(May 8, 2022 / JNS) It is sound practice to examine one’s own behavior before casting aspersions on that of others. But self-reflection in the Jewish context is all too often an exercise in directing accountability inward, rather than where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of the people of Israel’s external enemies.
European Jews learned the hard way that their very existence—and the blood in their veins—was sufficient cause for all of them, from the visibly Orthodox to the utterly assimilated, to be systematically tortured and slaughtered. Tragically, it’s a lesson that American members of the tribe are now being forced to internalize and in which their counterparts in Paris, London and elsewhere on the Continent are being given a refresher course.
Anti-Semitism of the above type is foreign to native Israelis, especially the younger generation, despite contending daily with foes out to kill them for being Jews. In fact, even many Israelis whose families have been ripped apart by terrorist missiles, fire bombs, guns and machetes don’t recount having experienced anti-Semitism. Instead, they view themselves as victims of Arab/Palestinian terrorism; as though it were a separate phenomenon.
A minority of Israelis, some of whom have high positions in the government and an even higher number of whom hold seats in the Knesset, still cling to the notion that the cause of the hatred and ensuing violence is political. This bloc thus believes that the solution lies in diplomacy—Israeli territorial and other concessions whose ultimate goal is the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Since all such efforts on Israel’s part have belied this idea, the weary majority has come to realize that the hostility is deep-seated, religious, ideological and not going anywhere in the near future. The divide between the two perspectives is not new in Jewish history or the annals of the Jewish state.
One wouldn’t know this, however, when witnessing the incessant carry-on about the disappearance of “societal unity.” This has been the theme of the current coalition in Jerusalem since its inception a little more than a year ago.
It was also the motif of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism speech, and has resurfaced as an ongoing topic of debate on Hebrew TV panels. The argument on the part of those suffering from a strange form of amnesia is that Israelis used to possess solidarity, but have become increasingly polarized; so much so, they say, that healthy debate has been replaced by mutual hostility and delegitimization.
It’s astounding that in a country as young as Israel, which is filled with citizens who remember its founding, the bitter splits that existed from the beginning are suddenly forgotten. Perhaps nostalgia, no matter how false, is a healthy human mechanism. Or maybe misrepresenting the past is a manipulative weapon to wield against rivals.
Either way, whenever the “need for unity” is raised, an ulterior motive is lurking in the shadows. In the case of Bennett, parts of his faltering coalition and apologists in the media, the purpose of the narrative is clear. It is to continue to justify the touted “change” coalition, forged unconventionally by a party with very few seats, with the stated aim of ousting then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is also to warn the public that without this particular form of “unity,” Israeli democracy will be in danger and the nation as a whole will be weakened.
Those who accept this depiction believe that Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition, is guilty of dividing the country, causing friction between Israel and the Diaspora and—laughably—of turning the Jewish state into a partisan issue separating Democrats from Republicans in the United States.
To be fair, Bennett and his backers are not alone in admonitions of disaster lest “unity” not be achieved.
Pikuach Nefesh [“sanctity of life”]—the Rabbinical Congress for Peace, an Israeli organization founded in 1993 “to alert public attention to the clear position of the Torah concerning territories under Israeli rule,” is also promoting the narrative—albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum.
According to this group of Orthodox rabbis, who say that “the Torah unequivocally forbids relinquishing even one inch of territory under Jewish rule or participating in any negotiations concerning withdrawal from any such territory,” the surge in terrorism is an alarm bell for Jews.
In an open letter on Friday, the morning after the deadly Palestinian axe attack in Elad, Pikuach Nefesh called on “each one of the people of Israel, the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the daughters of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, to wake up and become stronger, to engage in genuine internal soul-searching, in order to repair our actions, those between man and God, and those between man and his fellow man.”
Pikuach Nefesh said that the way to accomplish this is through Judaism.
“We will take it upon ourselves, each and every one of us, to add glorification and care to at least one mitzvah, and in so doing, influence at least one other person: donning approved, kosher phylacteries every week day; observing Shabbat; lighting holy Shabbat candles at the designated time; making sure to partake of only kosher food and beverages; taking care to have a kosher mezuzah at every entrance; preserving family purity; regularly studying the Torah; maintaining especial love of Israel and every Jew—not, God forbid, the opposite; and providing a true Jewish education for the children of Israel.”
Though the rabbis’ remedy for Israel’s predicament, like the impetus behind it, is completely different from that of the political echelon, the sentiment behind each is eerily similar. Both urge internecine cohesion.
Ironically, neither really means it in relation to those who don’t adhere to a certain set of prescriptions. The coalition feels no affinity for the Netanyahu camp. Pikuach Nefesh faults the Bennett government for the current wave of Arab/Palestinian terrorism.
So much for “unity” and “loving every Jew.”
These are impossible objectives in any case. A slightly more attainable target—and of far greater benefit—is recognizing the danger from without and working hard to defeat it.