Companions on a Shared Quest

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The Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, as tradition has it, because of groundless hatred between Jews. IDI's Yedidia Stern takes this opportunity on Tisha B'Av to reflect on the current culture war in Israel, and urge citizens to focus on the covenant of destiny that binds us, rather than the divisions between us.

Tisha be’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, relates not only to the past, to what was, but also to what exists today, to the here and now.

The Second Temple was destroyed, the Sages tell us, because of sin’at ḥinam—groundless hatred. Today, such hatred is rampant among us, albeit in a new garb. Euphemistically, we are talking about a Kulturkampf—a culture war.

The Jews are well known for their predisposition to debate and disagreement. The central text of the Jewish library, the Talmud, deals almost exclusively with disputes among the rabbis—hundreds and thousands of disagreements—regarding the appropriate conduct in numerous life situations. There are no agreements about anything; only debates. Across the generations, debate has been the main current of Jewish existence.

Disagreement, in and of itself, can be most beneficial. When it is “for the sake of heaven”—an appropriate discussion of a worthy issue—there is nothing better for developing our minds, sharpening our understanding of the world, stirring up stagnant waters, and challenging conventional wisdom. The Talmudic sages engaged in endless debates precisely to achieve these ends—and with awe-inspiring success.

But disagreement can descend to discord, developing into a two-edged sword, if it becomes violent: “not for the sake of heaven,” but with the sole intent of crushing the other side. It's at this point that we label our adversary as “bad,” undermine our comradeship and solidarity, and slide down a slippery slope that ends in groundless hatred and destruction.

When the State of Israel was born, many of its leaders anticipated that it would bring about a final decision in the debate about Jewish identity. They believed that the ingathering of the exiles into a single territory, where Jews would enjoy cultural and political hegemony, would consolidate the emerging society and enable the development of unifying symbols and myths.

The reality, of course, has been quite different. Even if in its first few decades Israel was a consociational democracy, whose citizens pursued consensus in the name of advancing national goals, more recently we seem to be a “democracy in crisis,” characterized by a steady stream of harsh disagreements between contending forces that wish to seize control of the national agenda.

As a result, Israel, rather than serving as an arena for common Jewish action, has evolved in our generation into a wrestling mat. The spiritual harmony among Jews, which was taken for granted for most of the long centuries of exile, has dissipated. Even the national reawakening, reflected in the intense labor to establish a new center that would sustain the collective - even in conditions of religious and cultural polarization - has become the topic of a bitter quarrel.

In the Israeli culture war, the discourse oscillates between accusations and counter-accusations, between those who are certain they are right and those on the other side who know they are right. Potentially, the disparate tribes could have created an impressive patchwork quilt had they lived as neighbors. Instead, they live in a perpetual state of confrontation and the quilt is coming apart at the seams.

At any given moment, we are liable to be talking to ourselves, conducting multiple monologues - but never a dialogue. Today, we are pursuing parallel arguments that can never meet in the middle. Our mouths are wide open and our ears are sealed shut.

We are coming very close, alas, to groundless hatred.

The Gemara issues a stern warning: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they rendered verdicts in strict accordance with Torah law.” That is, litigants pursued a knockout victory—anchored in the law—without showing any empathy for the other side. Translated to the language of our own time, this was phrased by poet Yehuda Amihai, a fellow Jerusalemite, as follows: “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.”

Of course we must never stop debating. There is no consensus about the answers to the key questions related to our “covenantal mission”—the appropriate vision for Israeli society. As such, we must continue to seek clarity.

However, we must conduct this debate with the full knowledge that we are linked by a covenant of destiny, companions on a shared quest.

Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.