Yes, we are brothers with a common fate and destiny. We will survive and thrive together, or history shows that we will not survive. We are people of the book. Books are made of words. Words are powerful and dangerous. Used properly, they can inspire, uplift, result in unfathomable achievements. Used to incite, to vilify, to degrade, they can lead to total and complete destruction.
The State of Israel, in the middle of its eighth decade, is in the midst of internecine strife between brothers. Brothers with different histories but the same history, brothers with unique cultures but the same culture, brothers who live apart, but who live together, brothers who speak the same language but who do not speak to each other. This must change!
In one of Ephraim Kishon’s beloved satires, a group of chasidim (chareidim) are throwing rocks at cars because they are driving on Shabbat. The police are called. The mefaked (commander) orders the police to arrest the chareidim. Officer Azoulai tells the mefaked that arresting the chareidim will lead to violence and asks to speak to them. The commander tells him that you can’t reason with chareidim but permits Azoulai to try. As Azoulai approaches the chareidim, he is cursed at, spat upon, and pummeled with objects. Undeterred, he gets close to them and begins to speak. Instead of berating them and calling them names, he quotes from the Torah, the Torah that speaks to both sides of the conflict. The interest of the chareidim is piqued. Who is this devil, this apikores (non-believer) who speaks the holy words? Hesitantly, a discussion is started. They test each other’s adherence to concepts in the N’viim (the Prophets), in the T’hilim (Psalms), even in the Talmud. Their commonality, their brotherhood is revealed. A car drives by, but they are no longer interested because they are speaking to Officer Azoulai, their newly discovered talmid chacham.
Some will read the above and see a naïve, childish parable. An occurrence beyond today’s reality. I see in this story the foundation of our continued existence into the future. Ephraim Kishon, in his brilliance, reveals the basis for ending conflicts between brothers. He highlights the power of civil discourse and communication and the importance of using appropriate language. He emphasizes the need to empathize with those who see life through a different prism. Azoulai did not agree with the stoning of cars driving on Shabbat by the chareidim. But, rather than vilifying the chareidim by calling them fascists or barbarians, he reaches them by speaking calmly in a language they can understand. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is true today.
In the 17th century, seminal thinkers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, de Montesquieu, the philosophers, along with Hume, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, and others, provided the word basis for the age of enlightenment. These words culminated in the French Revolution and the rebirth of democracy in Europe. The Age of Reason led to the idea that for man to be free he must live in a society that ensures the rights of all citizens. The fact that the words of a group of intellectuals could lead to the demise of many monarchies resulted in the aphorism “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Words do matter. Social media amplifies this statement and today it is truer than ever.
Since the last election and the empowerment of a right wing/religious government, the discourse in Israel, which has not been civil for many years, has sunk to new depths. Clearly, different stakeholders in Israeli society may have orthogonal perspectives on the path that our government should follow. The religious chareidi world, the secular Zionists, the religious Zionists, the hawks, the peace camp, the climate change proponents all have their own agendas. Ultimately, no sector can, nor should, achieve all of its desires. Compromise, and consensus within these compromises, is essential to the continuation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Democracy requires attention to the rights of the minority, and the maintenance of a Jewish state requires sensitivity to the age-old traditions of our people.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, championed the concept of guarding one’s tongue by emphasizing the danger of lashon ha’ra, speaking evil about others. The current unbridled explosion of defamatory and vile words impedes civil discourse and needs to be reined in. Using pejoratives such as Nazi, communist, barbarian, primitive, and the like, leads to anger, rigidification of positions, and enmity. Our leaders both in the government and the opposition, and even in the media, must be especially restrained in their choice of words. Yes, you do have a right to say what you think. But, ultimately it may be prudent and farsighted to not exercise that right. The future of Israel may hang on the civility and tone of our discussions going forward.
Dr. Fred Naider is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Chemistry at the City University of New York. He made aliyah in 2020.