Israel today is a nuclear power with a thriving economy, and Diaspora Jews experience unprecedented social acceptance, political power, and wealth. Yet across the political spectrum, Jews are increasingly divided over how to respond to a wide variety of perceived crises.
Military threats from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, combined with the sheer force of demography, make the long-term survival of Israel — at least as a Jewish and democratic country — anything but a fait accompli. This has caused some Jews to move towards extreme forms of Jewish nationalism and to brand any Jew that disagrees with them a self-hating “kapo,” the appellation attached to the Jews who worked for the Nazis to police other Jews in the concentration camps.
On the other hand, the resurgence of white supremacy in America and the ascendancy of right wing political parties in Israel has caused a backlash in the other direction. It has caused some Jews to abandon all forms of particularism, including Zionism and the mainstream Jewish community.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
For starters, the overwhelming majority of Jews find themselves somewhere in the middle of this continuum — not at the extremes — although social media, and the primacy of the internet in general, tend to amplify even minor differences.
Israel awareness is something that should unite Diaspora Jewry. This might sound counterintuitive, but whether your political dispensation is to the left, center, or right, religious or secular, you are not exempt from this principle.
Undoubtedly, you can find an Israeli politician or group that agrees with your personal stance, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum. Speak to them and learn from them. My guess is that you will realize you have more in common with other Jews and Israelis than you initially thought. You might be of the opinion that the Israeli government’s policies need to be changed. If so, work to change them, preferably from the inside.
Similarly, if you are of the opinion that Israel can do nothing wrong, make sure you know of what you speak. Read Israeli news as covered by both the right and the left. Find Israelis of all stripes on social media and see what they have to say. What you find is likely to add nuance to your views; it will make you a better person and make our community stronger.
Appreciate Unity — And Diversity
All of this is not to say that it is easy to get along. It isn’t. But some historical perspective is appropriate here.
Jews have been at their best when they have been united. From the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire almost 2,200 years ago to the fight to free Soviet Jewry last century, we have achieved great things when we have worked together.
Importantly, we need not be in lockstep with each other’s views to work together. Take for example, the Karaites, a sect that split from Rabbinic Judaism during the Middle Ages because they disagreed with the Talmudic rabbis’ interpretations of Torah law.
For years, the Karaite movement was thought to be one of the most divisive heresies in Jewish history. Recent historical discoveries have shown, however, that Karaites and mainstream Jews — or “Rabbinites,” to use the non-judgmental descriptive term — worked very closely at some times and places. In the historically important city of Fustat, Egypt (part of Cairo today), Karaites and Rabbinites married into each other’s families and lived in nearby communities that borrowed freely from each other.
This is to say that the expression of differing views in the proper way is critical to our survival and success as a people.
Indeed, principled positions on both sides of almost all arguments exist in our community today. It is important that we hear each other and not simply dismiss — either by ignoring or unthinkingly ranting against — contrary viewpoints.
Play Nicely — Especially Online
The invective used by people with differing opinions on Facebook, Twitter, and online commentary on newspaper articles is a well-known problem.
And the Jewish community is not immune. Last month, a purported reader of this newspaper threatened to “rape and behead” a member of this newspaper’s editorial staff.
It is an understatement to say that such vile threats violate the ancient proscription against שנאת חינם (sin-AHT khi-NAHM), or blind hatred.
Share ideas and share them passionately, but do so politely, articulately, and with an open mind.
If someone shares an idea over social media that you disagree with, say so. But explain why. Use facts. Use logic. Don’t use ad hominem attacks.
This rule applies even when you believe that an idea is beyond the pale. We can’t set the boundaries of our community’s discourse without discussing them.
If you feel your blood boiling, take a deep breath. Before hurling insults (or ignoring the idea and going back to your echo chamber) try to think about how the person came to the view they did.
It is likely that either you, or the person you are speaking to, or both, will learn something valuable and you will have strengthened the community as a whole.
Learn The Jewish Language
There are also issues common to the entire Jewish community on which we all can — and should — agree.
Jewish education is a prime example. The state of Hebrew literacy in the Diaspora is deplorable and we should all work to improve it.
As American-born Israeli writer David Hazony put it: “There are no good reasons that today, all self-respecting American Jews shouldn’t gain a working knowledge of Hebrew.”
Becoming literate in Hebrew does not necessarily require more formal Jewish education. Never before has so much Hebrew content been available at your fingertips.
A plethora of apps to learn and improve Hebrew speaking and writing are available for free.
Type the word “Hebrew” into the App Store and you will find a host of Hebrew dictionaries, verb conjugators and other translation devices that I would have killed to have had when I attended Jewish day school in the 1980s and 90s and suffered through book dictionaries to translate long passages of Talmud.
There is also the Streetwise Hebrew podcast, hosted by Guy Sharett, who teaches Hebrew to all levels of Hebrew speakers through Israeli songs, news clips, and even street graffiti.
Israeli movies, and series like Srugim and Hatufim, are available on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. Other Hebrew-speaking sitcoms, news clips, and songs with viewpoints from across the political spectrum — often with subtitles in Hebrew and English — are available on YouTube and Vimeo.
Synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish communal service groups have done some work to popularize Hebrew, but they need to do more. Regular events where people can speak or learn Hebrew together should be par for the course.
There is nothing sectarian about the fight against Hebrew illiteracy, if we wage it together, as a community.