Learning how to disagree respectfully
'A lack of unity'

Learning how to disagree respectfully

'A lack of unity presents an existential threat to our survival'

More than 10,000 members of the Jewish community rallied in support of Israel in 2014. Photo: Noel Kessel
More than 10,000 members of the Jewish community rallied in support of Israel in 2014. Photo: Noel Kessel

If you do a quick survey of any small group of Jews anywhere in the world and ask them to describe the most pressing issue facing the global Jewish community, it is inevitable that you will certainly get a variety of responses. Some will posit Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose a serious security threat. Others will point to growing antisemitism that seems to constantly metastasise and withstand the test of time. Yet another group will point to growing numbers of millennial Jews who feel disenfranchisement with the State of Israel.

While all of these are true problems that continue to keep some of the world’s smartest Jewish thinkers up at night, as a community rabbi, I would posit that the largest problem that is facing any Jewish community, both in Australia or overseas is the lack of unity among ourselves. I know it sounds basic to point to something so simple, but a lack of unity presents an existential threat to our survival.

At present, Israel is going through a difficult phase. The current government is made up of many radical factions. Many problematic views have now been given a mainstream platform from anti-

LGBTQI sentiments to misogynistic policies designed to restrict women and ministers that call for violence against Palestinians.

It’s a worrying time in Israel, especially because it was not always an inevitability we would end up here. Just 75 short years ago, the founding of the State of Israel ushered in a monumental period of collaboration between all Jewish people. When the Kibbutz movement was born, everyone had to contribute to build the Jewish dream of 2000 years: the creation of a homeland. The unity of the Jewish people in supporting this ambitious and at times seemingly impossible dream brought out the best in our collective Jewish spirit.

Jewish organisations from around the world sent money to support building up a future homeland, with many of these organisations, like JNF and UIA, continuing to play an important role in the State of Israel. Young Jews, convinced that they were in a unique position to contribute to this once in a millennium opportunity, moved their whole lives to volunteer and contribute to the fledgling state. During the pre-state and early years of Israel, the contribution of all Jewish people was united in its support of a greater purpose: the desire to establish and create a flourishing Jewish country. 
When one looks at Israel and what has been created in such a short amount of time, there is little doubt that this dream has well and truly succeeded. But the growing problem in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world today is a lack of unity.

The famous Jewish joke states: on a desert island with two Jews there are three synagogues, one for each Jew and one neither would ever set foot in. On one hand, it’s a funny joke and emblematic of the bickering that we sometimes have. But it also shows a deeper problem that exists in our communities. Jewish communities, both in Israel and around the world, are breaking down into subgroups more than ever before and we are forced to confront the fact that we are less cohesive than we have ever been.

If anyone needs a reminder, our strength is in our unity. The State of Israel could not have existed in its current form without Jewish unity. And just recently, in relation to the outrageous and appalling behaviour by Adelaide Writers’ Week, which chose to platform antisemites who called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “depraved Zionist with a house on stolen Palestinian land”, we saw that our unity was our strength. Major corporations such as MinterEllison and PwC pulled their sponsorship and our community was steadfast in its response, from Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler writing in the pages of this newspaper, to influential publisher Morry Schwartz calling out this appalling antisemitism. And it is this very unity that makes us strong.

In a world where everything has become so polarising, I think the ability to respectfully disagree is fast becoming a lost art. People like to cancel each other. They don’t have patience for opinions that don’t line up with their own. And the sledging and hate that comes with such territory leads us to become more divided than ever.

So, what’s the solution? I would argue that there is no one solution, but first and foremost we have to spend more time dedicating ourselves to activities that promote unity. Work together to find solutions to these complex issues. Like most Jewish issues, there will be a myriad of opinions, but having space to listen, work together and still find solutions to shared problems is the key. In the Jewish tradition, we are obligated to see the humanity in each other. I don’t always agree with people I break bread with, but I always see them as human beings, deserving of my respect, whether I agree with them or not.

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann is rabbi of Melbourne’s ARK Centre.

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