In 1973, at the height of the Yom Kippur War, the celebrated singer Leonard Cohen, performed in Israel as an act of solidarity and support. One of the songs he presented was “There is a War,” an anthem for the perennial conflict that grips humanity, an elegy for the “real war” that takes place within us all.
We’re living in a very different world in 2020 but the words have a peculiar resonance for us today:
“There is a war between the rich and poor
A war between the man and the woman
There is a war between the left and right
A war between the black and white
A war between the odd and the even”
It’s a sad truism that we are living in an age of acute polarization. Political scientists call it ‘pernicious polarization’, the political cleavage which creates an atmosphere of extreme and mutual group distrust, an “us versus them” mentality, a hardening of separatist attitudes which spread beyond the political to the social; to our everyday life. Polarization can be helpful in defining where we stand on issues; it can help transform the status quo, address injustices and imbalances of power. It, however, becomes pernicious and harmful when it drags people and countries “into a spiral of anger and division for which there are no easy remedies”. The problem with this pathological polarization is that it is both damaging and dangerous. The tension and threats around the USA election are telling, the outrageous attacks in France and Vienna over the past week are surely an alarming warning of the costs of polarization.
In a toxic climate such as this, the hardening positions of the extremists are dangerous and we, as Jews, are always amongst the most vulnerable. When polarization increases, so do the threats against democracy. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a recent survey found that countries as diverse as Brazil, Kenya and Poland reported a pattern of polarization. It may be most obvious in the USA but this virus of extremism and anti-democratic ideology is wide-spread. The pandemic of polarization is every bit as dangerous as the coronavirus pandemic. It threatens to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the values and principles of tolerance and moderation and heightens distrust even in our daily interactions. It increases hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, Blacks and Asians.
You can’t have a civil discussion today about Trump and Biden or for that matter Bibby and Ganz. We know it divides families in the USA and similarly a recent survey in Turkey found that eight out of ten people would not want their daughter to marry someone who votes for the party they most dislike.
I’ve always been struck by the relevance of the Parasha, the Torah reading of the week, to our contemporary lives. In the week that we began to read about the birth of Ishmael and the tensions between Sarah and Hagar, there was the abominable murder of a French teacher by a fundamentalist Islamist. This week as we read of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, an Islamic extremist ran amok in Vienna.
In a divisive climate it’s easy to read the Genesis texts superficially, to see them as a statement of the incommensurable opposition between Jews and Muslims. It’s easy to demonize Islam using the words of the Torah as a proof – “Ishmael… a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). But to do this is to do an injustice not only to the texts but to ourselves. Shakespeare warned us that ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’. And Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that “fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are…”. Torah texts challenge us to avoid simplistic and binary readings and to rather probe the subtlety and layered wisdom of the pages. The passages that deal with Hagar and Ishmael actually draw our sympathy and remind us that Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham, like his father, is destined for greatness:
“I will make him into a nation for he is your offspring” (Ibid 21:13).
“Help the boy up and take him by the hand for I will make him into a great nation…
God was with the boy as he grew up” (Ibid 17-20).
Judaism may have suffered under Islamic rule and was subject to Islamic extremism at times, but it did not, as a rule, vilify the Muslim faith. In fact, some of our greatest rabbinic figures – such as Rambam – were sympathetic to the purity of Islam’s monotheism. Historically, we had more of a problem with Christian extremists, pogroms and crusaders. Despite forces on the right and left who seek to foment a clash of civilizations, our battle is surely against extremism and not Islam or Christianity. The fundamental challenge today is against the fundamentalists be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim, extreme environmentalists or gender-warriors.
Leonard Cohen cynically suggests:
“There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
And the ones who say there isn’t”.
He continues “the situation makes me kind of nervous”. We are living in nervous times, but I’m heartened by the promise of the Torah that we can overcome polarization, punitive as it is. Remediation and redemption are possible when enough people of goodwill, energy, moderation and principle join together for change. Ishmael and Isaac are ultimately reconciled: they come together to bury their father, to bury the past and plant for the future. We too can come together with cool heads and warm hearts to counter the cold winds of polarization!