The Voice of People: Not always what you expect

The attack in Itamar on Friday night brought out some of the most vicious sentiments among Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israelis on all sides of the many political divides.  It’s appalling that some people have justified/won’t condemn the attack on children, or that others support collective reprisals against Palestinian communities and expanding the occupation as a response. The nasty attacks by the advocates of each position on people who do not agree with their perspectives is just as bad.

It is deeply upsetting to realize that we have trained ourselves to dismiss those with whom we disagree. This is a terrible practice that makes our interlocutors into nonentities. Those who do it turn shallow and self-indulgent; they make their lives easy by pretending the right winger, the left winger, the radical, centrist, settler, secular or whatever, is inferior. Not surprisingly, their conclusions turn destructive. Facebook shouting matches this week gave good examples:

I think the ideological settlers have lost all humanity and need to be made by any means necessary to leave the territories.

The speaker above went on to hint at approaches that I do not care to repeat. Others  suggested that we would be better off branding the entire Arab world terrorists:

What I find off putting is the attempt to wipe so much violent history under the rug to make nice to a culture that has been violent from the start.

As a pollster, I’ve long felt a burning frustration at the inability or unwillingness of people to put their personal agendas aside, even momentarily, in order to try and understand one another. I feel it is my enormous privilege to listen to real people for a living – messy, inconsistent people who are living life, facing contradictions and wishing things were better. Watching them in focus groups, or listening in on phone surveys, I often think, if only those on the (left, right – take your pick) could hear this old pensioner, or this young computer programmer, and hear how earnestly he or she came by these opinions, surely even a die-hard left or right-winger would relate on a human level, even if we continue to disagree.

So I’m starting what I intend to become a series of interviews here on +972 (hopefully my colleagues will join) – not the “head to head,” conversations like Haaretz, with experts or celebs – but with regular folks, the people we love to generalize about. My clients pay good money for this, but I want our readers to have it for free: I request only your open-mindedness, and the suspension of your cynicism.


Moshe is my second cousin. He’s 30 years old, from an ultra-orthodox family in Brooklyn, and now lives in West Jerusalem. Growing up, I saw his black-hatted Boro Park family, with their endless babies, only at infrequent extended-family gatherings.

In 2004 Moshe joined the IDF, serving through 2005, and was in Gaza for the disengagement, although he was not a “disengager” – his term for those who evacuated settlements – but served in a tank unit. Moshe then made aliyah in 2006, married and has a one and a half year old son. He considers himself orthodox, or ultra-orthodox but doesn’t like the connotations around the term “Haredi,” because “Israelis often say it with more disdain than they have for Arabs.” Still, his wedding was definitely the most Haredi event I’ve experienced in recent years. Moshe now manages his father-in-law’s currency exchange business.

Living in Jerusalem, Moshe observes that he has a slightly different perspective on the conflict from other Israelis, living alongside Arabs (or else “East Jerusalem Arabs,” as he calls them), meeting them as customers, workers and service providers. He is encouraged by the myriad interactions he gets to witness. Just recently, he said, he had marveled at the sight of Arab and Jewish social workers demonstrating together in downtown Jerusalem, marching by his shop. They held signs in Hebrew and Arabic, he observed, and Palestinian women wore either traditional clothing, or headscarves and jeans.

“I am sure that this diverse selection of people have just as diverse feelings about the matzav (situation), yet this common cause, this fight to improve the situation for every one of the workers is enough to put aside everything else and march together.”

He likes other perspectives in general, and often responds substantively to articles I post or write. “Inevitably you’re going to have discussions with people from other points of view. You shouldn’t just see your point of view…I love information, that’s because it broadens my outlook.”

What bothers you about the left?

“It’s not so much their ideas, or agenda, it’s the hijacking of those ideas and agendas, by perhaps more radical elements. They refuse to accept views other than their own. Anyone not like them is [seen as] anti-democratic and a supporter of McCarthyism, and people not like them or not on their agenda are often not even viewed as people, human beings.

One of my big qualms is that I think there’s a certain victim or ghetto mentality among the Jewish people and we feel apologetic for our success as a nation, while we’re surrounded by people or nations who are not as well off as we are…and we feel guilty because we’re so used to being the downtrodden…[therefore, the left’s] goals are to further human rights, the protection of those that are less fortunate… But they are so focused on championing the Arab/Palestinian cause that they almost neglect problems at home.…when there’s a stabbing attack in the middle of Tel Aviv, why aren’t [they] screaming and yelling? Maybe because it wasn’t the IDF. When a soldier does something, [they blame] the whole government. …It’s frustrating a little bit. You have to be consistent.”

And the right?

“We’re so busy trying to show that we’re right that we’re not being smart. Our religious right to the land is wonderful and I’m a big believer in it, I’m religious and I believe in the Chumash, the Torah, but to someone who’s an atheist, what [does he] care what your God promised you, your fantastical, drug-induced fantasies of God, promising things?”

What should be done about the conflict?

