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Soli Foger

‘Them or Us’ = Alarming Disunity

Israelis wave national flags during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Thousands of Israelis protested outside the country's parliament on Monday ahead of a preliminary vote on a bill that would give politicians greater power over appointing judges, part of a judicial overhaul proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
The Associated Press.

I recently returned from a trip to Israel, where while visiting family and friends, my wife and I tried to make sense of the political upheaval following the government’s proposed changes to the Supreme Court appointments, the limits imposed on their rulings, and the large protests happening in many parts of the country. The intense disagreement between the opposing camps was disheartening. Each side described the other as the true villain, alarmingly using the term THEM in an adversarial position. Not since the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s, have I witnessed such animosity dividing the country. It reminded me of the dark side of our history when Jerusalem was destroyed due to baseless hatred.

When the then new Roman emperor, Vespasian, offered to grant Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai anything he wanted as a reward for his prophecy to his ascent to become emperor, Rabbi Yochanan focused on the continuation of Jewish study in Yavneh rather than Jerusalem. Many commentators asked why Ben Zakkai didn’t ask to spare Jerusalem instead. Among many answers, the Talmud is of the opinion that Rabbi Yochanan knew such a wish would not be granted, yet another view is that Rabbi Yochanan was disheartened when he saw Jewish zealots burn the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued, forcing the remaining residents of Jerusalem to fight (against their will). The Gemara in Gittin suggests that witnessing the food burning and the well-known story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, showing the depths of the baseless and rampant hatred among the Jewish people, made Rabbi Yochanan realize that such division rendered Jerusalem not worthy of saving.

For me, hearing the term THEM, indicates more than a lack of unity. It underscores a sign of OTHERNESS, often being the precursor of hate and violence. After all, it’s unnatural to fight against one’s own brethren. To do so, one must first distance and dissociate oneself from the side with whom one disagrees in order to justify one’s hate. The Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is a striking example of how blinding hate can divide a family and to justify violence. Relegating Joseph to be the ‘other’ allowed his brothers to abandon him in a pit.

We’re in similar danger these days, with each camp seeing being The Others: the religious and the secular, the settlers and their protestors, Israelis and the diaspora, conservatives and liberals, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with protests and attempts to lobby one’s convictions, as long as it’s done ‘Lshem Shamaim’ (for the sake of the heavens) and without hating the other side. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope where labeling them as others may lead to hate and violence. Both camps believe that there’s no alternative when, in actuality, there is a model for civil discourse and brotherly approach to managing conflict.

During the disengagement from Gush Katif, and despite protests around the country against the decision for residents of the Gush to leave their homes and relinquish them to a people they did not trust, things never turned into civil disobedience. Throughout the course of the evacuation residents acted in accordance with a strong moral code in maintaining unity, even as they had to leave their homes, their gardens and the sand dunes they had turned into an agricultural heaven. They modeled for us the path we must follow, for without unity, we may not be able to hold onto our homes.

Israel is less than a century old, yet Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook zt’l opined that we are living in the time of the Atchalta De-Geula (beginning of the redemption). In studying the Psalms (Tehilim) with my grandson, I often come across passages that describe Hashem’s granting us redemption on one side while unleashing our enemies against us when we prove unworthy. Witnessing the ongoing rift makes me wonder if our persistent division may make us unworthy of redemption yet again.

We have models of disagreement in our heritage. Shamai and Hillel spent their entire lives in disagreement, yet they ‘married into each other’s family’, meaning they never allowed their disagreements to come between them.

Similarly, reflecting on the difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, when it came to building the Yochanan Ben Zakkai shul in Jerusalem during the early 17th century, it was financed by both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. And when the Ashkenazi Hurva shul was destroyed in the early 18th century, it was their Sephardic brethren who welcomed them into their shuls. We are one small people, and we cannot afford to fight against one another.

We each have our own views, convictions and positions: either in trying to release the reins of power in our country from the grip of the liberals or in protesting to defend democracy against partisan legislation. But if I may suggest, none of these positions, no matter how right they seem, are as important as the unity required to protect against the danger of undoing all of our achievements of this past century. When it comes down to it, none of us are THEM. We should guard the words from our lips. We’re all US; all part of a family with the same ancestors, the same national aspirations, and we all want the best for our people.

Am Israel Chai!

About the Author
Soli now lives in the US, but he was born in Romania and later lived in Israeli boarding school Hadasim, as part of the Aliyat Hanoar. He served in the Israeli Air Force, and graduated with a degree in architecture from the Technion. After settling in Jaffa, he moved to the US and had several businesses. He has been married for 40 years, and is the father of 4 and grandfather of 7.
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