One Nation, Divisible
Israel isn't yet suffocated by political correctness
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Icaught flak from two directions for my recent piece on the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, in which I wrote that the sordid spectacle had only confirmed my decision to live my adult life in Israel and not America.
First, a major talmid chacham, who made aliyah not so long ago, wrote that there are many excellent reasons for making aliyah, but the lack of rancor in Israeli political discourse is not one of them. He did not supply examples, but they are easy to come by. For instance, during the period just after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, no one wearing a yarmulke could board a bus without being jeered as a murderer. One could add the numerous political campaigns waged to stop the black hordes, i.e., the chareidim.
Next, a very bright contemporary of mine wondered what kind of fantasy island I was living on in the '60s and '70s that I could contend that America is much more bitterly divided today. Did I remember the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King? The urban riots in Newark, Watts (Los Angeles), Detroit, and other cities in the late '60s? What about the rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention?
Indeed I do remember. The year before I arrived at college, student protests, many of them involving the seizure of campus buildings, broke out across the country. At Cornell University armed black students took over the administration building. In fact, I fit the profile of the protest leaders at other elite campuses: liberal suburban Jewish kid. My successful effort to get the dress code abolished at my high school — something I would come to regret within two years — and the Biafra collection campaign I spearheaded marked me as political, and thus poison, to college admissions officers.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that something has changed profoundly in America. The mass protests and riots of the late '60s were primarily triggered by the Vietnam War. That, at least, was a major issue, involving the loss of tens of thousands of American soldiers and creating massive budget deficits. Today, Americans revile one another over transgender bathrooms. When JFK was assassinated, the entire country mourned. If the current incumbent were assassinated, much of the country would openly celebrate. Even during the presidency of George W. Bush, artists and playwrights publicly shared their assassination fantasies.
During my first two decades of life, most Americans received their news from one of three nightly news broadcasts, which differed little from one another in content and each one of which attempted to preserve an aura of neutrality. That is what made the February 1968 on-air statement of CBS's nightly anchor Walter Cronkite that the Vietnam War was unwinnable such a major event.
Large swaths of life still remained politics-free zones. Sporting events, for instance. Late-night TV comedians largely steered clear of politics, and none directed their humor exclusively at one party or the other.
Americans were bound by a common constitutional creed. Many of the fathers of my friends growing up had proudly fought in World War II or the Korean War, when military service was genuinely universal.
And the range of political controversy was much narrower. Even President Ronald Reagan never seriously questioned the structure of the New Deal's reforms or sought to reverse them. The classic text of American political science, Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America sought to explain why American politics had remained free of the ideological, class-based politics of Europe.
Even in the '60s and '70s, Americans almost all viewed the future with optimism. The economy would continue to hum along at 4 percent annual growth, and each generation would be more affluent than the one before. That promise made it possible for so many of my generation to take off for a year or two on journeys of self-discovery.
When I was in law school, the most boring class was the one on the First Amendment. The answer to every question was to maximize free speech. Today, Herbert Marcuse's notion of "repressive tolerance" — i.e., traditional free speech favors the existing power structures, and is thus repressive — has taken over the campuses. I recently asked social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the founder of heterodoxacademy.org, which elite universities are committed to defending free speech. He could name only two: Princeton and the University of Chicago.
BUT ULTIMATELY I'M MUCH MORE INTERESTED in the positive trends in Israel toward greater social cohesion than in those toward social disintegration in the United States.
A suffocating political correctness has not yet taken hold in Israel. The threats to Israel are such that its citizens cannot afford to abandon common sense. Airport security personnel here prefer figuring out who is a potential threat to requiring everyone to remove their shoes.
Israeli university students are adults: Many of them have faced death in the IDF. They are not the snowflakes proliferating on American campuses. Israelis face too many macro-aggressions to be obsessed with micro-aggressions. (Haidt told me that the average 18-year-old US college freshman today has the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old of a few decades ago.)
Nearly universal military service means that Israelis from different socioeconomic groups and places inevitably meet one another and form bonds that go beyond politics, just as the "greatest generation" in America once did.
There is no such parallel in the US today. An ever larger percentage of the American population lives in precincts where their neighbors overwhelmingly vote and think as they do. And the interactions with those of a different point of view are increasingly rare.
The bitter political divisions at the outset of the Oslo process are distant memories. Ever since the August 2005 Gaza withdrawal, a large consensus has developed in Israel that there is no Palestinian peace partner, and that peace cannot be achieved at present through further territorial withdrawals.
Israeli Jews, whether religiously observant or not, continue to think of themselves as Jews, and to view that identity as imposing certain obligations. It is not by accident that Israeli medical units are among the first on the scene whenever there is a natural disaster anywhere in the world. For secular Israelis, reaching out to help others is part of their Jewish identity.
And finally, Israeli Jews are increasingly interested in reaching across religious and ethnic lines to get to know one another. More than 10,000 nonobservant Jews are involved in some kind of Torah learning every week, and most of those in a one-on-one chavrusa with a religious study partner.
Recently, readers of Mishpacha learned of the impact of young, and some not-so-young, rabbinical couples, placed on secular kibbutzim and moshavim, some associated with previously anti-religious movements.
Six years ago, Gilad Olstein, the director of three pre-induction academies (mechinot) approached Mrs. Tsila Schneider, the founder of Kesher Yehudi, and asked her to develop a program to introduce the boys and girls in his program to basic Torah concepts and to allow them to get to know the chareidi community through a personal connection to their study partners. That program has since expanded to 16 mechinot and 800 students, and the push to join has come from the mechinot themselves.
That means that each year 800 secular Israeli youth, a very high percentage of whom will serve as officers in the army and subsequently take leadership roles in Israeli society, are developing a personal friendship with a chareidi man or woman not that much older than they are — a relationship that will continue at least through the years of army service. In addition, they are experiencing a full Shabbos in a chareidi neighborhood paired with their mechina, and are participating in special events around the Jewish holidays, besides their once-a-month learning sessions. And the program is expanding every year.
Kesher Yehudi also has 3,700 ongoing chavrusas between secular and chareidi Israeli Jews, and another 100 chavrusas in one of seven weekly batei medrash.
Bottom line, that means through just this one organization, not only have close to 5,000 secular Israelis shown an interest in forming a personal relationship with a chareidi Jew, but so have an equal number of chareidim expressed a similar interest in forming a personal relationship with a nonobservant Israeli Jew based on their common inheritance of Torah.
And this is a trend that will only grow stronger.
Why shouldn't I feel increasingly happy to live here?