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‘Shema Yisrael’: The political party that Israel needs now on its 76th birthday

2023 was an awful year for Jewish unity in Israel. The tragic events of October 7th have brought some kind of temporary togetherness, but it is fragile. We must not go back to how things were.

I study the teachings of Rabbi Sacks z’l carefully. Rabbi Sacks was hugely pro-Israel and normally moderate in his language. However, already in 2009, in his book Future Tense, he completely excoriates Israel, religious and secular alike. He had done so before and he continued to do so after. His main line of criticism – emerging from the existential condition of Jews during 2,000 years in exile – is a sweeping inability to listen, to understand, to go beyond one’s own frame of reference, to moderate, to defer.

In almost every domain, Israelis are lions, pioneers and leaders in their respective fields, except when it comes to politics. The deep attachment that Israelis have to their labels of “right” and “left” is itself a form of idolatry. Every issue becomes a needlessly zero-sum contest. I am angry at the behavior of every political party on judicial reform. I deeply regret how every side of the argument approaches the issue of the haredi draft.

There is no community in Israel, and very few families, that do not carry trauma, neuroses, from recent historical experience – genocide, pogroms, expulsion, conflict, terror, discrimination, stigma, prejudice. Like Joshua the High Priest, every community is a firebrand plucked from the flames (Zechariah 3:2). And yet Israel is often cited as one of the happiest countries in the world – this year, fifth happiest country in the world (a fall from fourth place in 2023) despite rampant disunity, conflict and destruction. We do not see signs of hatred on our streets in ordinary people-to-people interaction.

We may theorize, therefore, that politics is the domain reserved by Israelis for channeling all those neuroses. But in recent years, the channelling of these neuroses into politics has become pathological. The disease has metastasized to the point where it now threatens survival of the body.

For me, through a religious lens, if Hashem wanted to send a strong warning to Clal Israel about where such poisonous division and hatred will take us, G-d forbid, to send one warning that would apply just as much to religious as to secular, to left as to right, then the tragedy of October 7th could not have been more strategically chosen. On October 7th, the choice of place was the warning targeted to the secular and the left, choice of time to the religious and the right. Few people seem to have recognized this.

May the memory of all the victims be a blessing; may the hostages return speedily to their loved ones; may all those who are suffering be comforted; may our leaders find wisdom and humility; may those defending Israel, and the Jewish people worldwide, be protected; may evil be destroyed in this world; may we all heed Hashem’s warning delivered through this terrible event.

We must realize that unity among the Jewish people is an end in itself, as well as being a means to other ends. Unity is not only or even about having a common purpose, though that should be the destination to which it ultimately leads. Rather, unity is firstly, the focus of some of Judaism’s most fundamental precepts. Secondly, unity is about survival. And thirdly, unity is about process.

Specifically, unity involves building a quality of process for active listening – to hear, understand and internalize what each other is saying. It is a willingness to respect different views, to engage in creative compromise, so that every part of society feels they have achieved a win, so that every part of society feels they have a stake and a voice. As the Torah states 36 times, this includes the “strangers” that live among us, by which today we mean Arabs, Druze, Bedouin, and all minorities.

What angers me as an oleh chadash is the recklessness with which the political class in Israel – right and left – treat the Jewish people’s modern miracle, and the potentially disastrous costs of their recklessness. A return to exile and oppression is sadly looking like a much more real prospect after 2023, G-d forbid. Two thousand years of exile and oppression were quite enough, thank you very much.

None of the current political parties have an answer. The structure of the political system itself drives parochialism and divisiveness. Those politicians that should be most resistant to this, those who commit before prayer each day to love their fellow Jew as themselves, those who each year before Tisha b’Av solemnly pronounce upon the dangers of sin’at hinam, those who study Chofetz Chaim on lashon hara, are sometimes the worst offenders. Even the “National Unity” party of Benny Gantz stands for national unity in an indirect way. It is not actively trying to create unity, it is simply the party that is trying its best to manage disunity. That is not enough.

