Rejoicing in the Growing Consensus in Israel

This past Thursday morning, in my schul’s sukkah after services, I met a young British couple newly arrived on their first visit to Israel.  Returning to our apartments, they marveled at how silent Jerusalem felt on this first day of Sukkot compared to London.  Although we were walking along a major artery in the city center, no buses or private cars, save an occasional taxi, were on the road; no stores and only one café were open along our route.  

Mid-day on a nice holiday afternoon, a single jogger and no bicyclists were in view.  No cars, no buses, no police, no 18-20 year old citizen-soldiers with machine guns slug over their shoulders [although, of course, only their constant viligance made this quiet possible], no protests.  Just pedestrians, chirping birds, and sunbathing cats.  After lunch, I took a nap -- windows open, sans my usual earplugs!  

This first day of Sukkot was a national holiday, and the population majority in our area is ritually observant. Still, private cars were not banned and would not have been harassed.  A least a few stores and a few more cafes could have been open.  Even a few more cars and open business establishments would have significantly lessened the sense of serenity in the city, like one or a few discordant notes in an otherwise harmonious choir.  Therefore, what we were experiencing in part reflected a nearly universal consensus for quiet, even among non-Jews, the secular, and others indifferent to religious observance of the holiday.  

Consensus….in Israel?  

Israel is usually depicted in both the American and in Israeli media, and often in informal discussion among Jews in both countries, as divided and dysfunctional, governed by an even more divided and dysfunctional (not to mention incompetent, factionalized, and corrupt) government.

There is certainly a lot of truth to these characterizations of a country rift by numerous “fault lines:” Jew vs. Arab, religious vs. secular, Haredi vs. other; Ashkenazim vs. Sefardim; rich vs. poor, Sabra vs. immigrant, North vs. South, “settlers” vs. those living behind the “Green line,” etc. etc.  But there is also much societal consensus – and it can and does force the government’s hand.  Moreover, national consensus is growing.  This fact is largely ignored by both the media and politicians in both countries, and therefore the prevailing view of Israeli society as hopelessly fractured is misleading.  

This point was made this week by the senior foreign correspondent in Israel, Canadian Jim Lederman, who has been analyzing Israeli society (especially, radio talk-shows, op-eds, and popular media) and government for nearly a half-decade.  He made his argument in his blog: http://www.jimlederman.com/?p=157.  (A rebuttal to his article, and Lederman’s response, appears at www.jimlederman.com).  

Lederman provides numerous examples of ground-up consensus in Israeli society, including: 

  • Mass protests against Golda Meir for government unpreparedness in the Yom Kippur (1973) war, forcing her resignation
  • Mass protests forcing governments to tackle hyperinflation and an end Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon
  • Changes in the language of Knesset campaigns, which previously almost invariably used the slogan “Smoch Alai” (“trust me to exercise Knesset power on your behalf”) but which campaigns now refer to sovereignty of the people, not of the legislature
  • Building of a separation fence between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria after 450 Israelis were killed in one year by Palestinian infiltrators and suicide bombers (the fence was opposed by the settlers).  Moreover, after the military constructed the barrier based on topographical and security considerations, the Supreme Court, also implementing Israeli societal consensus, forced changes in the route to reflect a more balanced set of considerations.
  • Formation of a public committee, in 1992, to establish a formal ethical code for the Israeli military, strengthened by another committee in the early 2000s, which resulted in the practical manual “The Spirit of the IDF” to guide soldiers in their day-to-day encounters with humanitarian and other ambiguous situations. The standards in this consensus-developed and adopted manual forbad IAF pilots from bombing Hamas’s rocket launchers if innocent civilians were nearby, even as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.  Similar considerations forbad Israel from discontinuing its supply of water to Gaza during the war, a step advocated by some politicians. The manual is accessible in English at: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Society_&_Culture/IDF_ethics.html

Lederman’s main thesis is that:

the Israeli public [not ‘those bureaucrats, army officers and freely-elected politicians who refuse to be held accountable for their actions or inactions’] is in the midst of constructing a new, national value system that is adapted to their traditions and unique experience; and that because of shallow media coverage, the world, and especially Diaspora Jewry is unaware of the process that is underway.

Lederman hopes to begin to rectify the “cumulative ignorance about one of the most dynamic elements of Israeli society, its ongoing search for a value system that takes into account the often unique experiences Israelis have undergone.”

Let us hope that these trends -- that of growing consensus in Israeli society, generally, and that of the search for values-driven standards, in particular -- will continue.  

That we can look to the Jewish state to increasingly reflect the will and judgment of its people is a very good reason for joy during this Chag Simchatenu: the season of our rejoicing.   

Shabbat Shalom, Mo'adim L'simcha, and Happy Sukkot from Jerusalem! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3