For a few hours last week, I felt a flicker of optimism about Israel's future. Such moments are rare - even my friends have begun to call me the prince of darkness. So I'd like to savor them a bit.
The occasion was a two-day conference under the auspices of the National Consensus, bringing together over 200 religious and non-religious Jews, to discuss Shabbat in Israel. I gained from the conference a greater recognition of the importance that many non-religious Israelis attach to Shabbat, even if their Shabbat differs radically from mine.
In the roundtable discussions, many expressed anxiety about the loss of any sense of Shabbat in the public arena and a desire for a deeper experience of Shabbat in their private lives. Speaking of his support for a ban on commercial activity on Shabbat, one non-religious speaker emphasized: "This has nothing to do with concessions to the religious, this is for me."
Support for an end to commercial (as opposed to cultural) activity on Shabbat was widespread. Ra'anana Mayor Ze'ev Bielski pointed out that the opening of kibbutz shopping centers, for instance, has ramifications extending far beyond the centers themselves and the interurban highways bringing shoppers to them. When Kibbutz Ga'ash opens a shopping center outside of Netanya, every shopkeeper in Netanya finds himself faced with the choice of opening on Shabbat or going broke. Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg, in turn, finds herself under overwhelming pressure to permit full-scale shopping downtown. And if downtown Netanya opens up, so eventually will every nearby city.
In this fashion, the people who gave the world the idea of man as something more than a sophisticated beast of burden whose whole life revolves around earning money are producing one of the most frenetic, commercially based societies in the world.
As Rabbi Ya'acov Meidan put it at the conference: "Thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, drawn from the weakest economic strata of society will be forced to work on Shabbat so that residents of North Tel Aviv will be able to go to the grocery store on Shabbat morning for fresh milk."
Ironically it is Meretz, whose members see themselves as avatars of the life of the mind, which is the most fervent advocate of this rampant commercialization. For Meretz and its rival Shinui, wiping out Judaism takes precedence over all other values. (The announcement this week of a Meretz-inspired boycott of products bearing badatz kashrut certification and the stores that sell them is a case in point.)
The National Consensus gathering last week was the polar opposite of Meretz-Shinui's incitement to religious war. More inspiring even than the specific discussion of Shabbat was the underlying commitment of everyone present to dialogue and the oft-repeated sentiment that we must find a way to live together.
ACCOMMODATION, Prof. Ruth Gavison pointed out, requires that we eschew the search for an unattainable consensus on ultimate issues in favor of practical initiatives that do not necessarily implicate larger philosophical issues. One such initiative that generated widespread enthusiasm was Natan Sharansky's call for a five-day work week. The institution of Sunday (or perhaps Friday) as a second day of rest could go a long way toward lessening tensions surrounding Shabbat. Except for the small percentage who want to shop davka on Shabbat, the availability of a day for shopping would remove the pressure to open malls on Shabbat. It would also allow for more contact between different sectors of the population.
Those who currently cannot attend soccer games because they are played on Shabbat, for instance, would be able to do so. During the discussion of this proposal at my roundtable, a number of the non-Orthodox participants commented that without the pressure to cram everything into Shabbat, they would like to go to synagogue and otherwise introduce more of a Shabbat atmosphere into their homes.
Though Sharansky was not present, it was fitting that his proposal should have generated so much discussion. More than any other politician on the scene today, he exemplifies the quest for Jewish unity that brought the National Consensus participants together.
Israel today is the only country in which school children are asked: Which groups in society do you hate most? Children imbibe at an early age the message that the willingness to compromise makes you a freier (sucker) - the worst insult in the national lexicon. The goal is winning, and when you have won - even if the margin of victory is 50% plus a Mitsubishi - to stuff your values down your opponent's throat while you are still on top.
An acquaintance commented recently that after years here he has yet to meet five liberals in the Voltarian sense: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
We are much more inclined to shout down ideas we do not like and to prevent their broadcast or publication. Sharansky stands apart from all that. His slogan, if he were to head a truly national party, might well be, "All who want to win, all who are stuck in zero-sum mindsets, vote for the other guy." Compromise, for him, is a desideratum, not a sign of weakness. That attitude underlies his frequently repeated view that an end-of-conflict agreement, even one that leaves Israel strategically vulnerable but which commands widespread national support, is preferable to a better agreement supported by a narrow majority.
Our most precious and irreplaceable national asset remains, in his eyes, Jewish unity.
Our current cultural wars give little reason for cheer about the state of Jewish unity. Yet if the 200 Jews at last week's gathering represent a real current in Israeli society - and are not just soon-to-be-extinct artifacts of bygone days - and if the seekers of rapprochement prevail over the sowers of hatred, there may still be hope for us.