was Lucy Aharish, an Israeli-Arab journalist, who speaks a mellifluous Hebrew and brims with talent. She posted her speech on her Facebook page (and was fired from her TV show the next day). In her (Hebrew) speech, she said towards the beginning, “Forget for a moment that a Muslim Arab woman is talking to you, but a human, flesh-and-blood woman, a citizen of the State of Israel, a country we all care about.”

And as she went on, she gave a wondrous picture of the troubled tapestry that is Israeli society. She spoke about how the Mizrachim were treated (see 5:01 and on) “because they came from the wrong place”; about how Ashkenazim had to flee Nazi genocide, but are witness to the resurgence of that hate; how Haredim, for whom devotion to Torah is a way of life, are now called “parasites”; Ethiopians who had long “prayed for the day that their feet would tread on the Land of Milk and Honey,” but are now discriminated against because of the color of their skin, even as their Jewishness is questioned; religious-Zionists, who are animated by the dream of rebuilding Zion, but are accused, with one broad brush, of the murder of a prime minister; and Arabs – Christian, Druze and Muslim – who are now seen as a Trojan Horse. How many Jews, especially outside Israel, could articulate that sense of Israel’s heterogeneity and the pain woven into it?

Then she concluded her speech with this (see 9:50 and on): “People ask me, ‘Lucy, what is the state to you?’ And I answer, My love for this country is like my love for my parents. One loves one’s parents with infinite love. For them, he will go through fire and water. For them, he will do everything.” She then pointed out that we all sometimes disagree with our parents. “But does that mean that we do not love our parents? If we critique the country, does that mean we do not love it or that we would not do everything for it?”

Would we have a problem with an Israeli Jew saying any of that? Would we not be thrilled to hear Haredim speak that way? So why is Lucy Aharish “not part of the equation?” Bishara, I get. Zoabi sickens me. But how many Lucy Aharish’s are out there? Is anyone interested enough to find out? To invite them in, to hear them, to engage with them just as we now understand we need to engage with Haredim?

None of us knows what the world is going to look like at the other side of this plague. What is going to happen to globalization? Deglobalization? The rising wave of populism? How long will unemployment and widened poverty have us in their grips? Who of the people we love will still be here for next year’s Seder?

Most of that, we cannot control. But those of us who live in Israel live in a country that has, time and again, demonstrated that we can determine our destiny in ways that most of the world thought impossible. Yet do we really believe a country can survive when the rules don’t apply to its leaders? Do we really want 10% of our population to look at us and say, “Not us”? And do we want to stare down 20% of our population and say, “Not you”? Does anyone of us imagine that we have a future that way? As we now go into another round of coalition making, or perhaps even elections-planning, is there anything at all we are willing to rethink?

We are already frightened, many of us. Apparently, though, we’re still not terrified enough. Do we not see that “Not Us” + “Not You” = “Not Anything”? How desperate will we all have to get before our leaders and we all say, to Israelis of many sorts and colors and faiths, both “Us, too,” and “You, too,” so we bequeath to our children at least a semblance of what we are so blessed to have?

About the Author
Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His book, "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" (Ecco/HarperCollins), won the 2016 Jewish Book Council "Book of the Year" award. His most recent book, "We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel," was published in September 2019.
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