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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Peace Talk VI: Listening

Galilee Diary #446, July 1, 2009

Marc J. Rosenstein

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.
-Numbers 16:3-4

Last week, the local chapter of Sikkui, a moderate, non-militant non-profit organization that engages in programs of research and education to further equal rights in Israel (research reports, public lectures, seminars, etc.) held an evening panel discussion on the topic of "fear, racism, and inequality;" the focus was on discussing the reasons behind the efforts for and against residential segregation in the Galilee. The invited speakers represented a pretty wide range of views (similar to a program we offered a few months ago, about which I wrote here). And while the audience, characteristically, consisted mainly of people with more "leftist" sympathies, it was actually pretty heterogeneous, as the speakers were a draw (The moderator was Israel Prize Laureate Prof. Gabi Solomon). However, one part of the audience was a little surprising: a busload from the nearby city of Karmiel (pop. 50,000), led by a mayoral candidate from the last election, whose platform had been "keep the Arabs out of Karmiel." They seem to have come not to listen and discuss, but to heckle and disrupt and wave Israeli flags, until, largely ignored, they got bored and left.

While these visitors were not expected, their antics fit squarely into a central element of Israeli public discourse, one of the least attractive aspects of Israeli culture: The assumption that the appropriate way to deal with opinions I do not like is to silence them or outshout them; if no one can hear them, then they don't exist and we don't have to think about them or respond to them. I'm not sure where this approach came from - if it is Middle Eastern, or if our founding fathers brought it with them from Russia. In any case, it drives most of us Anglos crazy. And while the Knesset is perhaps the place where it can best be observed in its extreme form, it permeates all levels of discourse. Trying to conduct a civilized discussion of a controversial issue in a youth group or class room - or teacher in-service - is a constant and frustrating exercise in fighting this approach and trying to get people to listen to each other. Perhaps that is why there are so many academic and quasi-academic professional training programs here in "group facilitation," and why that is such a popular profession - we can't seem to have a group discussion without professional help! I first encountered this behavior shortly after we arrived at Shorashim, when the community began a "discussion" of the question of privatization of the collective economy. Hearing our new nice, educated, middle-class neighbors trying to out-scream each other (thereby, of course, not advancing a solution in any way) was daunting. In the end we hired an expensive facilitator and are all living happily together 20 years later.

Recently, we have seen this "silence the Other" approach carried to a worrying extreme, as there is legislation currently before the Knesset which would forbid anyone from holding any kind of public recognition of the "Nakba" - "the catastrophe" - which is how many Israeli Arabs refer to their defeat in the War of Independence. Presumably, if we never have to listen to the Arabs express their memories of loss and humiliation, those feelings will go away (or maybe the Arabs will get so frustrated that they'll just go away). Similarly, the Ultra-Orthodox act as if shutting down the Gay Pride Parade will either cause homosexuality to disappear - or will cause homosexuals to find another country.

Interesting that the best-known imperative in the Jewish tradition - "Listen, O Israel..." - is the one we have the hardest time doing.

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