'Compromise' Shouldn't Be a Dirty Word in Israel

Relations between the ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular publics in Israel are increasingly polarized and threaten the state's cohesion. Israelis need to relearn - urgently - the values of respectful compromise that were always key to building the state.

Yoni Sherizen
Yoni Sherizen
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Yoni Sherizen
Yoni Sherizen

With this year’s Independence Day just behind us, Israel is at a critical crossroads. Tensions between Israelis, and particularly between mainstream Israeli society and the ultra-Orthodox, are coming to a head.

Will the ultra-Orthodox disengage from the mainstream and create their own 'sub-state' and central institutions, or can Israel as a whole manage the difficult integration of this growing and powerful sector? With issues such as mandatory IDF service, joining the workforce, civil marriage and control of religious institutions reaching a boiling point, we must engage in respectful and rapid problem-solving to secure a stable future for our country. Without the resolve to work together and agree on a set of shared values to drive the future of our country, ultimately we will fail to maintain the limited social cohesiveness we currently enjoy in Israel, and may even open the door to serious disengagement of certain groups from the state.

One example unfolding before our eyes is the control of religious institutions across Israel. With each passing day, more of that control is being pulled away from the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. This has been a cause for a growing euphoria worldwide among many liberal Jews who feel discriminated against by Israel’s state-controlled religious institutions. However, to overhaul the systems of marriage, divorce, and burial in Israel without engaging in a true process of reformation - involving listening and compromise - each side acts in a way that is self-destructive for the body politic as a whole. A one-sided revolt will deliver the same polarization that plagues Israel today. We must not forget that religious institutions impact virtually every element of Israeli society, and any one-sided and enforced arrangement will further divide and increase tension especially among those Israelis who feel that their beliefs and status have been ignored.

In fact, we seem to have forgotten that Israel as we know it is the result of compromise, both from the international community and from within our own people. It may not be the first attribute many of us associate with Israelis, but compromise is a constant ingredient in Israel’s DNA. And that pragmatic spirit is still propelling concrete proposals to find resolutions for complex antagonisms in Israel, for example Natan Sharansky’s proposal for diffusing tension at the Western Wall in terms of public prayer by women and by progressive Jews. Here, Sharansky sought to understand the needs of each party involved including ultra-Orthodox, traditional, national religious, secular, and progressive streams. This isn’t a victory of one religious movement over another, but rather a compromise by all.

Another example of Israel living in this spirit is the Community Roundtable Project in Beit Shemesh. Just over a year ago, tensions between the secular, national religious, and the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh reached an all-time high, to the extent that the story even reached the front pages of international papers. But the Roundtable forum, created and facilitated by Gesher with the support of the Jewish Agency and the Washington D.C. Federation’s ‘Partnership Together’ initiative, brought leaders from the ultra-Orthodox, secular, and national religious publics together for the sake of building a lasting peace in their shared community.

The first step in the process of facilitating compromise in Beit Shemesh was for all participants to come to the conclusion that the 'problem' was not inherent in any one group, but that each group could accept that they - and their biases - may be part of the problem. After that, the group formulated a set of common core values, established 'red lines' that each group agreed upon, engaged in trust building dialogue and finally - formed a true partnership. Today, the group meets every six weeks and despite their differing values, they have all found ways to see past the differences and find a commitment to keep the calm and shut down troubles before they spin out of control.

Why did these compromises work? To argue that we don’t have any shared values with the ultra-Orthodox to serve as a foundation for dialogue is simply false. Each group may have a vision for the Jewish people which is strikingly different on various levels, but ultimately we know that our destinies are intertwined, and that we draw from a common heritage. And at an even more basic level, we all want to live in a place where we can instill our children with values, be able to afford to meet our needs, and keep safe from physical harm. We can all pull together along these common goals. If we can put aside the few (albeit important) things we disagree on and appreciate the majority of principles we share, there is good reason for hope. The process in Beit Shemesh illustrates that while compromise entails a complex approach, it is the only method by which social tensions can be effectively diffused, while building a renewed social solidarity.

As Israel’s new government works to overcome the pervasive challenges involving the ultra-Orthodox, our leaders must include this sector of society in the conversation rather than simply attempting to dismiss their systems and sensibilities. The media must seek to inform rather than to vilify. We, as Israeli citizens, must demand that dialogue take precedence over skepticism and selfish agendas. We must truly believe and embody the notion of pragmatic compromise required for the pluralism that we preach. The stability and well-being of Israeli society depends in a fundamental way on it, as does our ability to integrate all sectors of society to build a future for Israel in which we all contribute, we are all respected and we are all engaged.

Yoni Sherizen is a director of Gesher, a Jerusalem-based NGO devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.

Secular and ultra-Orthodox protesters arguing in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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