"With Barak I am telling you he is a man of action, one rocket hits Sderot and right away he will put a stop to it," the Israeli assured me.
He was a heavyset middle aged man with a small knitted kippah on his head and like most of the people in the shuls I pass through daily, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes on business, I never learned his name. But I had nevertheless walked into an argument with him. And in a typically Israeli way, he liked arguments.
There is a certain Israeli assertiveness that to many comes off as belligerence. It's that same spirit New Yorkers display when they jaywalk, crowd lines and bang their fists on the counter demanding service. The Israeli would often do such things. He would stand and call for davening to begin, berate latecomers and grumble over the Minyan as if it was poor service that he was getting a hotel.
"Barak is the whole reason this problem began in the first place," I replied. "He withdrew from Lebanon leaving the border open and available to Hizbullah to operate freely in. Not even Peres did that. He fled so badly that equipment and bases were left behind. Even a million dollars in a safe had to be burned before it fell into Hizbullah hands."
"Look you don't understand," the Israeli told me, gesticulating with thick hands that had seen a good deal of labor in their time, "he learned from his past mistakes. He learned from history. Now he won't make the same mistakes again."
"If you hired someone to work in your store and he made a mess, wrecked the store and broke everything--"
"I would fire him," he interrupted.
"And then he comes back a few years later and says he's learned his lesson. Would you turn over the store to him now?"
He grows uncomfortable. "Maybe. Who knows. Everyone can learn."
"What if it was life and death?"
"I'm telling you, you don't know Barak," he insisted, "he is a great soldier."
"Maybe but a terrible Prime Minister. He was going to divide half of Jerusalem."
"No, no," he said, "that was only to show that Arafat wasn't sincere and he proved it. From now on there will be no more negotiations."
"And every time this was said in the past," I argued, "every time that line had supposedly been crossed, we still kept negotiating."
"This is different. I'm telling you. Now everyone knows there is no one to negotiate with," he said.
"And there was before?" I demanded.
"We gave it a chance," he said, shrugging.
"And now you'll give Barak a chance and Peres and then maybe Olmert again?"
"It will be what will be and we can agree to disagree," he said and for him that was a great concession. For he had never agreed to disagree about anything before.
A month passed and there I was again. The Israeli sat on the bench ahead of me and to left stood a Chassid by his shtender with an open gemara and a bottle of orange soda. The two were talking in the casual way that strangers with little in common and little of importance to say do.
"In Israel we have to earn a parnassah," the Israeli was saying with his habitual belligerence. "We have no time to learn. My father came here and he had to work right away."
"Did you serve in Tzahal?" the Chassid asked innocently.
The Israeli grew uncomfortable and brusquely answered that he had not. In the Israeli's generation and in his class, service in the IDF was a requirement of citizenship and manhood. Those who had not might as well dress up as Dana International.
"Did your father?" the Chassid asked.
Again the answer was in the negative.
"Great," said the Chassid relieved, "because it's a big sin. Kochi Ve'etzem Yadi."
The Israeli was flabbergasted. They were both sitting together in the same shul, yet their conversation had revealed how radically different their worldviews were. The Chassid's Kollel was the IDF of the Israeli and vice versa. Before the Israeli could reply though, some strange politobiological instinct impelled me to break in.
"National defense is a practical matter. Kochi ve'etzem yadi is the attitude you approach it with. You can approach it with a good attitude or a bad attitude."
"But it's in doing it and doing that leads to thinking that way," the Chassid replied. "The Gemara says it's like when you have two ways to walk and one way is by where a woman is washing her clothes, so you go the other way."
"Tell me this, Habo LeHarog Etcha," the Israeli crowed triumphantly, "explain that to me."
"I have to learn now," the Chassid said.
"So learn, teach me," the Israeli insisted.
"He already asked me basically the same thing," the Chassid said, pointing to me.
