This past Tuesday, during a Knesset committee meeting on the status of women in Israel, MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism ), responding to the participation of Reform movement representatives in the hearing, proclaimed that "Reform Jews are even worse than Arabs."
Disturbing as it was, this revolting presentation of Eichler's Jewish and democratic credentials before the Knesset, Israel's voters and the world, was also quite revealing, in three respects.
First, it exposed an uncomfortable truth about our current public discourse and political culture. It is wishful thinking to dismiss Eichler's statement as the mere rant of an individual politician. As committee chair Tzipi Hotovely (Likud ) correctly noted (after ejecting the MK for his offensive comments ), Eichler was cynically attempting to "create a provocation, for publicity and internal politics." Eichler himself reinforced this impression by asserting that Hotovely's decision to extend an invitation to Reform Jews should render her un-electable in the Likud party primary.
So, despite their disagreement, both Knesset members clearly acknowledge that Israeli politics rewards those who are abrasive, uncivil and even outright disgusting in how they relate to members of other Israeli population groups and to "others" in general; and penalizes public figures who preach moderation and attempt to build bridges with those different from themselves.
The current Likud-led government itself provides constant examples of this phenomenon. More consensually inclined politicians, like Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan - and to an extent Prime Minister Netanyahu himself - are often attacked for expressions of moderation by numerous political colleagues in the Likud and other parties, who apparently take pride in being nasty as they brazenly compete in frightening and offending large segments of Israel's citizens.
Second, this incident demonstrates how animosity and discrimination against one group in Israeli society is invariably linked to the ill treatment of others, as well as to the general public climate of tension and conflict. If there was ever any doubt that the growing number of Israeli Jews who identify with the Progressive, Masorti and other non-Orthodox religious streams, on the one hand, and Arab citizens of Israel, on the other, actually share a common cause - as second-class Jews and second-class citizens, respectively - Yisrael Eichler has effectively made the point.
Let nobody claim to be surprised that freedom of worship for Progressive Jews, the status of women, the rights of Ethiopian citizens to live where they please, equal employment opportunities for Israel's Arab citizens, and tellingly, the rights of Haredi citizens to live without being subjected to hurtful stereotypes - are not intimately connected.
In the face of the current hate-fest in the public sphere, what we need is unprecedented solidarity and cooperation across our internal divides, unifying those who oppose such uncivil behavior and ultimately punishing it at the ballot box.
Cynics and pessimists may argue that this is impossible, that our politics merely reflects widespread societal attitudes. I strongly disagree. Research conducted by the Kulanana initiative (which my own organization has initiated ) shows that the majority of Israelis, from each and every population group, oppose discrimination, appreciate that discrimination of one group invariably effects others, and support fair treatment for all.
This is reaffirmed in the daily experience of our work, alongside many other organizations, which shows the measurable change in attitudes and mutual respect that can be achieved, with focused and dedicated effort, to bring people together and create comfortable, respectful familiarity and common civic purpose. This effort involves all groups in Israeli society, including those Eichler's party ostensibly represents.
One of our partners is Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, chairman of the Zaka rescue and recovery organization and a Haredi leader, who has repeatedly told me that he and many others from his community genuinely believe that all people are "created in His image," and that discrimination is a religious abomination and can serve no constructive end.
I do not mean to belittle the challenge. Sixty-four years after Israel's establishment, there is still a fundamental lack of shared civic identity and solidarity among the citizenry. This was highlighted in nine focus groups we recently conducted in which young citizens of all backgrounds consistently expressed feelings of exclusion and alienation from major groups of fellow citizens.
Practically, we have yet to recognize that Israel's citizens - across all the major divides - share many basic needs, and that broad cooperation is a potent strategy to advancing commonly held goals.
Faced with our current abrasive political culture, the initiative for building a more cohesive society must be driven by leaders of civil society ready to cooperate across the deepest divides. Cooperation is required by leaders of all backgrounds to create a new reality, in which expressions of hatefulness and exclusion - currently common across much of Israel's political spectrum - constitute political suicide rather than profit. Only then will our politicians change their tune, and the government begin to take seriously this issue, so fundamental to Israel's national security, future prosperity and international standing: to improve inter-group relations between citizens.
Thirdly, our many partners for change actually do owe a particular vote of thanks to MK Eichler: If we ever had a moment's doubt, he has simply reinforced our conviction that only through unprecedentedly broad collaboration between all Israeli citizens - Jews of all denominations and beliefs and Arabs - can we rid the public sphere of all expressions of corrosive hatred and shape a more cohesive, civil and successful shared future.
Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.
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