What Rabin can teach us about fighting corona: Without civil discourse, we are lost.
This essay is part of a collection of essays commemorating the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The collection was produced in partnership with BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.
For young people in Israel today, the assassination of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin is simply another event on the timeline of history. Those born in 1995, for instance, could easily be starting their graduate degrees at this very moment. Israeli society therefore needs make a strategic decision: Is the assassination of Rabin an historic event alone, or is it something that must be kept alive in Israel’s public memory?
Although Rabin was certainly a political figure, this question of memory is not a political question at all. Alongside the assassination itself, the events preceding and following it remind us of the danger that lies in the absence of civil discourse. We were deeply divided into separate tribes and factions then. Not only could we not live beside one another, but we fought outright with one another.
The question of the importance of civil discourse transcends the passage of time from 1995 to 2020. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 caught Israel by surprise. During the first wave, we found ourselves in an initial battle of defense. Today, in the midst of a second wave, we are in a war of attrition. Now we are wiser, we now better understand not only the medical danger, but also the economic danger.
The one danger whose implications remain most unclear, however, is the moral danger. At the heart of this moral danger lies the lack of civil discourse among the various factions of Israeli society.
From a bird’s eye view, if we were to look upon the public discourse in Israel today, we would see a discourse of conflict, of struggles. We would see, for example, protests against the prime minister; protests by Haredim against efforts to enforce Corona Cabinet restrictions against them; protests against Israel’s Corona exit plan; fighting on social media between Haredi and National Religious Israelis on questions of compliance.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with healthy debate. But the danger lies in arguing for the sake of arguing, rather than out of a desire to come together to work toward a common good.
Here in Beit Shemesh, infections have been up and down. What hasn’t changed however, is our continued effort to educate for mutual responsibility. Throughout the pandemic, at every possible opportunity and before every possible audience, we have emphasized that each and every resident of our city shares in the responsibility for the fate of our town. Each and every one of us must play our part and take responsibility if we are to find our way to safer shores.
That is not to say that we don’t each have our own opinions, citizens and elected officials. But out of a sense of responsibility, we have put our political differences aside and worked together in order to protect our home. This consistent cooperation has characterized our city’s response to the pandemic from the outset through today.
Many have come to visit our city’s “situation room” and been amazed by the collaboration. Religious Zaka volunteers working alongside secular members of the Tzofim (Scouts) youth group. Volunteers from the Haredi organization “Yedidim” working with Service Year volunteers. Young Bnei Akiva volunteers with Hatzala volunteers. All working together with a joint mission: to beat the pandemic.
How have we managed to carry out such a model of cooperation? Only through civil discourse. When a Haredi volunteer from Ezrat Achim told me that he took the dog of an ill secular woman for an evening walk, I was truly moved. The concern of the Haredi volunteer for the mental health of the secular Israeli woman and her concern for her dog showed me that a bridge had been built.
Beit Shemesh is a city of communities. It is a city that out of its complexity is home to diverse communities from across the Israeli social spectrum. This cultural mosaic is possible because of mutual recognition. We don’t need to agree with one another, but we must accept one another.
The State of Israel has been under the weight of the pandemic for over half a year now. It is up to us to determine how our society will look when this is all over. The post-pandemic portrait of Israeli society is up to us alone to design. If we give way to extremist voices, their discourse will dominate the public space.
But if we understand that there will always be extremists, and work to amplify voices of civil discourse among all the diverse communities of Israel, then the power of the extremists will dissipate, and we will come out of this crisis stronger.
The lessons of the assassination of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, are as relevant as ever. Through the wisdom of memory, we can become stronger for the future.
The State of Israel, the people of Israel and Beit Shemesh will be shaped as we shape them. This is our obligation. No one else can do it for us.
Dr. Aliza Bloch Mayor of the City of Beit Shemesh.