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    Unprecedented polarization, or has Israel been here before? With Meir Soloveichik

    enSeptember 18, 2023

    Podcast Summary

    • Israel's societal shock absorbers protect against political polarizationIsrael has faced political crises before and managed to stay united due to societal resilience

      Despite the current unprecedented division and polarization within Israel over judiciary reforms and competing visions for its future, Israel has faced similar challenges before and managed to pull through. Dan Sienor, author of the upcoming book "The Genius of Israel," argues that Israeli society has societal shock absorbers that protect against political polarization from truly unraveling the country. The book, which can be preordered now, includes a special chapter sampler dealing with current debates in Israel. The New York Times coverage of protests against Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 eerily resembles current coverage, but Israel hung together during that time, and the country may have unique societal resilience.

    • Political protests and debates in Israeli historyIsraeli society has faced deep divisions and unrest throughout its history due to political protests and debates, but has managed to rebuild and move forward.

      Throughout Israeli history, political protests and debates, sometimes violent, have occurred frequently. This includes protests against government policies, such as the disengagement from Gaza and the Lebanon War, and even the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. These events have caused deep divisions within Israeli society, with each political camp blaming the other for the unrest. However, despite these polarizing moments, Israel has managed to rebuild and move forward. The current debates over judicial reforms are not unique in Israeli history, and understanding this context may help in finding a way forward. The importance of this perspective is highlighted by the ongoing discussions about these debates in Israeli society, including in synagogues during Rosh Hashanah.

    • Embrace the complexities of life and Israeli historyRabbi Meir Soloveitchik encourages nuanced discussions about Israeli history and accepting life's uncertainties for valuable lessons

      Life, whether it's football or history, is unpredictable and full of frailty and vulnerability. Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, a prolific Jewish leader and writer, was a recent guest on the podcast. He emphasized that human beings and historical events, including Israeli history, are complex and should not be oversimplified. Soloveitchik encouraged listeners to approach discussions about Israel with nuance and understanding. He also shared that human life, much like a football game, can be filled with unexpected twists and turns. The Jewish perspective encourages acceptance of life's uncertainties and focusing on the lessons that can be learned from them. The next episode of the podcast will feature Mika Goodman discussing Israel's domestic political crisis and broader themes about Israeli society.

    • Michelangelo's David, 'Friday Night Lights,' and Armando Galarraga's imperfect perfectionLife's true heroism lies in facing and overcoming challenges, as shown in Michelangelo's flawed David, the resilience of 'Friday Night Lights,' and Armando Galarraga's graceful response to an umpire's mistake.

      Striving for perfection is an unattainable goal in life, and true heroism lies in facing and overcoming challenges. This was highlighted in the discussion of Michelangelo's David, which, despite its perceived perfection, has a flaw in its ankles that could cause it to crack during an earthquake. The same theme was present in the TV show "Friday Night Lights," where the quarterback's injury and the coach's speech about facing challenges reminded us of the importance of resilience. This idea was also echoed in the story of Armando Galarraga's perfect imperfect game and the way he gracefully responded to the umpire's mistake. The Jewish perspective was noted as emphasizing the importance of staying engaged and involved, even in difficult times, as illustrated by the historical reference to the curse of the 8th decade in Jewish history. Overall, the message was to find meaning and heroism in the imperfections and challenges of life.

    • Lessons from Jewish history: Unity and divine graceUnity among the Jewish people and divine intervention have played crucial roles in Jewish history, as exemplified by the pursuit of a unified capital and temple in Jerusalem.

      The unity of the Jewish people and the state of Israel has faced challenges throughout history, but the lessons from the past, such as the divisions during the first and second temple periods, offer valuable insights for moving forward. Rabbi Buchwald emphasized the importance of remembering the dangers of infighting, as exemplified by Menachem Begin's actions during the Altalena crisis. However, there are other lessons to be learned from these periods, including the significance of unity and the role of divine grace in Jewish history. David's decision to make Jerusalem the capital and build a temple there symbolized the pursuit of unity among the Israelites, and Solomon's successful completion of the temple served as a reminder of the divine intervention in their achievements. These historical events underscore the importance of unity and the role of divine grace in Jewish history, providing valuable lessons for the present and future of Israel.

