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Op-Ed: Unity is vital for harmony in Beit Shemesh, all of Israel

BEIT SHEMESH (JTA) — It’s raining as I write — a rare, cold, hard rain that is welcomed by Jerusalemites who know that it’s good for them and the country. Water, like patience, is a treasured commodity here in Israel: temporarily inconvenient, but better for you in the long run.

Rain is a blessing. We pray for it. Patience is a blessing. We pray that we have enough of it for each other.

It’s a good day to stay inside and reflect on my trip to Israel and to Beit Shemesh, a city about half-hour west of Jerusalem. Beit Shemesh and the Washington Jewish community have been partners for many years, and partners share responsibility for each other.

In Beit Shemesh, the friction between some extremist haredim and others took a recent explosive turn. Add international media coverage of the separation of men and women on selected bus lines and the removal of images of women on certain billboards in Jerusalem, and we have a combustible mixture of concern by many Israelis and American Jews about the status of civil society, tolerance and women’s rights in Israel.

While a majority of haredi men are not working or serving in the military, we are beginning to see — and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is supporting through training programs — a growing number of haredim entering both the workforce and military service. We will also be funding expanded programs to promote dialogue and tolerance in the Beit Shemesh community.

We must all do more to encourage those who are adapting to the changing environment while standing up to resistance within their own communities. We cannot afford to become two people. We have to learn to live together. We need the rain. We need the patience.

Many in Beit Shemesh told me how proud they are of their community. They point to excellent schools, the beautiful countryside, good jobs and friendly mixed neighborhoods of haredi, secular and Modern Orthodox Jews. They urged me to help tell the story of the “other Beit Shemesh,” the part of the community that is not in the news. Non-haredi members of the community reminded me repeatedly that the extremists do not reflect the vast majority of haredim in the community who oppose the harassment and violence. They tell a more nuanced story.

A haredi man with whom I spoke lamented the situation and is urging members of his community to pursue a dialogue with the non-haredim — to create trust with the goal of living peacefully side by side with others. Everyone has an opinion — this is Israel after all — but most I’ve spoken with are worried about the willingness of everyone to find ways to live side by side.

“All politics is local,” said Tip O’Neill, the late speaker of the U.S. House of Represenatives, and that’s true in Israel, with a twist: local is national and vice versa. Coalition governments make for strange bedfellows and even stranger deals. The net result is a mixture of national policies with significant local ramifications, such as a plan to build more housing units in Beit Shemesh and the struggle over who will live in those units.

What is going on here and how can we help? These are the two questions we must face as American Jews.

Israel is a vibrant democracy, with guaranteed civil rights for all its citizens. We do not need to lecture Israelis about democracy, free speech and advocacy. This past summer’s protests, with up to 400,000 Israelis taking to the streets to demand affordable housing and education, is the latest and largest example. Israelis are actively and passionately addressing these issues.

But I do worry about the image of Israel. No, this is not another article about hasbara. Rather it’s a call for the American Jewish community, though we come from different backgrounds and may not agree on multiple issues, to engage with like-minded Israelis to denounce acts of intimidation and violence, promote dialogue and create safe space for different communities in Israel to live beside each other in greater harmony.

And when it comes to the public relations of the State of Israel, we are all on the front lines. This is not someone else’s story. It’s our story and our responsibility to paint a complete picture of Israel as an extraordinarily free and democratic country facing up to and dealing with its challenges.

It’s a tale of two countries but also a tale of one people — our people. It’s a story that encompasses everything: the challenging and the beautiful, the reality and the promise, the present and the future, all built on a miraculous past. It’s a tale that must aspire to the happy end expressed by Isaiah: “And I shall submit you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations.”

(Steven A. Rakitt is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a Partnership 2Gether community for the past 15 years with South Africa and the Mateh Yehuda/Beit Shemesh region.) 

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