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There is no middle ground: Making progress on the issues that divide us

What if the Haredim traded progressive weddings in Israel for control of the Kotel?
An ultra-Orthodox woman whistles in protest of the Women of the Wall group's Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox woman whistles in protest of the Women of the Wall group's Rosh Hodesh (New Jewish month) prayer at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on July 7, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Gridlock.

That is the word that comes to mind when I think of the state of political discourse in this country. Our politicians, bogged down by partisan politics, just can’t seem to move the needle.

The recent massacre at the country music festival in Las Vegas underscores this point. In the wake of these all-too frequent shootings, people die; people mourn; and then before the carnage is cleared, politicians begin weighing in on the political implications. The left digs in its heels: “The guns have to go!” The right digs in, too: “Don’t trample on our freedom!”

And then…nothing. More and more nothing. Congress hasn’t passed significant gun control legislation in two decades, not even the baseline measures that both liberals and conservatives would agree to. And as the lack of meaningful response persists, and as progress is continually stymied, the people not only lose faith in their system of government, but they sour on each other. We become leery of the other. The problem, we tell ourselves is, “They don’t want anything to change! They are so stubborn!”

I’m no political scientist or sociologist, but I’d like to share with you both what I believe to be one of the primary causes of this gridlock and how we can avoid it. What we need is to re-double our embrace of transactionalism. Here’s what I have in mind:

* * *

I think there’s this utopian vision of society that drives our vision of politics. That vision is of a mythical fairy tale of sorts, in which problems are solved by competing viewpoints ultimately coalesce on some common ground. And in this fairy tale, all political problems are resolved through conversation, where we all open our minds and hearts, joining together to resolve previously intractable political debates by reaching some sort of flawless middle ground that accommodates all perspectives and concerns.

But here’s the thing…the whole idea is largely one big myth and I’m not buying it. I don’t believe this is how real-world problems are solved; and I don’t think there’s a magical formula that has yet to be discovered that will be our silver bullet, that will accommodate everyone’s worldview, satisfy every demand and expectation. And in the delusional process of holding out for that reality, we actually move further away from the possibility of actual progress.

Progress doesn’t arrive in a pristine box and a neatly tied bow. Progress is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty in give-and-take. Progress means making accommodations, about making compromises that require real sacrifice. Progress means rejecting the notion of all-or-nothing in favor of something for something. I will give up something important to me, in order to get something important.

What does this mean in practice? It means that instead of a futile attempt at finding compromises on every issue, instead we should be willing to compromise completely on one issue in exchange for getting what we want on a totally separate issue.

Now, I can’t speak with any measure of expertise on the issue of gun control. What I can speak to is this Jewish community. The Jewish people are often described as “or lagoyim” — a light unto the nations. We’ve heard that a thousand times, haven’t we? Well, what does or lagoyim look like in the context of tackling gridlock? How would the Jewish people model a principled commitment to transactionalism?

To explain, I’d like to focus on one aspect of the Jewish community: the State of Israel. Now, in so many wonderful ways, Israel already serves as a light unto the nations. But as for gridlock…the Knesset can be as maddeningly and unproductively contentious as any chamber of government in the world.

Many of these political fights in Israel pit the religious versus the secular. Consider the following examples:

The Kotel: The Western Wall is not only the center of our Jewish spiritual universe, but it is also the source of a massive rift in the Israeli community. In addressing conflicts regarding the Kotel, the Chief Rabbinate is guided by a deeply held commitment to maintaining tradition. It desperately strives to preserve the sanctity of this holy site by having all proceedings adhere to Orthodox Jewish standards. The Reform and Conservative movements, as a result, feel stifled and ignored. The feel hurt. They want access, equality and the freedom to worship how they wish.

Marriage: The Haredi community is deeply concerned with maintaining the integrity of these sacred institutions. And they demand a monopoly on the process because anything else, to their mind, would ultimately lead to compromising the very legitimacy of knesset Yisrael. Meanwhile, so many others in Israel are left feeling like their denominational affiliation brands them as second-class citizens in Israel. Can it really be that a Conservative rabbi can’t marry a Conservative man and Conservative woman?

The Army: The Haredi community does not want their young men (or women) to serve in the army. They hearken to the promise made to them by Ben Gurion. The secular community views their refusal to serve as more than just a slap in the face, but perhaps the highest form of personal selfishness and national disrespect imaginable. Young soldiers are on the front lines risking their lives every day so that yeshiva bochurim can sit and learn. On the other hand, the Haredi community, by and large, deeply believes that manning the battei midrash (yeshiva study halls) is as critical to Israel’s security and prosperity as those manning the borders.

* * *

Okay, now what? We have all of these issues pitting one side against the next. Usually, the way it goes is both sides just continuously and vehemently debate each issue. They go back and forth, for instance, on the exact geometric outline of the Western Wall plaza. They look for a resolution that will satisfy the competing sides of the debate through some sort of magic formula that allays all concerns and ensures that everyone can remain true to their deeply held beliefs. But then it invariably devolves. “Yes, you can have a place in the plaza, just stay near Robinson’s Arch.” “What!? That’s like a half-gesture. How offensive!” And then…more nothing. The same thing happened when the Ne’eman Commission tried to figure out a compromise around conversion. More nothing.

But in this transactional model for which I am advocating, the participants in this conversation, namely the MKs that represent these interests in the Knesset, would step back and see the full landscape of the issues at play here. They’d say, “We’re not going to find a perfect solution on each individual issue, so let’s make a trade. Let’s compromise one whole issue in favor of another. We’re going to give it away, something important to us, for the sake of receiving something in return, and making progress.” The Haredi MK’s might say, “You know what, effective immediately, we’re going to implement a plan to allow individuals to be married by the rabbi of the denomination of their choosing. But in return, you have to give us the Kotel. The Kotel is off the table.”

Now, at the least, we’re making progress! Things are happening! The fairy tale model is, ultimately, more threatening. You’re giving away a part of your very identity and deeply held beliefs. You are watering down your position on each and every issue. In the transactional model, you are making accommodations, yes, but you are not watering down your position on any issue. You’re making a calculated choice in order to move the needle.

You might look at that and say it’s cold and calculating and utilitarian. But being transactional does not mean being unprincipled. This sort of transaction will not only lead to workable solutions to contentious problems, but it will cultivate collaborations by forging new partnerships. Our Sages advised us that mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma — it’s worthwhile to do a good deed even with less-than-pure intentions, because so often that’s all that we need to recapture the idealism that we’ve lost. When it comes to the issues that divide us now, we’re too defensive to give each other a chance. We’re too leery of the other side. What we need is an entry point. We need a political ice breaker that can, to mix metaphors, grease the wheels of collaboration. And when we use the transactional model, I think we’ll get a glimpse of what it truly means to work together.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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