    • Solomon's vision vs realityFocus on building an independent polity rather than seeking empire for lasting inspiration and faith

      Solomon's vision of Jerusalem as a beacon of faith and inspiration to the world was admirable, but his approach to achieving it, through building an empire, led to negative consequences. His diplomatic marriages with foreign countries, and subsequent taxation to maintain the empire, ultimately brought paganism into Jerusalem and resulted in the splitting of the monarchy as a divinely ordained punishment. In contrast, modern Israel, as a strong, independent Jewish state and a source of inspiration for millions around the world, provides a different lesson. Israel's continuity as a democratic country for over 75 years, despite its imperfections, is a remarkable achievement that should be celebrated rather than a cause for foreboding. Solomon's mistake was seeking empire instead of focusing on building an independent polity that would serve as a beacon of faith and inspiration.

    • Normal part of democratic processesIsrael's political situation is a normal part of democratic processes, with valid criticisms and debates, but it's essential to remember that similar occurrences happen in countries around the world.

      The current political situation in Israel, with its heated debates, protests, and government responses, is a normal part of democratic processes. While there are valid criticisms of the Israeli government's actions and the judicial reforms, it's essential to remember that this is not an isolated incident. Countries around the world experience similar disagreements and debates. In Israel's case, after a series of failed elections, a new coalition won a majority and attempted to push through reforms. The reaction was strong, with mass protests, but the government eventually paused and came back with a more modest approach. This dynamic, while contentious, is a healthy sign of a functioning democracy. It's important to keep the personalities and complexities out of the discussion and focus on the democratic process itself. Additionally, it's worth noting that Israel's current political situation bears similarities to historical moments of debate and division, such as the reparations debate in the 1950s. While the language and specific issues may differ, the underlying democratic process remains the same.

    • Historical protests in Israel: Begin's call for violent overthrow, Lebanon war, Rabin's assassinationThroughout Israeli history, protests and political debates have shaped the country's democratic process, with significant events including Begin's call for violence, the Lebanon war, and Rabin's assassination. These events should be seen in context, as part of Israel's remarkable journey to establish and maintain a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

      Throughout Israeli history, political debates and protests have been a significant part of the country's democratic process. One notable example occurred when Menachem Begin called for the violent overthrow of the government during a protest against the Ben Gurion government, which drew 15,000 people – equivalent to a protest of 3,000,000 people in the United States today. During Begin's premiership, there were protests regarding the Lebanon war and the pullout from Gaza, and a protester was killed. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was another pivotal moment, causing deep division and anger within the country. It's crucial to remember that these events should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a larger historical context. The birth of a Jewish state in the Holy Land is a remarkable accomplishment that spans over a thousand years, and its continuous flourishing should not be diminished by present-day challenges. However, some argue that the current political divide could potentially threaten the sustainability of the Zionist enterprise as we know it.

    • Tension in Israel over economic burden and internecine conflictAvoid demonizing groups, have respectful discussions, and remember political parties represent diverse Israeli electorate members.

      The situation in Israel regarding the growing burden of supporting a subset of the population that doesn't contribute economically or serve in the military, while the rest of the population bears the sacrifice for the security and financial well-being of the state, is causing significant tension. This issue, along with extreme rhetoric towards certain groups, is fueling internecine conflict. It's essential to avoid demonizing or painting entire groups with a broad brush, as this language only adds to the heat and risks spiral out of control. The recent debate over the reasonableness clause in Israeli politics is not the core issue, but rather the language and demonization of specific groups within Israeli society. It's crucial to remember that various political parties represent diverse members of the Israeli electorate, and it's necessary to have respectful discussions about their contributions and places within Israeli society. The historical comparisons and extreme language used during this time are not only inappropriate but also detrimental to the peace and unity of the Israeli people.

    • The importance of unity among Jews and the danger of demonizing one groupUnity among Jews is crucial, and demonizing or painting one group with a broad brush is dangerous. Menachem Begin's burial choice symbolizes the need for brotherhood and understanding, while the Hasmonean family serves as a cautionary tale against turning against one's people and adopting divisive rhetoric.

