E Pluribus Pluribus? (Ideas #112)

When I used to dream of moving to Israel, I thought about a Jewish country with one common destiny. Even back then, I knew that this destiny was contested and that the religious vision that I cherished was not something all Israelis would quickly adopt. At the same time, I looked forward to the possible impact that I could have on my less traditional fellow Israelis in the same way that I impacted on my largely non-Orthodox community in the United States.

Of course in the United States, or at least where I was living in the United States, my co-religionists were actually neighbors. Beyond the fact that they lived next door and down the street, we read the same newspapers, shopped at the same stores, sent our children to the same schools and camps and discussed many of the same issues. Realizing that this was largely due to the small size of this particular Jewish community, I expected that things would be different in Israel – I knew that the much larger communities there allowed every group of Jews to live with others more similar to themselves.  On some level, I welcomed this: Living with people who more closely shared my lifestyle and values would certainly make many things easier.

Yet I realized that living in a type of religious ghetto would not only limit the challenges of a mixed environment, it would also limit its benefits. I realized that my children would have very little exposure to people different from themselves. I bemoaned the fact that if meeting non-Orthodox Jews would be a rare experience, contact with non-Jews would be almost non-existent, making proper education about diversity a much greater challenge.

I drew some consolation from the notion that, since I identified with the religious-Zionist camp, I would be more connected with the general Israeli society than my friends in the more segregationist haredi camp. Little did I realize that, as yeshiva study and resultant serious observance of halacha became blessedly more widespread in my community, so did greater segregation from general society.

Not only do we have religious-Zionist towns and neighborhoods, we have our own schools, youth groups, newspapers, books and websites. Our children have learned the lesson well and have developed their own music, their own modes of dress and even their own holidays: On Yom Yerushalayim, the day marking the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty, religious-Zionist youth converge on our holiest city in joyful celebration. Watching these festivities gives us pride in our youth who, by and large, display wholesomeness, unswerving loyalty to the Jewish nation and enthusiasm for the heroic return to our land. At the same time, the lack of hardly anyone else participating in these festivities is a cause for deep sadness, not only about the lack of identification of other sectors of the Jewish people with what this important day represents, but also at the isolation of our own sector thereby revealed.

On a personal level, I do not regret the choice to live in a religious neighborhood – children need to be nurtured in an environment that reinforces a family’s central values. Moreover, we no longer live in deToqueville’s America or Hirsch’s Germany, whose values were often symbiotic with our own.  Today, exposure to even the respectable media brings with it exposure to moral anarchy, promiscuity and slander and this is not something we should want for our children. It is true that, as adults, they will need to be concerned about the problems of all Jews and all Israelis. They will need to understand that Jewish tradition doesn’t allow us simply to hide behind ghetto walls.  Still, as children, they will have a harder time incorporating our moral vision if they were to see their friends trampling all over it.

The question is whether we can still produce adults interested in the larger community and who will want to engage in sincere dialog with it. Is the unavoidable cost of strengthening our own community resulting in its disengagement from general society? I would like to think not. However, without an awareness of the problem and serious attempts to do something about it, it will be the default outcome.

Right before the pullback from Gush Katif, religious anti-disengagement forces organized a campaign called “Panim el Panim.” It consisted of settlers and their supporters knocking on doors throughout the center of Israel to explain their case on a personal level. One of the goals was to break down the stereotypes about settlers developed from the secular media. It was a brilliant idea and did a lot of good. Many people visited by Panim el Panim had never before met a religious person, never mind a settler.  As far as its political effectiveness, however, it proved to be too little, too late.

But why did it take the disengagement to make us realize that we have to reengage with Israeli society? The answer may be simpler and less pleasant than we would like to admit: discomfort.

One of the greatest goods of modern society is comfort. We spend a great deal of our time and effort trying to be comfortable, materially, emotionally and otherwise. Indeed, working hard to attain comfort may be the greatest paradox of our day. Be that as it may, contemporary society’s pursuit of comfort has also impacted on religious Jewry. More than ever, we are not willing to do things that are uncomfortable.

And, as we become more insular and as the gap between us and the secular widens, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to engage in meaningful personal interaction with them.  So much so, that it has become easier for our youth to face wild police brutality at Amona than it is for them to have a meaningful conversation with a secular Jew.

My greatest concern here is not about segregation. The more important fight is against laziness, complacency and the increasing unwillingness among all sectors of society to do that which is difficult.

If we justifiably claim ourselves to be the most idealistic sector of the Israeli population – to be the ones who are still perfectly at peace with giving up our lives for “our people and the cities of our G-d,” we must realize that idealism and self-sacrifice are not only expressed on the battlefield.