The Jewish people have been on an emotional rollercoaster for many months now, and after October 7th, that rollercoaster has accelerated. In the months leading up to the Hamas pogrom and massacre, we saw societal discord in Israel beyond what we could have imagined possible. It was difficult for me to see this in person when I visited Israel in July. Israel’s culture war, which came to a head over attempted changes to the judicial system, split the Jewish people down the middle in ways which were incredibly painful. The impact was felt by those of us in US as well.
Since the horrific October 7th massacre, differences have been set aside and the Jewish people have come together in displays of unity. We understand that we are fighting for our literal survival.
Tuesday’s massive rally in Washington, DC was incredibly inspiring. It brought so many people together from across the US – of varying backgrounds and religious outlooks. There were Jews and non-Jews, people of many ethnicities, left and right, young and old. The crowd was unified and passionate. The messages were clear. Hamas must be defeated and destroyed. Anti-Semitism is spreading and must be actively opposed. Israel values all lives, Israeli and Palestinian, while Hamas values neither. We need to appreciate and support democratic, freedom loving counties like the US and Israel. The hostages must be brought home. These simple messages unified us. And the March for Israel was just one of many ways the US Jewish community has come together. There also have been displays of unity across the globe. In Israel the displays of unity are even more ubiquitous, including the grassroots support for the soldiers and for those who experienced losses.
But will our newfound unity soon vanish? We pray that G-d protects our brave Israeli soldiers and leads them to victory against Hamas very soon. When the immediate feeling of our very existence being threatened hopefully soon dissipates, what will become of the unity we have achieved? Even in the immediate aftermath of war, major decisions will need to be made about very divisive issues.
I want to suggest that now is the time to work towards a future which is less divided than our recent past. This is not easy to do. Experience has shown how challenging it can be to take steps to reduce polarization. But I think now is our chance. We need to act now while we are still feeling unified.
We are divided in myriad ways. Division per se is inevitable and not necessarily bad – polarization and toxic tribalism is the problem. We’re not going to always agree with each other about the possibility of living in peace with a PA led state, the legitimacy of building in the West Bank / Judea and Samaria, judicial reform, army service for Haredim, or numerous issues relating to the role of Judaism in the State of Israel. There are hard questions about how to accommodate those with diverse attitudes to religion, and daunting challenges about how to navigate relations with Palestinians and Arab states. But we need to get better at managing our differences in ways which are functional and not destructive.
I want to suggest two key ingredients in disagreeing more constructively. First, we must disavow and condemn those actions which cross red lines specifically when they originate from our own “camp.” We have elected officials in Israel who are suggesting we might nuke Gaza?! That we burn down Palestinian villages? Slogans calling for burning of villages were chanted at a wedding? We have witnessed mistreatment and violence against West Bank Palestinian civilians? Comments and actions like these should enrage us as violating our core principles. And they should elicit condemnation especially from those on the right.
There were protesters interfering with Orthodox communal prayer (which included a makeshift gender separation or mechitza) at the holiest time of the year, at Ne’ilah of Yom Kippur?! If those protesters felt they were enforcing the law, then file a lawsuit. And do it tomorrow, after Yom Kippur. Don’t disrespect Judaism, don’t disrespect decent people trying simply to pray, and don’t take the law into your own hands. Please don’t create a hostile environment for Jewish prayer in the only Jewish state in the world. Those on the left were the ones who needed to be condemning what the protesters did.
Toxic partisanship has increased in the US as well. This is why the increase in anti-Semitism, especially in academia, is so frightening. Condemnations from the right will not solve this problem. We need the support of left-leaning university presidents and academics if colleges are to be safe for Jews, and we are often not receiving that support. We can do our part by speaking out clearly when our side is in the wrong.
Secondly, we need to reach across tribal barriers and take the risk of actually having a conversation with people outside of our camps. Not with people who are crossing red lines, but with decent people who fundamentally disagree with us, and people with very different backgrounds, worldviews, and life experiences. When is the last time we sat down with someone who is reasonable but is in some way “other” and actually listened to them? And when we do disagree, we need to disagree without demonizing and without portraying the issues as being black and white. We need to exhibit humility, vulnerability, and curiosity. And then when our opponents cross red lines and we are required to call them out, we will have earned the credibility to do so.
Jewish history for 2000 years has so many stories of internal debates. Many of these debates were constructive and made us stronger. Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (1290-1376), one of the great rabbis of the medieval period, extols the value of community. He says that while a community includes many people who on their own may be unworthy, they can come together constructively in ways where the strengths of some can compensate for the weaknesses of others. Community can exert a moderating influence. Those with more extreme positions can contribute to reaching a better outcome through fully articulating their perspectives – but then their views may be tempered through dialogue. I believe this vision of community is what we need going forward if we want to maintain our unity. Our collective future depends on it.