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OpinionIsrael at War

Remember the necessity of Jewish unity

Disunity helped start this war and we must not repeat that mistake.

IDF soldiers receive protective equipment from One People, a civilian group that formed shortly after Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Photo courtesy of One People.
IDF soldiers receive protective equipment from One People, a civilian group that formed shortly after Hamas's Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Photo courtesy of One People.
Robert M. Schwartz. Credit: Courtesy.
Robert M. Schwartz
Robert M. Schwartz, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who has published pioneering scientific articles on positive psychology.

Families of hostages held by Hamas have been blocking humanitarian aid trucks and further demonstrations are planned. Right-wing Israeli politicians are proposing the Jewish resettlement of Gaza. Passions are understandably running high as the Israel-Hamas war grinds on. Yet the pundits are debating whether or not it’s time to return gradually to “politics as normal.”

But we can’t return to “normal” politics because, before the war, Israeli politics was anything but normal. Divisive and belligerent political debates over judicial reform expressed strong disunity, weakened the body politic and culminated in talk of civil war. This encouraged our enemies to attack.

Israel must not return to this abnormal “normal” politics of disunity, which would undermine the military victory our heroes and martyrs have sacrificed so much to achieve. Israeli President Isaac Herzog focused on unity during the Knesset’s session marking Israel’s 75th birthday, asking what we must do to make ourselves worthy of our people’s sacrifices. He cited Salman Habaka, a Druze IDF commander, who said, “Our strength is our unity.”

Though disagreements will and should continue, Israel must make unity its highest social value, above our individual beliefs. This is the only way we will achieve total victory. Without unity, we and our victory will be Pyrrhic in nature.

The ideal of unity has deep roots in Israeli culture. Religious Zionist pioneer Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook embraced the love and inestimable value of every Jew—both secular and religious—as vital to the Jewish state. Right-wing Zionist leader Menachem Begin refused to fight fellow Jews. When the Altalena ship was attacked by the nascent IDF, he rejected civil war and surrendered his Etzel organization’s arms to the ruling Labor Zionists, led by his great rival David Ben-Gurion.

When he reached a rapprochement with Begin later in life, Ben-Gurion told his long-time rival that he opposed Begin’s way but “I never held a personal grudge against you and as I got to know you more over the last few years—I’ve learned to cherish you.”

Life is characterized by contention between opposing views. Until some religious or secular messianic age, this contention will continue. But paradoxically, it can lead to a moderate, sustainable unity. One might think unity is best served by agreement on all issues, but this is a totalitarian ideal. A democracy or republic seeks to synthesize opposing views in order to forge a middle way. Ideally, opponents are not seen as your enemy but as vital to the life of the body politic.

In Israel, these opposing views are well-known. Religious Jews believe that every Jew should live according to Jewish law. Secular Zionists believe deeply that they should be free to choose how to live their lives. The hostages’ families believe that the primary goal of the war should be to bring their loved ones home. Many other Israelis believe just as strongly that the primary goal must be defeating Hamas, because if Hamas survives, nine million Israelis will become hostages.

We should note, however, that some of the hostages’ families believe that the defeat of Hamas must come first. Moral ambiguities, we should remember, are everywhere and must temper our convictions.

A giant step towards unity would be for all of us to recognize that the primary cause of disunity is arrogance and a bloated ego. People become convinced that their political or social opinions are absolute truth. As a result, they will fight to the bitter end in order to impose this “truth” on others. We all need to relearn humility, which can lead to the mutual respect necessary for civil dialogue and the conflict resolution process. We must accept the results of that process, whether our views prove victorious or not.

Implementing this cultural shift will require many small, random acts of unity. Now is the time for this attempt at behavioral change to begin. Disunity helped bring about the current war and all the suffering it entails.

Fortunately, there are signs that things are indeed changing. As an IDF soldier who lost a leg in battle said: “I think that if there’s one thing that comforts our hearts—as someone who has been lying in a hospital for three months, hospitalized—I see the beauty of Am Yisrael in all its forms and I see the people, how united they are. Suddenly I feel like: Yes, I’ve lost a leg, but to see the unity of Am Yisrael, it’s like a wish come true.”

But, he added, “I have a very difficult personal feeling that as time goes by, people start to forget. … We all fought and sacrificed. We still sacrifice for one thing: We want to see a united nation! That’s the only comfort we have from this war.”

We must ensure that this soldier’s fears are unjustified. We must remember, not forget.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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