In Israel, Dialogue and Discussion — but the Atmosphere Remains Charged
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In Israel, Dialogue and Discussion — but the Atmosphere Remains Charged

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“What’s more important — a religious Jew adhering to Torah or a secular Jew adhering to his or her conscience?” asked a teenage girl with a red ponytail. Her question, addressed to leaders from Peace Now and the Yesha settlers council, went straight to the heart of the Israeli dilemma as citizens here struggle to define Israel’s future as both a Jewish state and a democracy.

“Sometimes a question is better than an answer,” said Daniel Tropper, founder of the Gesher Foundation, which seeks to bridge the gaps between different segments of Israel’s population.

On Wednesday, Gesher hosted a day of dialogue at a Jerusalem square, bringing together religious and secular, right-wing and left-wing Israelis in an effort to find common ground at a time of discord.

The mood in Israel is raw and charged as Israelis observe the ninth anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and absorb Tuesday’s Knesset vote backing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Threats from extreme right-wing Jews are intensifying against Sharon, who travels under a growing veil of security.

Vandals this week sprayed graffiti on a Jerusalem wall, reading, “We assassinated Rabin, and we’ll assassinate Sharon too.”

“Nine years have passed and it is as if we have learned nothing,” Geula Even, an Israeli television news anchor, said in reporting the incident.

The Conservative movement introduced a new prayer for Sharon’s health and well-being in the wake of what movement leaders said were calls from some fervently Orthodox rabbis to institute “death rituals” to bring about Sharon’s demise.

Tensions are simmering around the Gaza withdrawal plan. Jewish settlers claim it’s their biblical birthright to live in Gaza, saying that any attempt to evacuate Jews from their homes and leave the area to the Palestinians is against God’s will.

Several thousand Gaza settlers flooded Jerusalem for a mass protest ahead of Tuesday’s withdrawal vote in the Knesset. Schools in the Gush Katif settlement bloc were closed and busloads of schoolchildren, along with their parents, came to the capital, waving signs and chanting anti-government slogans.

Meanwhile, on Monday night, thousands of left-wing demonstrators marched on the Knesset in a show of support for Sharon and the disengagement plan, arguing that the majority of the public favors withdrawal.

At the settler protest, Yaffa Goldschmidt, deputy principal of an elementary school in Gush Katif, was defiant. She said the community is united in its struggle against the plan, and she defended bringing children to the protest.

“Of course we brought the students here today. The government is trying to kick them out of their homes,” she told Army radio.

In a statement signed by 60 other rabbis, Avraham Shapira, a former Israeli chief rabbi who remains influential in religious Zionist circles, said the withdrawal plan violates Jewish law. His statement called on Orthodox soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlers from their homes.

At the same time, some left-leaning soldiers are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Speaking this week at a special Knesset session in memory of Rabin, Sharon slammed those who urge soldiers to disobey orders.

“To refuse is to refuse to obey the laws of Israel,” Sharon said. “The army is an expression of national unity and will not be held hostage to extremists.”

Delivering a conciliatory message, Sharon said, “We must respect those with different opinions,” and added, “We are all brothers, we are all Jews.”

Eliezer Ya’ari, executive director of the New Israel Fund, which supports civil and human rights projects in Israel, said that what connects the commemoration of Rabin’s assassination and the protest over the Gaza withdrawal vote is that they both “pose a challenge to Israeli democracy.”

“It’s evident that Israel is getting back to the most basic questions of its existence — of Israel as a Jewish state and as a democracy,” he said.

On Wednesday, schools across the country held discussions and ceremonies to mark the Hebrew date of Rabin’s 1995 assassination by an ultra-nationalist Jew, and to discuss how political assassination affects society.

Underscoring the divide in Israeli society, Israel Television reported that schools sponsored by the Sephardi Orthodox political party Shas did not commemorate Rabin’s assassination in any way.

On Wednesday, white tents were set up on a square near Jerusalem’s central bus station for Gesher’s day of dialogue. Inside, religious and secular teenagers debated the divisive issues. Arms waved in the air, voices were raised, but a genuine discussion took place.

“It’s a microcosm of what we would want society to be like. It’s also a demonstration that it’s possible,” said Tropper, who immigrated to Israel from New York in 1969 and set up Gesher soon afterward.

Tropper mediated a panel discussion between Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of Peace Now, and Shaul Goldstein, deputy chairman of the Yesha Council.

Goldstein took issue with those who say Israel should leave Gaza because of the difficulty guarding some 7,500 Jewish settlers living amid one million Palestinians.

“We came to live in the Land of Israel. It’s not easy, but it never has been,” he said.

But Goldstein also rejected the use of violence to prevent the evacuation.

“Violence is forbidden,” he said. “No one wants to break up Israeli society.”

Oppenheimer, meanwhile, said he was alarmed by the call for a national referendum on withdrawal — as advocated by settlers and many within Sharon’s ruling Likud Party — despite the Knesset vote in favor of withdrawal.

“To say the prime minister has no authority is to destroy the idea of the government of Israel,” he said. He suggested that settlers and their supporters put their energies into building a demographically viable and strong Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

Moshe Mandel, 17, a Jerusalem high school student with ritual fringes hanging from under his T-shirt and a kipah pinned to his wavy hair, said that hearing the various speakers and sitting together with secular teenagers at the Gesher gathering was a form of progress.

“It would be so much better if people knew each other and were not scared of each other,” Mandel said. “If we can show each other that we are not monsters but humans, then the whole situation will change.”

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