“If you ask me, there should be a two-state solution. [Israel] should say, we conquered, we took what we wanted, now here’s what we don’t want. We should keep what we think is important, like the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb – sites that are important to Jews as a nation…There will always be people left inside our borders, and the Israelis outside the border – maybe they don’t really need money so much as a new home. The Arabs [who will be left] inside our border, they should have full citizenship and rights…

I don’t think we should give up the few things that are really significant as Jews. I have a very big conflict with it, I don’t necessarily want the Arabs in Israel, it’s a very nice idea to give the Triangle of the Western Galilee, but it doesn’t really work, because it makes the country into a crossword puzzle. In that case, we should leave them with the Jordan Valley, and just move our borders inwards, and they can have that instead.

I don’t think 1967 is practical, because I don’t think we should have to give up huge built-up areas. I have a lot of conflicts with it. Part of me says that Israel is ours, we’re Jewish, we conquered them, we were at war and we won – but in that case I should say we need a one-state solution…But we don’t really want to be responsible for these people…

[The following remarks give an indication of why some Israelis did not change their “no Palestinian partner” impression based on the Palestine Papers – ds]

The reason I don’t think a peace agreement could ever really work is this: I’m sure there are plenty of Arabs just next door who do want peace genuinely. The problem is the leadership. They say yes, but when they’re accused of wanting to make concessions…they turn around and scream that it’s an al Jezeera/Israel conspiracy. But that’s what negotiations are – concessions.

I’m not saying Israel’s done everything right, we have our own problems. But do they want Palestine or Israel? The right of return – how does it work? Compensation, I could see that. But right of return is not conducive to creating a [Palestinian] nation and it’s not conducive to peace. We’ll take in hundreds of thousands of people who don’t really want to be here? I’m confused. How can you ask for a condition for making peace, if it’s actually against what you claim to want? The Palestinians want a state, and I’m all for it.”

What do you think about the attack in Itamar?

“I feel like there’s a lack of sympathy…I don’t have to agree with [someone] but if you hear that a family was butchered in their sleep, you’ve got to feel something. It doesn’t matter if the Israeli government is doing  everything wrong, or Palestinian government is doing everything wrong. …We’re talking about a tragedy…have some sympathy for five people, children who lost their parents and siblings, [whether it’s] the fault of settlers, government, police, terrorists, feel something! The same way I would feel something if I feel that a Palestinian got held up in an ambulance at a checkpoint and died. …As Jews we must try and understand the deeper meaning of events and take it as a personal and communal message of our need for betterment.

I think we sometimes forget the see the good stories, the positive moments, in all of the bad situations. The helpful soldier, or an Arab neighbor who helps out a settler who has a broken down car…There has to be some sort of positive lights of hope in all of the mess.

If you can’t recognize that there’s another opinion, then you’re not really interested in peace. You can’t come to a negotiation table without recognizing that the other side has a claim too, otherwise there’s no point in negotiating…”

In the Orthodox community, do you feel isolated or supported in your views?

“Of course the Orthodox are very diverse and include everything from Kahanists and others on the extreme right to anti-State (Neturi Karta). Rav Shach was very clear when he said at the time (after 1967) that we should give it all back, but the Lubavitcher Rebbe was of the opinion that it would be our end if we did. These are two very opposing streams of ultra orthodox Jewry with very different views. But I think for the most part we all want peace even if our versions might differ…

As a group I think a primary concern is being able to safely access and control some of the most sacred sites for Jews as a whole. It’s no secret that as soon as the we left Gaza the first thing the locals did was burn the Shuls, and the same thing happened in Nablus to Joseph’s Tomb when we left. From 1948-1967 despite agreements otherwise Jews were forbidden access to the Kotel. So anything that does not guarantee complete access to such places of importance would be opposed by the religious community.

There’s no clear consensus for Orthodox Jews. Of course we want peace. Even the death of one person is too much, and most everyone recognizes that through some sort of two-state solution this will be achieved.

[Moshe wrote this next part in a follow-up email] But where opinion and religious belief begin to merge, things get tricky. G-d is one and runs the world. We are here because G-d wants us here but we are not free yet, as we are still in exile (galut)…This is how a Torah Jew seeks to understand global events.”

[Moshe went on to explain how the religious worldview drives organizations like local religious charities and Zaka, which is actively involved in global disasters] “The ideals of true chesed (lovingkindness) and tikkun olam (lit: repairing the world) are what drive [volunteer] organizations……Pikuach nefesh doche hacol! (roughly: saving a life trumps everything!) Even more so when the life being saved is a non-Jew, as that is also a kiddush hashem (Sanctification of the name). This is the mindset with which an orthodox Jew must go about his day, that creates a positive image of Torah Jews.

As a final thought, I read a few studies about the connection between us as Jews and the Arabs of the West Bank, showing how many have surprisingly similar DNA markers … we are close relatives. In another study they looked into the phenomenon of Arab villages that only married amongst themselves and how some practiced Jewish customs like Sabbath candles… we forget that we are all people even the Haredi in kollel and even the settler on the hilltop and even the Arab working on the building across the street from me, and we don’t have to see eye to eye but we do have to figure out how to live together. Because like it or not we are here.”

Moshe asked not to use his full name. I would like to personally thank Moshe for agreeing to be interviewed for +972 and for sharing these candid thoughts.The conversation has been edited for length.