Israelis are angry these days. Is it healthy anger or toxic anger? The question is important, because one leads to constructive solutions, the other to hatred.
The country is divided into two camps. Each side is convinced that their perspective is correct and the other is evil.
It was hoped that the High Holidays, with their promise of new beginnings and calls for introspection, would bring some respite, but this proved not to be the case. Toxic anger carried the day. It seems that the challenge of Israel’s dual identities as a Jewish and a democratic state has come to a head. Extremism has frayed the implicit contract of the Jewish state.
Secular Israelis feel justified in imposing their ethics on the country through academia, the media, and the justice system. Their rivals, represented by the right-religious government that came to power last year, want to impose their own belief in an Israel that is a more nationalist and religious Jewish state.
This conflict broke out over the government’s judicial reform campaign. It is seen by opponents as a coup by the government. At the same time, their protests are seen by supporters of the reforms as a coup against the government.
For one side, judicial reform is the death knell of Israeli democracy. They will not countenance dialogue or compromise. They do not care about the potential security, economic and political damage they are doing to the country. Their toxic anger has made them willing to destroy the very thing they think they are defending.
The other side is oblivious to the harm the reforms could do to Israel’s international standing, the IDF and national security. In addition, the fact that a small number of religious voters do not serve in the army or pay taxes inspires intense indignation.
What can be done? How do we stop righteous anger from turning into toxic anger?
Perhaps we can start by understanding its origins: Toxic anger results from rage. It is a combination of anger and a sense of profound helplessness. It distorts our perception of ourselves and others. It can become a pattern, a modus operandi and give a false sense of raison d’etre. It uses harsh and demeaning words to express itself and encourages destructive action. It brooks no compromise and makes unreasonable demands. It creates a sense of superiority and insists on its right to impose itself on others. At its worst, toxic anger can kill.
By contrast, healthy anger results from a sense that boundaries have been crossed, values challenged and needs unmet. This prompts us to act in order to protect what we cherish. However, this does not create hatred or demonization or push us to cut off relationships with other people. It makes us humble enough to confront the other and listen to the reasons behind their beliefs with respect, while we speak our truth with care and love.
In the end, Israel has two choices:
- Declare that it is impossible for Israel to exist as both a Jewish and a democratic state, and then watch as the country both sides are supposedly fighting for weaken and disappear due to internal division.
- Continue to hold on to the exceptional vision of Israel, however challenging it may be. Try to marry the tribal and the universal, the religious and the secular, the personal and the collective as no other nation has yet accomplished.
If we choose the latter, then each side must seek to help the other feel that they are fully part of the same social contract.
To ensure the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, teach Jewish history, Judaism and Torah in schools and celebrate Jewish holidays as national holidays. Respect how others express Judaism in their own way, including how they pray, how much they pray and whether they pray at all.
To ensure the democratic nature of Israeli society, accept that everyone deserves to feel safe and free in their identity—gender, racial, ethnic, or religious. Look for compromises like using technology to make sure buses can run on Shabbat without breaking the laws of Shabbat. Make Sunday a rest day. Carve out spaces that cater to different needs. Find the compassionate voice in the Torah.
Above all, learn that there is a way to release toxic anger. Start by recognizing whether you are suffering from it. Do you have hatred in your heart? Do you think the other is dangerous and evil and must be disempowered?
Allow yourself to feel the feeling. Notice how it is expressed in constricted bodily sensations. Your body is built to help you release each constriction on its own if you focus your attention on them one at a time.
Healthy anger makes you aware of your unmet needs. You are then able to talk about them in a constructive and flexible way but with firm boundaries. You are able to choose how to help the other side meet their needs for a Jewish or democratic state.
Sukkot is here. The spiritual energy is still available. Let’s use it.