Culture Wars and Other Wars (Ideas #83)

Even as we unite to fight this war, it remains part of the Jewish character to argue. From right, left and center Israelis criticized the government before the war, they are criticizing the government now during the war, and will likely continue to criticize it after the war.


The rabbis tell us that argument for the right motives is not only part of our tradition, it also leads to the truth, one of our cardinal values. Arguing for the right reasons, however, is really an art. Indeed, this can be seen as a particularly Jewish art. Above anything else, it requires love for the person with whom we argue, as well as love for the truth – certainly not simple matters.


The term “culture wars” has been recently popularized with reference to the increasingly polarized political climate in the United States. While this term could also aptly refer to the intensifying struggle within Israeli society, we must be very careful not to import such a cancerous notion with reference to Jews. 


If nothing else, the current war in Lebanon should give us the time to pause and look at the other side with a more loving eye and a little more appreciation. Soldiers representing almost the entire political spectrum share in risking their lives for the defense of the Jewish people and its land. We owe it to these soldiers to honor their views and to agree that we all want what is best for this country. Concerning the government that many of these soldiers and their families helped to elect, we need to recognize the positive Jewish values that motivate the very polices with which we may disagree. Appreciating the good in our opponents does not mean we should agree with them. Rather, it is what gives us the license to argue with them for the right reasons.


I suggest that we all think about positions with which we disagree and try to see what positive motivations may lay behind them. The following is my own personal attempt to do so. It is only meant to illustrate the exercise and not to argue against or support specific positions. Thus, it is not relevant for readers to agree or disagree with my political opinions, which I am including for the purpose of example only. Via this example, I want to illustrate that one can, and perhaps should, find positive motivations in positions with which one most strenuously disagrees.


1) At the top of my current list: one of the central domestic criticisms of the Israeli government has been that it relied too much on air power and even until now has not devoted enough effort to the ground war. The serious consequences of this policy notwithstanding, we need to appreciate the value that is, at least partially, motivating this government policy. It is clear that the ground war has and will continue to result in more deaths of Israeli soldiers. Appreciation of the tremendous preciousness of every Jewish life is something we should salute. Every Jew has the potential to bring tremendous holiness to the world, and the loss of even one life is a major catastrophe. If we disagree with the policy that comes out of such a perspective, we still need to love the perspective. In a world where overexposure to the media jades our sensitivities, we should strive to emulate the holy appreciation of Jewish life.


2) Having grown up in the center of capitalism, I was rather disappointed with the economic mandate of our recently elected government. The previous government's economic austerity programs seemed to have been one of the main causes for Israel's recent economic recovery and growing investor confidence. These programs were soundly defeated by a groundswell of support for Kadima's three main coalition partners, who built their respective campaigns largely around the issue of social welfare. Here too, if we disagree with the policy, we should still salute the values that animate it. All over Israel, people were deeply moved by the many poor and elderly who found themselves unable to afford proper food, shelter and health care. The pain of the elderly, the unemployed and single parents moved them to demand that the government provide relief for these underprivileged members of our society. A basic sense of tzedaka – that Jewish society should embody the trait of fairness by taking care of all its members – is certainly what motivated so many Jews to repudiate economic austerity. If we want to argue with costly welfare policies, we must first endorse the appropriate sense of responsibility for the Jewish poor that is motivating it.


3) Even when it comes to the government allowing the international gay festival currently taking place in Jerusalem* – something with which I vehemently disagree – we must still see such a position's rootedness in positive Jewish values. The desire to act justly towards all likely motivates our society's attempt to tolerate unpopular (and from our perspective, abhorrent) views and behavior. If we consider it a mistake to ignore the religious and moral sensitivities of the holy city's religious majority and even the city's official leadership, it does not take away from the fact that Jews’ desire for justice and tolerance is both appropriate and praiseworthy.


Praising one's opponents is certainly not fashionable nor is it very politically expedient. Of course, neither being fashionable nor being politically cunning has been at the top of the list of how a Jew is supposed to act.


If American society has a choice about the tone of its internal political debate, the choice for the Jew only extends as far as the limits placed upon him by the central command of loving our fellow Jew. This commandment becomes most meaningful when it is extended to someone with whom we disagree and are more likely not to love. Honoring such a person's motivation is a good way to make such a mitzvah more doable.  


When the smoke will clear and this war will end, Israelis will still have to live with each other. While the pain and tension of the war with the enemy makes us temporarily forget our wars with each other, it is ultimately these latter wars that will determine our true fate in history –  whether we can teach the world how to argue. And teaching the world how to argue is really another way of saying, to remove the very type of conflict that leads to war. May we see this merit bringing such a peace to our people, to our region and to the entire world speedily in our days.



*While the largely publicized parade has been canceled for the time being, the rest of the program is still taking place.