Beit Shemesh, Israel — For more than 10 years I have been a board member and supporter – and am currently chair — of Gesher, an Israeli organization that seeks to build bridges between communities and create dialogue around common Jewish identity. But I would never have believed that my family would find itself in the eye of the storm with physical violence and intimidation on our very doorstep.
Starting in August, Beit Shemesh has witnessed escalating tensions between extremist zealots and the wider community, over a new Religious Zionist school for girls located on the border between two neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods is haredi, the other is where I live. Following a national TV story focusing on the trauma of an 8-year old girl who was spat at by haredi zealots, this situation exploded into a major national and international story unleashing a wave of public rage.
The violence in Bet Shemesh has raised many serious and troubling questions. Much (maybe too much) has been written about the specifics of the situation. Every statement or article has been put under the microscope; every formal or informal representative of the haredi community is expected to make a public condemnation, and there are strong feelings of mutual distrust now between the communities in Beit Shemesh, with this animosity spreading across the country.
Both as a resident of Beit Shemesh and a citizen of Israel I am deeply concerned. When the mayor threatened not to open the school due to the threat of violence from the extremists, I opened a Facebook page to garner cross-communal support for the school. Instantly the whole community got behind the school parents (of which I am not one) as there was a clear understanding that this is about more than just the school. The soul of the city seems to be at stake, and by way of proxy, the very soul of the State of Israel.
It would be easy for me to simply view the tension from the perspective of a Beit Shemesh resident angered by what he sees. Instead I will try to analyze the situation as chairman of Gesher, a group that has dedicated 40 years to building bridges between different parts of Israeli society, using informal education and direct encounter to build common interests between disparate sub-groups.
At Gesher we know that the only way to solve conflict in the long term is through direct dialogue. This can be achieved in many different ways, and we have probably used and experienced most of them over the years. Beyond the pure tactics we also strongly believe that using our common language and culture gives the frame of reference required in such a unique place as Israel providing the foundations for these encounters.
While this conflict is different from many others we have tackled in the past, I am sure that the same principles will apply in facilitating a reduction in tension, and more importantly a common basis for understanding locally and nationally.
In order to succeed we need several key commitments:
1. A sustained commitment to dialogue – speaking face to face is the only way to overcome our differences and find common ground. This actually starts by using direct encounter to break down barriers of mutual ignorance. In Israel, there remain polarized sub-groups that have created virtual walls to “protect” themselves from being influenced by their neighbor.
2. Fostering a shared commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. There are those whose focus is the Jewish half of the equation, and those who focus only on the democracy. The unique and complex challenge in Israel is to synthesize these sometimes competing values. As a society we have to understand that we all draw water from the same “well of Jewish history, culture and tradition." Religious and non-religious must feel equal ownership over our heritage in order for this to be successful.
3. Financial commitment to educate our children, parents, and community leaders – giving them the tools to live respectfully with one another. This is about education and not sound-bytes. Education is a long-term affair, with all groups signing up to a set of core building blocks, even if the practical day to day looks different for every group.
4. Engaging diaspora communities as partners in this challenge will be crucial, tapping the generations of community building and relations.
With these commitments, we can chart the course together, even if it sometimes means finding better ways to agree to disagree. Without them we run the risk of failing, a possibility that Jews everywhere must not contemplate.
It looks like the worst of times but this is not new. Throughout our long and sometimes tortured history we have learned that our greatest threat grows from within. The argumentative nature of our people can bring great tragedy; it can also give birth to wonderful solidarity and cooperation. It is in our hands to determine a better ending, and we must act soon. Together, we can ensure a strong future for Israel and the Jewish people.
Daniel Goldman, chairman of Gesher, is managing partner at Goldrock Capital, a private equity firm.