If you were just dying to hear a liberal and pluralistic message, where would you head to? Beit Shemesh or Tel Aviv?
Beit Shemesh is a highly unlikely choice from the outset. It has been the scene of an intensive struggle for control of the public space, pitting the ultra-Orthodox against the town’s secular and religious Zionist residents.
The conflict is not just a matter of ideology, but also of practice. Ugly and aggressive exclusion of women is common. Especially notorious are the men who spit at girls whose clothing do not meet the standards of their own stringent dress code, and street signs that order women to stick to their own sidewalks. The reality is such that ultra-Orthodox soldiers in uniform do not dare enter some neighborhoods.
There are more than 10 (!) separate school systems in Beit Shemesh. Every ideological group – distinguished from one another by indicators ranging from the length of their socks to their attitude towards science and the arts – wants to educate its youngsters in its own way. The view of Beit Shemesh from Tel Aviv is of a neglected and secluded hill town when, in fact, it is a kaleidoscope of identities, beliefs and opinions, expressing both a rich variety, and at the same time, bitter strife and conflict.
And yet it is precisely there, in this battlefield of clashing identities, that a message of hope resounded last week with the election of a new mayor, whose supporters included some ultra-Orthodox voters, and who offers her fellow townspeople an impeccably pluralistic ideology.
Dr. Aliza Bloch – to judge by her platform and positions – can serve as the poster child of the liberal doctrine that Israel so desperately needs to adopt. This Modern Orthodox woman, her hair always modestly covered, is committed to fostering a shared and tolerant public space. In her words, “We have to stop talking about barriers and start talking about people.” Unlike some liberals, who recite politically correct statements but behave like fanatics, she demonstrated tolerance when she decided that because she is a woman, her picture would not appear on election posters in the town’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
This wasn’t capitulation on her part, but rather a demonstration of courage. This was a concrete example of a deep-seated liberal attitude that understands other people’s needs and sensitivities and, out of responsibility for the overall situation, knows how to balance conflicting values.
By contrast, in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv – the iconic heart of the city that portrays itself as the bastion of sanity, open-mindedness, liberalism and pluralism – time after time we encounter large numbers of those whose inclusivity muscles are woefully flabby.
The most recent event there, last Saturday night, at the memorial gathering for Yitzhak Rabin, exemplified this only too well. Tzachi Hanegbi, the cabinet minister who represented the Right wing on the program, was greeted with boos and heckling and attempts to drown out his words. An angry political camp turned out in force and showed itself incapable of listening to a single speech by a representative of the rival camp.
How despicable is a mob that calls for non-partisanship but is unwilling to listen to a voice that speaks for a majority of Israelis today? What woeful paradox is a liberal audience that plugs up its ears and opens it mouth to jeer? No one was asking them to make a sacrifice or give up something dear to them, but only to allow a small and symbolic space to the political “other” that had come to offer its own perspective on the national trauma and its implications.
The members of the agitated crowd in Rabin Square are absolutely certain that the truth rests only with them. They feel comfortable with dividing Israeli identity into “them” and “us” in such an extreme way as to not grant any legitimacy to presentations of the other’s position The zealots of Tel Aviv, which faces the sea, should listen carefully to the liberal message resounding from the slopes of the Judean Hills.
The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.
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