"No I did not," I replied, shaking my head. "Look, you can go in with a wrong attitude into any field. You can go into business with Kochi Ve'Etzem Yadi or into medicine with the attitude that it's all my accomplishment and not Hashem or you can drive a car with that attitude too. You can go into things the right way or the wrong way."
The Chassid began to learn ostentatiously. The Israeli continued insisting on a pshat for "Habo Leharog Otcha". The Chassid's fellow Chassid condescendingly informed the Israeli that he had won. The discussion came to a halt and soon it was time for Maariv.
Under the muted hum of the learning, I studied the Chassid's hat and thought of the Yemeni Jews who had begun cooking fires on the planes transporting them to Israel. They had simply not known any better and they had carried the world with them but they had learned. The Chassid, those like him, had carried the 19th century in a bubble into the 21st century by sheer determination.
Both the Chassid and the Israeli had been communicating the attitudes built into them. As far as the Chassid was concerned, serving in the military was wrong. Had the debate gone on, I might have challenged him with the soldiers of David and Ahav, with the halachot of milchemet Mitzvah and all of that would have run up against a sheer wall. There is a vast difference between convincing someone and silencing someone and that is why I rarely engage in debates. I had helped silence him but I could never convince him, any more than I could convince him to eat pork.
My mind went back to 1938 or even 1939 and I realized that conversations too much like this for my comfort had happened then along tables and in buildings not too dissimilar from ours. And men like him had steadfastly refused to consider leaving. Similar analogies had no doubt been raised with all the women washing clothes in Israel and America. As far as the Chassid was concerned, holiness was rooted in community and the community was one that rejected the nation. I could have asked him what would happen without an Israeli Army and whatever answer he gave it would not have mattered because what did matter is that an Israeli Army is incompatible with the idealized shtetl and yeshiva life that too much of the Haredi and Chassidish world have turned into goals. And if the army is incompatible than it is by definition not needed. And the destruction that comes afterward would never and will never be accepted as a consequence of exactly that kind of thinking.
And more tragic than this was the realization that the Israeli and the Chassid were microcosms of far too much of the Israeli population. The apathetic secular voters always willing to give a failed politician and a failed policy a second chance, certain that this time we're done with negotiating and we'll actually fight the terrorists. And those in the Chassidish and Haredi camp who treat Israel like any other country they happen to be living in with no understanding that they are allowing something unimaginably precious to slip through their fingers because they refuse to change an iota of their thinking-- only growing more determinedly conservative and petty, the more the real world challenges them.
Israeli born and religious, I am a child of both worlds and a man of neither. I understand the mindsets of both communities and the many subsets and the exceptions. I know secular Israelis who are more religious than Chassidim and Chassidim who are more Zionist than any Israeli. I can recite the histories of Rabbonim who served bravely in the IDF and IDF generals who went on to become Rabbis. Yet it is all not enough.
When I studied the hat and the knitted Yarmulke I saw division. Not merely divisions of clothing but divisions of mind, each one trapped in its own narrow room with assumptions that turn in small circles and retreat when confronted with the reality of their own repetitiveness.
For too long the same arguments have been going in circles in the same narrow rooms of our minds. We all know the arguments by heart know. We know them all too well. We blog to repeat them to anyone who will listen. Yet the argument is only a tool for challenging and reshaping the boundaries of the mind.
The Israeli and the Chassid were repeating the arguments and the messages they had received from their own leaders. The leaders themselves had failed. The Israeli could halfway acknowledge this but not break his dependence on them. The Chassid could not even contemplate it.
Systems, any system, insist on recreating the mind bounded by the narrow pathways of the system itself. As embodied in Newspeak, the goal of a system is to insure that its populace cannot physically think in proscribed ways. As self-protection, when the cliches in which people think are challenged, they take a step back and abort the argument. And still they walk on in circles in that same narrow room.
Liberation comes defining what it is we truly care about, G-d, Torah, State or anything else and then discarding the pathways and the cliches and determining the best way to defend and stand by what we care about. All else is futility.