Pesach, the election, binary opposites, and redemption

Pesach, the election, binary opposites, and redemption

Chametz, loosely translated as leavening or leavened products, brings us into a world of binary opposites.

Chametz is perfectly permissible all year round. On Pesach, however, the smallest amount of chametz in food, cooking vessels, or utensils renders them totally unusable.

Given the stringencies surrounding even owning chametz, you would have imagined that the central symbolic food of the Pesach holiday, matzah, would be made only of grains that never could become chametz. Exactly the opposite is true. If a particular species of grain cannot become chametz, it cannot be used to produce matzah.

Matzah also is characterized by a binary opposite. It is at once lachma anya, the bread of the affliction of slavery, and at the same time the symbol of freedom and redemption.

There is a message in the binary opposites that characterize chametz and matzah. The message is that to be healthy spiritually and emotionally, a person must integrate binary opposites and have them interact with each other in a way that is fruitful.

That message has become even more poignant now, after the elections in Israel.

I have close friends and relatives who in aggregate present a binary opposite. They cover the full spectrum of opinions and ideologies in Israeli society. These people represent the far, far left and the far, far right. They run the gamut from dyed in the wool secular Jews, who cannot fathom why anyone would be religious, to charedim who cannot fathom how anyone lives without faith in God. And of course, there are all the Israelis who inhabit the middle of this continuum. Since the elections, these Israelis are living a binary-opposite life.

The left and center-left’s binary opposites look something like this: Within three days before the election, the polls were suggesting the possibility of a left and center-left win. When dawn broke on Wednesday, March 18, the left and center-left discovered itself trounced by the right-wing Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.

My friends in that leftist camp virtually sat shiva. The existential binary opposite they now feel is that they deeply love their country, would never think of leaving it, and even would die for it, but they detest what they feel it is becoming – derisive of democracy, tangibly racist, and less committed to the moral, ethical, and humanistic values of what they understand Judaism to be. The greatest disappointment for them is that the newly elected government’s proclaimed stance that there will be no Palestinian state during its time in office provides no vision of how to prevent more violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Most of all, they have had to come to grips with the fact that the largest percentage of the vote went to right-wing nationalist or ultra-Orthodox parties.

The right, which has become primarily the far right, also presently is living a life riddled with the self-contradiction inherent in binary opposites. It constantly projects a tough muscular image of itself, and claims that its strength is the only hope for the security of the state and its people – but the right-wing government that has been elected came into power not because Bibi spoke to the Israeli people’s self-confidence. Rather, it was his scare tactics, addressed to the people’s abject fears and insecurities, that brought them to the polls to vote for him and the Likud.

Bibi’s campaign on the last day of the election came to be known in the press as the “Gevalt campaign.” Gevalt! The Arabs are coming to the polls in droves! You better get out and vote for Likud. Gevalt! The left will give away the country unless you vote me in! The binary opposites of the “New Israeli Jew,” whose characteristics are courage, autonomy, and self-assurance, and the golus Yid, the powerless, vulnerable, dependent, and insecure “exile Jew,” were both at play in the right’s victory.

Though not a binary opposite, the voting patterns of Israel’s Jewish electorate present an internal contradiction. The left, which still represents the socialist values of early Zionism, is made up mostly of educated, upper-middle-class to moderately wealthy people. They vote against their own interests, as do many affluent, educated American Jews who vote Democratic. That is, they vote for more benefits to the socially and economically marginalized. Yet it is primarily the marginalized and the newly made billionaires who vote for the right.

I understand why the nouveau riches vote right. After all, the right under Netanyahu has vigorously encouraged an economic platform that favors a free-market orientation. This orientation has made Israel one of the major start-up nations in the world, which is basically good. Unfortunately, the extremes that this orientation has allowed has been a disaster for the middle class, who went to the streets two years ago to demand reasonably priced housing, education, and food.

The middle class’s situation, as bad as it is, doesn’t begin to compare to the yawning chasm that now exists between rich and poor in Israel. Poor here is truly dirt poor.

Why do those who do not benefit from a right-wing government’s social and economic policies vote for it?

As far as I can see, the answer is that the poorer elements of Israeli society tend to be more committed to a traditional understanding and observance of Judaism, even when that does not conform to Orthodox standards. This population views the left as “less Jewish” because the left is in fact more cosmopolitan and universalistic in outlook, and it is not always as respectful or knowledgeable as it should be of pre-State Jewish history, Jewish observance, and the traditionalist community’s sensibilities. For one unfortunate example, the artist Yair Garbuz used his bully pulpit at a rally on behalf of the left and center-left parties to call the religious and tradition-oriented Israeli population “idolators” (Haaretz, March 9, 2015). During the election campaigns, Likud and the other right-wing parties successfully demonized the left as “anti-Zionist,” that is, “anti-Jewish (Netanyahu’s remark cited in Haaretz, January 2015, when Herzog and Livni created the Zionist Union Party). Thus, Zionism itself is now a binary opposite in that the left and right both claim to be its true representative, though they have completely different understandings of what the term means. In typical Jewish fashion they are both in some ways right (or left).

Unfortunately, rather than integration, this kind of polarization has been the hallmark of Israeli politics since the state’s beginning, and it reached another one of its heights in this election. If, as Karl Jung held, striking a balance between binary opposites is the key to emotional and spiritual health, then Israel has a long way to go in order to become a truly whole society.

When or if the people of Israel can find sufficient commonalities to come together to make peace with themselves, that will be the prelude to making peace with the Arab Other.

It is clear that the Israeli elections had a serious impact on the American Jewish community. Our binary opposite situation is now this: In general, Jewish America, at least as much of it as is represented by Jews 50 years old and older, wants to speak on behalf of Israel, its people, and its policies. This sector of American Jewry now is caught in a position in which supporting Israel means supporting a one-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a resolution with which most American Jews disagree. No matter how Benjamin Netanyahu (under pressure) has reinterpreted his own statement about “no Palestinian state on my watch,” he and his right-wing government confreres have, little by little but consistently, created facts on the ground that make a two-state scenario less and less feasible. Further, this prime minister is a man whose political methods and style in Israel and abroad are distasteful if not abhorrent to a great swath of American Jewry.

How will major Jewish organizations support him and his government without compromising themselves? And if they do not support him and the policies his government creates, what will support of Israel mean in the near future?

Pesach, our Festival of Freedom, confronts us with the tensions that binary opposites and multiple truths engender. It is Passover’s purpose to set us on the road to confronting and resolving these tensions, not by taking the easy way out and acknowledging only one side of multifaceted truths, only lefts or rights. It is this holiday’s purpose to bring us back to the heart of the Jewish tradition – the tradition of questioning, debating, and listening to a narrative that begs us to use our freedom to redress injustices like those we suffered when we were slaves in Egypt.

An Israel committed to that tradition would not view Jewish and democratic as binary opposites, in conflict with each other – a dichotomy that is a commonplace in today’s left-right discourse. Rather, it would see these aspects of Israeli statehood as interfacing and mutually enriching. But this would mean listening to the Other, and this has not been typical of how the Israeli polity behaves.

The secret of redeeming this situation lies in a practice that is part of the seder. On Pesach night we open our doors to Eliyahu ha-Navi, Elijah the Prophet, who heralds the world of messianic peace.

As we open our doors to him let us open our hearts to each other in compassion and mutual respect. In the merit of such an act of love may God grant us the full redemption of our people and of all the peoples who inhabit God’s world.