The party Israel needs now is called “Shema Yisrael.”

Shema Yisrael to emphasize active listening

Shema Yisrael is a party that focuses on embedding civility and creative compromise into the national conversation, always raucous, now uncontrollable.

This does not mean that arguments are no longer allowed. Argument is the engine of Jewish brilliance, the method of choice for Jewish learning. Rather, it means all arguments will be “for the sake of heaven,” which, per Jewish thought, means for the sake of peace, truth and human dignity, as opposed to arguments “not for the sake of heaven” which are about ego, power and superiority.

As a Torah-loving Jew, someone who is really desperate to see a more Torah-oriented society, I want this to happen because my less religious Jewish brothers and sisters are positively inspired by the wonder of Torah, of Judaism, and of Jews, not to have it foist upon them Iran-style as a revenge, G-d forbid.

And I believe a Torah-oriented society can happen in a positive way, because Judaism does have a unique and powerful proposition, because the Jewish story is a miracle that shines light for those that open their eyes, and because – as Eden Golan reminded us in her interviews at Eurovision – with Hashem in control, “anything can happen.”

Shema Yisrael to emphasise acceptance

“Naaseh v’nishmah” – “we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7) – was Israel’s response to Hashem at Mount Sinai when Moses read to them the Book of the Covenant. To this, our sages tell us, a heavenly voice emanated, “who told Israel the angel’s secret of naaseh v’nishmah?” (Shabbat 88a)

Naaseh v’nishmah tells us about putting first things first (Avot 5:7). At Sinai, naaseh v’nishmah was about acceptance preceding understanding. In today’s context, naaseh v’nishmah is also about acceptance preceding argument. Acceptance means acceptance of our fellow Jew (“ahavat yisrael,” Leviticus 19:18), and acceptance means acceptance of the stranger that lives among us (“ahavat gerim,” Leviticus 19:34).

Acceptance does not mean weakness, being any less proud to be Jewish or any less insistent on self-determining as indigenous people in our ancestral homeland. Rather, acceptance is the only way that assures our arguments are and will always remain for the sake of heaven.

Shema Yisrael to emphasise unity

The party is also called Shema Yisrael because of its main focus. The sages tell us when making the Shema Yisrael declaration, which Jews say twice every day, when we wake up and when we lie down, when we are in our houses and when we are on the way, we must extend and meditate on the word “echad” – One.

Just as Hashem is One, so the Jewish people are One, and the job of the Jewish people in the world is focused on One-ness. Israeli society should be an exemplar of One-ness in order to promote One-ness.

Shema Yisrael is not a party of the left, the right or even the center. It is a party that believes these labels are alien to Jews, a form of idolatry.

Shema Yisrael is a party that builds a social covenant among all Israelis, at the same time faithful to Torah as well as to contemporary political structures and attitudes that are rooted in Torah – rule of law, separation of powers, servant leadership, dignity, integrity, accountability, meritocracy and social justice, the prophetic values of “chessed, tzedek v’mishpat” (kindness, righteousness and justice, as per Jeremiah 9:23, for example).

Shema Yisrael is not a party of the religious or the secular. It is a party that believes, as Rabbi Sacks said, “the only people who believe that secular Israelis are secular are secular Israelis.” It is a party that recognizes religiosity in “bein adam l’chavero” (about interpersonal relationships) as well as “bein adam l’Makom” (about a person’s relationship with Hashem, and the more ritualistic aspects of religion). It is a party that also recognizes, respects and values the deep religiosity of the non-Jews among us.

And Shema Yisrael is not a party of the Ashkenazim, or the Mizrachim, or the Jews as a whole, or the Arabs. It is a party that sees value and strength in Israel’s diversity, and will relentlessly promote that diversity and use that diversity for the good.

In particular, Shema Yisrael is a party that sees profound meaning in the recent historical experiences of all Israel’s communities, and strives to commemorate and honor those experiences, and channel them for the good.

About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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