‘Them or us’ = alarming disunity

‘Them or us’ = alarming disunity

I recently returned from a trip to Israel, to visit family and friends. When we were there, my wife and I tried to make sense of the political upheaval the followed the government’s proposed changes to the Supreme Court appointments, the limits imposed on their rulings, and the large protests happening in many parts of the country.

The intense disagreement between the opposing camps was disheartening. Each side described the other as the true villain, alarmingly using the term “them” in an adversarial way. Not since the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s have I witnessed such animosity dividing the country.

It reminded me of the dark episode in our history when Jerusalem was destroyed due to baseless hatred.

When the then-new Roman emperor, Vespasian, offered to grant Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai anything he wanted as a reward for his prophecy that foresaw his ascent to become emperor, Rabbi Yochanan focused on the continuation of Jewish study in Yavneh rather than Jerusalem. Many commentators asked why Ben Zakkai didn’t ask to spare Jerusalem instead. Among many answers, the Talmud is of the opinion that Rabbi Yochanan knew such a wish would not be granted. Another view is that Rabbi Yochanan was disheartened when he saw Jewish zealots burn the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued, forcing the remaining residents of Jerusalem to fight (against their will). In Gittin, the gemara suggests that witnessing the food burning and the well-known story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, showing the depths of the baseless and rampant hatred among the Jewish people, made Rabbi Yochanan realize that such divisions rendered Jerusalem not worthy of saving.

For me, the term “them” indicates more than a lack of unity. It underscores a sign of otherness, which often is the precursor of hate and violence. After all, it’s unnatural to fight against your own brethren. To do so, you first must distance and dissociate yourself from the side with which you disagree in order to justify your hate.

The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers is a striking example of how blinding hate can divide a family and justify violence. Relegating Joseph to the position of the “other” allowed his brothers to abandon him in a pit.

We’re in similar danger these days, with each camp seeing the other as the Other: the religious and the secular, the settlers and the protesters, Israelis and the diaspora, conservatives and liberals, and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with protests and attempts to lobby for your convictions, as long as it’s done l’shem shamaim — for the sake of the heavens — and without hating the other side. Otherwise, it’s a slippery slope, where labeling the other side as Others may lead to hate and violence. Both camps believe that there’s no alternative when, in actuality, there is a model for civil discourse and brotherly approach to managing conflict.

During the disengagement from Gush Katif, and despite protests around the country against the decision that residents of the Gush must leave their homes and relinquish them to a people they did not trust, action never turned into civil disobedience. Throughout the course of the evacuation, residents acted in accordance with a strong moral code in maintaining unity, even as they had to leave their homes, their gardens, and the sand dunes they had turned into an agricultural heaven. They modeled for us the path we must follow, for without unity, we may not be able to hold onto our homes.

Israel is less than a century old, yet Rav Avraham Yitzchak ha-Kohen Kook zt’l opined that we are living in the time of the atchalta de-geula — the beginning of the redemption. In studying the Psalms (Tehilim) with my grandson, I often come across passages that describe Hashem’s granting us redemption on one side while unleashing our enemies against us when we prove unworthy on the other. Witnessing the ongoing rift makes me wonder if our persistent division may make us unworthy of redemption yet again.

We have models of disagreement in our heritage. Shammai and Hillel spent
their entire lives in disagreement, yet they married into each other’s family, meaning that they never allowed their disagreements to come between them.

Similarly, reflect on the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. When the Yochanan Ben Zakkai shul was built in Jerusalem in the early 17th century, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim financed it. When the Ashkenazi Hurva shul was destroyed in the early 18th century, it was their Sephardic brethren who welcomed them into their shuls.

We are one small people, and we cannot afford to fight against one another.

We each have our own views, convictions, and positions — either trying to release the reins of power in our country from the grip of the liberals or protesting to defend democracy against partisan legislation. But none of these positions, no matter how right they seem, are as important as the unity required to protect against the danger of undoing all of our achievements of this past century.

When it comes down to it, none of us are “them.” We should guard the words from our lips. We’re all “us.” We’re all part of a family with the same ancestors, the same national aspirations, and we all want the best for our people. Am Israel chai!

Soli Foger, who is an architect, grew up in Israel. He and his wife, the educator Dr. Tani Foger, lived in Englewood for 30 years. They have four sons and six grandchildren.

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