Is Israel an intolerant and divided society? A casual reading of the Pew Report on Israel, entitled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” released this week would proclaim a resounding yes. But a deeper look at the figures reveals that despite differing on some key issues we are deeply committed to one another, common ideals, and we display a paradox that may easily be overlooked by the average researcher. Now is the time to act on these insights and advance a stronger future for Israel and the Jewish people.
Israel has always been fertile ground for healthy debate and the Jewish people have rarely missed an opportunity to argue. So it is no surprise that Israelis today are wrestling with each other over how this relatively young country should run its business. And few subjects get as hot and divisive as religion.
In the public sphere, legal system, politics, and pragmatically over whether to run public transportation on Shabbat, civil marriage, etc. we Israelis are entrenched in an internal war with ourselves and the stakes around legislation are high. So when the Pew researchers asked us whether we would like halakha to be state law, the results were polarizing. The vast majority of religious Jews were in favor (86% of Haredim and 69% of the Religious Zionist), whereas Masorti (traditional) and Secular Jews were clearly against (90% and 57% respectfully). This divide tears at the country’s fabric as each side struggles to advance a vision and identity at odds with the other. In fact, Pew researchers found that the two sides of this divide are so set in their ways that they aren’t even marrying one another.
Usually a gauge for tolerance, researchers asked about friendships with Jews of other communities and if we were comfortable with the idea of our children marrying someone from the other side. The responses were strongest amongst Secular (95%) and Haredi (93%) who were least willing to have their children marry one another.
But is this unwillingness to have our children marry someone from the other side of the Jewish spectrum necessarily a sign of intolerance and division? Another statistic presents a paradox that challenges such a notion.
When comparing results of this study on Israel to another Pew study of American Jewry, the researchers discovered a critical trait often overlooked or under-appreciated in our time. In Jewish terminology, we call it areivut.
It is neatly described on page 55 of the report:
“Israeli and American Jews also feel similar connections to the Jewish people more broadly defined. More than nine-in-ten in both groups say they are proud to be Jewish. Three-quarters or more of Jews in both countries say they feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (88% in Israel, 75% in the U.S.). And more than half of Jews in Israel (55%) and a solid majority in the United States (63%) say they feel a special responsibility to care for fellow Jews in need around the world.”
This caring for Jews around the world, feeling a strong connection to our brethren despite their distance, and ability to argue vehemently one minute while working hand in hand to build a future the next, is deeply engraved in the DNA of our culture. It is one of our greatest strengths as a people. But it doesn’t mean we all need to be the same.
Jews of different stripes should not be forced to marry one another and create some blur of ideology or identity. Wanting to preserve and advance one’s ideology is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than closed-mindedness, it might actually encapsulate passion and strength. Our vision for Israel is not one blur of black and white, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv. Each community is deeply committed to its ideology and we should respect that. Each sector brings its strengths to the table and our challenge is to make Israel’s whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The statistics, insights and graphs of the Pew Report are likely to spawn a storm of Jewish debate around Israel’s character and ideals that are important to hash out for the sake of our future. Some will use the information to defend entrenched ideologies while others will do the same to attack. But I fear that few will use the opportunity to engage in honest conversation and open the lines of communication between our communities in order to build a stronger future. Instead of using the statistics to bash one another, let’s agree on some of the findings as starting points to jointly drive positive change. Where there is good, let us encourage more. Where there are problems, let’s use the report to focus on finding solutions. And most of all where there is isolation and separation, lets us look for ways to engage. Not to water down ideals or send off our children to another sector, but to strengthen that areivut, deep commitment to one another despite our differences, and find a way forward in building this young country — together.