This week I published in Haaretz the story of a small group of reserve soldiers who last month, while on active duty in the Jordan Valley, decided to make a small modification to their routine: They replaced the standard collection of curt phrases in basic Arabic - used by generations of IDF soldiers to order Palestinian civilians to stop, open their car door, present documents and identify themselves - with the more pleasant greetings and respectful, traditional blessings of which Arabic is so full.
Upon trying out this new lexicon at the checkpoint where they were stationed, "the transformation was immediate," one of the officers said. "They responded in kind and there was not one moment of tension or disturbance throughout the three weeks we were there."
"This wasn't superficial," another reservist told me. "We meant it and also made sure that we were not pointing our guns in their direction and made eye contact when speaking to them."
Changing the checkpoint dialect was the brainchild of poet, social worker and reservist Eliaz Cohen. "I wanted to use language as a means of seeing the other side as equal human beings, not just as potential security risks," he explained. "Basically, the opposite of what the army taught me to do."
This week's report generated a lively online discussion between supporters and opponents of the idea. The detractors on both sides of the political spectrum were predictable. Right-wingers saw the initiative as dangerously naive and a dereliction of the soldiers' duty to be suspicious at all times. Those on the left said the reservists were merely "sanitizing" the occupation; they argued that speaking politely was pointless, as the soldiers were participating in a much larger crime - denying Palestinian civilians their right to travel freely through their country.
A few also noted that Cohen himself is a settler from Kfar Etzion. If he really wants to see the Palestinians as fellow human beings, they said, he and his friends should leave the West Bank.
Ironically, on the very day Haaretz published my item about the polite reservists, another story on IDF soldiers' attitude toward Palestinian civilians broke and enjoyed much wider prominence, both nationally and internationally - the report on 21-year-old Eden Abergil's photos from her army days, which she posted on her Facebook profile. In two of the former soldier's images, she is seen smiling while standing next to arrested Palestinian suspects, their wrists bound and eyes covered. What better proof that IDF soldiers do not see Palestinians as human beings?
As so often happens, the debate was hijacked to irrelevant realms. Some commentators, rather egregiously, compared Abergil to Lynndie England, the diminutive American soldier who was photographed sexually abusing and torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. But in that case, a clear crime had been committed and the perpetrators identified and punished. The U.S. Army could thereafter claim that it had rooted out the source of evil.
The Israel Defense Forces would love to do the same, and indeed its spokesmen said that Abergil's actions do not reflect upon the rest of the soldiers and are in fundamental opposition to the ethics and values of the IDF. It was all too easy for Israeli human rights groups to call the IDF's bluff, publishing photos similar to and even worse than those of Abergil, taken by soldiers over the many years of occupation.
And indeed how could it have been otherwise? Forty-three years of ruling another people have produced generations of Israelis incapable of seeing their neighbors as human beings. This is just as much a matter of psychology and basic values as politics.
In this context, the fact that Eliaz Cohen is a settler is quite relevant. His reserve-duty initiative was an extension of his wider activity in the Yerushalom group of young (ish ) settlers who are trying to foster more neighborly relations between Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. This group is working to help both sides learn each other's language and customs and to create an environment, and perhaps one day a political solution, in which both sides can feel they "belong" to the land rather than "own" it.
Whether or not the members of this group are naive or wrongheaded, I suspect that despite being religious and living beyond the Green Line, they share more values with liberal strands of the Israeli public and Judaism than they do with their next-door neighbors with whom they pray at the local settlement synagogue.
We are rapidly entering a period in which the old political and religious labels which used to demarcate the ideological divides in Israel are devoid of any real meaning. Instead, Israelis and Jews can be better defined today by the way they relate to the "other," by their connection with the "outside" and their feelings toward the goyim.
Two posters, two messages
The other day I saw two posters, both quoting Torah verses, on a municipal notice board in Jerusalem. At first glance, both seemed to emanate from the same source, but upon reading them I realized they could not be more different from one another. One denounced the police investigation into charges of incitement against Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, who in his recent book "Torat Hamelech" ("The King's Torah" ) wrote that killing non-Jews who do not observe the seven Noahide commandments is not only permissible, but sometimes desirable.
The adjacent poster was also critical of the police, but in this case it was targetting the police's violent attitude toward left-wing protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It utilized the Torah to explain why evicting Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem was morally wrong.
Both posters were written by authors obviously steeped in the same texts.
A similar divide can be seen between the two sides of the debate concerning the future of foreign workers' children. Those in favor of deporting them are adamant that this is necessary to safeguard the Jewish identity of the state against the dangers of intermarriage. But the other side also speaks in the name of Jewish values when it say a Jewish state cannot deport children.
The same goes for the conversion debate: Some rabbis are putting up every possible obstacle (and some impossible ones ) in the face of those who would join the Jewish people in the name of halakha (Jewish religious law ), while other equally Orthodox rabbis are convinced that halakha mandates us to be more open and humane to converts, known as gerim.
Two totally different narratives of Jewish values are currently on offer. Two thousand years ago, such radical differences in Jewish ideology brought about a series of irrevocable schisms between groups such the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Karaites, the Essenes and the early Christians. The next schism is just around the corner, and it will split us between Jews for whom "a people that dwells apart and has no consideration for the nations" is Balaam's curse and those who see it as the ultimate ideal.
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