Competing Nightmares

previously published in
The Jerusalem Post
July 15, 2005

The debate over the Gaza withdrawal has become one of competing nightmares. Opponents fear, along with recently retired Chief of Staff Boogie Yaalon, that the Palestinians will be emboldened by Israel’s retreat to launch a third, more violent intifida. Supporters are terrified that Israel will become a pariah state, if the withdrawal does not take place, and pressure will grow for a one-state solution.

Neither nightmare is implausible.

Each side of the debate poses strong questions. Opponents wonder how Prime Minister Sharon plans to prevent Gaza from becoming an arms bazaar, especially if Egypt is entrusted with policing the Philadelphia corridor and the Palestinians are eventually allowed to build a port and reopen their airport. What will Israel do, if missiles hit Ashkelon or Ben Gurion airport? Will we reoccupy Gaza and northern Samaria, and if so, what was gained?

Proponents of withdrawal ask, what Israel intends to do with the millions of Palestinians under her control: (1)expel them; (2) continue to rule over them without granting them civil rights and risk being labeled an apartheid state; or (3) grant them full civil liberties and thereby sign Israel’s death warrant as a Jewish state.

Both sides understandably prefer delegitimizing the other to answering these tough questions. Opponents of withdrawal are portrayed as messianic fanatics, and their security concerns ignored. Proponents are accused of being thrall to the Oslo delusions, even though unilateral withdrawal was predicated, at least initially, on assumptions diametrically opposed to those of Oslo.

THE NON-DEBATE over the Gaza withdrawal mirrors our national conversation habits. The various tribes of Israel prefer pointing out the failures of other communities to confronting their own internal problems.

Secular Jews have an insatiable appetite for tales of those who left religious observance. The “hozrei be’shayala” were invariably brilliant students, who left religious observance because no one could answer their questions. Young Spinozas all; hormones never play a role.

And haredim reassure themselves of the superiority of their own society with statistics of school violence or the numbers of hours each day that secular youth spend plunked in front of the TV or roaming unsupervised on the Internet.

Hillel Halkin recently offered a relatively benign example of such finger-pointing exercises in these pages. He cheerily conceded that religious Jews are no worse than secular ones when it comes to interpersonal relationships. For his purposes, it suffices that they are no better – no kinder, no more generous — despite their professed belief in the Torah.

Halkin’s proof for this proposition consists solely of the police investigations involving the chief rabbis and his observation that those wearing knitted yarmulkes are as likely to talk in movie theaters as the bareheaded. For a thinker of Halkin’s power, this is pretty slack stuff.

Ironically, Halkin’s piece appeared the day before the Trojan Horse scandal broke, implicating some of the leading business figures in Israel in corporate espionage, and just as the State Comptroller declared war on our banana republic levels of public corruption.

No one would have caviled had Halkin simply observed that every breech of Torah law, whether in laws between man and G-d or man and his fellow man, calls into question the sincerity of one’s faith. That is what our Sages mean when they say a man does not sin unless the spirit of foolishness [unbelief] enters him. Nor would any religious Jew deny that we often fall far short of the ideal. And most religious Jews would admit that many non-religious Jews (not to mention non-Jews) are lovely people and many who define themselves as religious are not.

Still Halkin is a bit too quick to exonerate his own non-belief and to assume that he is none the worse for it. When we get beyond his “impressionistic” proofs, it turns out that there are significant differences between observant and non-observant Jews in the realm of mitzvos between a man and his fellow, whether as a consequence of socialization or belief.

In a 1999 study of the giving patterns of American Jews, political scientist Raymond Legge observed, “While social justice is a concept stressed most by the Reform denomination. . . the analysis indicates that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it.” A Guttman Institute study of Israeli Jews revealed that only 28% of those who identify themselves as anti-religious view helping others in need as an important value, as opposed to 90% of haredim. Not by accident have haredim established such a disproportionate share of the chesed organizations serving the general Israeli population.

And though the religious community is in no danger of extirpating improper speech about others any time in the near future, it is difficult to imagine tens of thousands of non-religious Jews devoting a day to lectures about the perils of derogatory speech and how to avoid the temptation.

The challenge for religious Jews, however, is not to answer Halkin, but to respond to his challenge by examining ourselves and asking why we do not better reflect the Torah’s standards of honesty, kindness, and civility.

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2 Responses

  1. Rael Levinsohn says:

    I feel one of the reasons why we do not reflect the standards of honesty, kindness and civility expecially in the business sphere is because many Jews simply do not know the halachot. Hundreds of books in both hebrew and english are availible on the topics covered in Orach Chaim, expecially Shabbat and Davening. On the other hand, how many Religious jews have even learned a full siman of Choshen Mishpat? A valuable step would be for more business related halachic books with halacha la-mase, practical advice to be published. Secondly, business ethics should be a topic that congregational Rabbi’s spend more time lecturing about, after all, most members of shuls are working class baale-batish people. Third , perhaps a business ethics campain analagous to the Chofetz Chaim’s Loshan Hora campaign should be initiated. If we ever want to be responsible for a tikkun in this world, the Jewish stereo type as the miserly, crooked, unethical business man has to stop. There are unfortanely too many public known cases of externally Orthodox jews in jail for fraud. Let us hope we can do something to stop this and create a kiddush hashem

  2. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Civility is overrated. What matters is actual chesed, concern with the powerless and weak, not good manners. The two can co-exist, but refined civility in no way indicates the capacity for empathy with the needy.

    The societies that place the highest premium on fastidiously studied social mores tend to be those societies that ‘otherize’ or dehumanize anyone who is not precisely like them. The uncouth Yankees are the most socially conscious in the world, while those far eastern avatars of refinement vivisected prisoners of war during WW II.

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