      Menachem Begin's life teaches us the importance of unity among Jews and the danger of demonizing or painting one group with a broad brush. Begin, a former Israeli Prime Minister, chose to be buried next to two Jewish men from different backgrounds who had died in each other's arms, rather than among statesmen. This act symbolizes the need for brotherhood and understanding among all Jews, regardless of their origins. Additionally, the Hasmonean family, also known as the Maccabees, serve as a cautionary tale against turning against one's people and shutting oneself off from them, as they did when they became a monarchical family and adopted Greek culture. These historical lessons remind us of the importance of unity and avoiding divisive rhetoric, especially during times of conflict or vulnerability.

    • The end of Jewish independence due to external interventionThe Jewish civil war between Herod's sons led to Roman intervention, ending Jewish sovereignty. External pressures can have unintended consequences, and it's crucial to respect Israel's sovereignty.

      The civil war between Herod's sons, Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, marked the end of the independent Jewish kingdom not because of an internal power struggle, but due to external intervention. One side sought Roman support, leading to Pompey's invasion and Roman control over Jerusalem. It's ironic that some people invoke the story of the Maccabean civil war to reflect on 75 years of Jewish sovereignty, yet ask for external pressure on Israel during the same conversation. This highlights the importance of considering the full context of historical events and the potential consequences of external intervention. The United States, thankfully, is not Rome, and Israel's sovereignty should be respected. Despite challenges, the strength and resilience of the Jewish people and their state remain noteworthy.

    • Jews' deep investment and care for IsraelProtests, dialogue, and understanding are crucial parts of democracy, but should be done respectfully and constructively, reflecting the deep investment and care of Jews towards Israel.

      Despite the challenges and disagreements surrounding Israel's politics, there is a deep sense of investment and care among Jews both in Israel and around the world. This was evident in the large protests and counter-protests during significant political events, as well as the acts of unity and understanding between opposing groups. The right to protest is a crucial part of democracy, and it's important for dialogue and expression of concerns to take place, but it should be done respectfully and constructively. The image of people from opposing sides shaking hands on the escalator at the train station is a powerful reminder of the hope and optimism that can still be found in Israel's complex political landscape. Overall, the passion and investment of individuals towards their country, even during difficult times, is a testament to the enduring strength and resilience of the Jewish state.

    • The power of remembered sounds and memoriesCherish and remember the sounds and memories that have impacted us, and recognize the far-reaching effects of kindness and support extended to others.

      The power of memory, particularly the memory of a sound, can be more impactful than the sound itself and can inspire and drive us in ways we never imagined. This was the theme of a Spanish Portuguese synagogue sermon, inspired by the lacuna of the missing shofar sound on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The sermon told the story of Sanford Greenberg, a man who was inspired by the memory of his friend Arthur Garfunkel's voice and the help he provided during a difficult time. This memory drove Greenberg to support Garfunkel's musical aspirations, leading to the formation of Simon and Garfunkel. The title of Greenberg's memoir, "Hello darkness, my old friend," encapsulates the idea of remembering the sounds and people that have shaped our lives. The absence of the shofar sound on the first day of Rosh Hashanah serves as a reminder to cherish and remember the sounds and memories that have impacted us, and to recognize the far-reaching effects of the kindness and support we extend to others.

    • Unexpected conversations during Rosh HashanahOpen-minded and respectful dialogue is valuable during moments of reflection and introspection, leading to unexpected and insightful conversations.

      Even during the introspective period of Rosh Hashanah, unexpected and thought-provoking conversations can emerge. During this discussion, Rabbi Soma Mejik and Dan Senor touched upon various topics, including football, leadership, and politics. Rabbi Mejik shared his thoughts on the Chicago Bears' success in the 1980s despite having a less-than-stellar quarterback, drawing parallels to the current state of the New York Jets. They also discussed the importance of having a strong leader, such as a Mike Ditka figure, to guide a team to success. The conversation then shifted to the upcoming Democratic and Republican primaries, with Rabbi Mejik expressing surprise at the direction of their discussion. Despite the unexpected turn of events, they continued to engage in a spirited and insightful conversation. Overall, this exchange highlights the value of open-minded and respectful dialogue, even during moments of reflection and introspection. To learn more about Rabbi Soma Mejik and his work, visit mayorsoloveitchik.com, and be sure to preorder Dan Senor and Saul's new book, "The Genius of Israel," for insightful perspectives on current events.

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