Promoting tolerance
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Promoting tolerance

Hinam comes to Teaneck to model how to talk to, not past, each other

Israelis from a range of backgrounds gather for discussion in Hinam’s beit midrash in an old building in Abu Ghosh as the organization works to build tolerance.
Israelis from a range of backgrounds gather for discussion in Hinam’s beit midrash in an old building in Abu Ghosh as the organization works to build tolerance.

It’s much easier to hate people you don’t recognize as human. It’s so easy that there’s a term for the most important step in the process — dehumanization.

On the other hand, it’s not so easy to hate people you’ve shared meals with, people you’ve watched breathe and seen blink, whose hands you’d recognized, and most likely have shaken. It’s not easy to hate someone you know to be fully human.

Yeah yeah yeah, we all know that, right? Well, yes, but acting on that isn’t so easy.

Hinam, a three-year-old Israeli nonprofit, sponsored in part by some American federations and Israeli and American foundations, is putting together groups of wildly varied Israelis — Jewish, Muslims, Christians, Druze; secular and liberal and modern Orthodox and centrist Orthodox and charedi Jews; settlers and left-wingers, Ashkenazim and Sephardim and Mizrahim and Ethiopians and Anglos — who spend anywhere from one to four months together.

And now it’s bringing a group of 20 Israelis, representing as many demographic groups as 20 people possibly can, to the United States. Specifically they’re coming to Teaneck, where they’ll present a program at the Jewish Center of Teaneck this Tuesday. (See box.)

Yaron Kanner is the creator and CEO of the Hinam Center for Social Tolerance.

The name Hinam “comes from Havdalah,” the ceremony that marks the transition from the sweetness of Shabbat to the beginning of a new week. “When Sephardim say Havdalah, they open with words from the Bible, ‘Rishon L’Zion, henei hinam,” Mr. Kanner said. “Hinam means here they are. All the people. Everyone.”

Hinam, he said, is an entirely apolitical organization. “We have no agenda. We don’t want to bring anyone to any ideology. That’s our first principle. And the other is that we know that tolerance takes time. 

“You can’t have a one-shot meeting as a tool to promote a tolerant society. You can’t take a secular high school and an Orthodox high school, or a Jewish high school and an Arab high school, and get them together once a year for a one-hour session. That doesn’t help anything.

“In those meetings, they just come to win an argument. They don’t come to listen to the other. They don’t come to open their minds. They just focus on their own arguments. And you cannot get to know someone in one hour, especially if you are not in his environment.

“If you want to get to know someone, go to his village. To his neighborhood. To his settlement. To his house. Try to understand their family, their foods. If you are doing it right, you will stop seeing, say the Arab, and you will start seeing the emet.” The truth. “The human being.

“It is like a miracle, and we see it happen all the time.

“Even if your way of life is very different, even if you don’t agree, you don’t hate him. You respect him. And then the argument is more soft. More respectful.

Yaron Kanner, left, and Rabbi Daniel Fridman

“The main problem is that in Israeli society, people simply hate each other. If you are not like me, you are the enemy. We cannot live in harmony if everyone lives in his own Bible, and hates all the others.

“That is the main challenge for today’s society.” And, he added, he believes it to be the challenge in other societies as well; perhaps even this one.

Hinami’s core program, Achi Israeli — My Brother the Israeli — takes a group of 15 young people, all at transitional times in their lives — before or after the IDF, after college, before finding or beginning a job — when they have the time and the inclination for openness. “They live together in the same place; a month in an Arab village, a month in a settlement in Gush Etzion, a month in an ultra-Orthodox community in Sfad, a month in an Ethiopian neighborhood. And they simply live the daily life of the community.

“It sounds like nothing — it’s like ‘Seinfeld,’ a show about nothing — but really it’s everything.”

Once that program proved to be a success, Hinam branched out, offering other programs, some for high school students, some for older people. And some take Israelis to the United States, on the understanding that American Jews are yet another tribe of Jews, and they and Israelis should develop a deep and real understanding of each other.

In Israel, Hinam has developed programs for business and political leaders; the country’s attorney general has gone, along with his top staff. Yehuda Glick, the Knesset member who controversially has defended Jews’ right to parts of the Western Wall to which they are denied access, who was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt, and who participated in Women Wage Peace last year — who, in other words, is impossible to label — also has taken part in the program.

This fall, Mr. Kanner is leading a group of 20 Israelis on another trip; they’re starting in Teaneck, where they stay in people’s houses and learn about their lives, and will move across the river to Riverdale halfway through their 10-day stay. “The goal is to understand American Jews, and the way to do it is to live with them for a period of time, and to get to know them,” he said.

Mr. Kanner, 50, lives with his family in Modi’in. He grew up in Holon, in an observant family; his father was born in Vienna and his family was slaughtered in the Holocaust, and his mother was born in Tunisia. “That’s not unusual now, but a marriage like that wasn’t common in the 1960s,” he said. He went to a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, and then a less modern one. He was part of an undercover IDF unit in Gaza during the First Intifada; he became a journalist, first in print and then on television; and then he became a lawyer. As an attorney, he worked in the Jerusalem district attorney’s office, and the moved to the nonprofit world. He became CEO of Kol B’Ramah, “an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic radio station,” which ran into legal problems because station leadership — not including him — did not want to allow women’s voices on its air. Next, he became CEO of Panim, “the union of Jewish renewal organizations in Israel,” he said.

After these experiences, which took in a wider range of experiences than most people experience firsthand, Mr. Kanner put them all together and founded Hinam.

“About three months ago, we established a unique beit midrash” — study house — “called a tolerance beit midrash,” he said. “It is in a very large, very old building in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem. It will be a home for tolerance in Israel.” It opened in Elul, the month before the holidays, and attracted a large group of people, from charedim to secular Jews to local Arabs. “We all sat and learned and ate together,” he said; they learned as much from the shared meals as from the more formal lectures.

The Jewish Center’s Rabbi Daniel Fridman is grateful for the opportunity to have the kinds of conversations Hinam will begin. “The best way to talk is to bring people face to face,” he said. “People who come from different racial, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds —and don’t underestimate the importance of different socioeconomics,” he added.

“It will give better a sense of what the modern state of Israel is like.”

It also will help model a way for Americans to talk to each other, he suggested. “People are all locked in their silos.” With the groups from Hinam, “What does it mean to be of Ethiopian extraction, or an Orthodox person, or an immigrant from an Arab country, or from a Western country? Everybody comes with their own story.”

He was interested in hosting the program, Rabbi Fridman said, because “one of the great ills of our culture is the terrible polarization, which I see as a consequence of not knowing or seeing someone with an alternative point of view.”

That situation — the fact that so few of us know anyone whose ideas are profoundly different from our own — is made worse by social media, he said. “If you are having a debate in a comment section, you don’t see the person you’re arguing with. It’s just a keyboard. It’s just an avatar.

“That’s true in general of the different platforms on social media. Just sitting down with someone is a way of mitigating unhealthy extremism. The very nature of human exposure, of seeing that this is a person who breathes the same air that I do, promotes moderation.

“It can help us understand the nuances of the state of Israel, and it also allows us to have an experience that itself reminds us how important it is to put down our phones and our apps and to engage with the people around us if we are to have any hope of understanding the other’s. point of view.

“All the research on the sociology of genocide and hatred has demonstrated, clearly and persuasively, that dehumanizing is a necessary prerequisite to genocide. As a society, we are in a very precarious space right now, not fully appreciating the extent to which discourse shifting to technological platforms really is leading us toward a very unhealthy polarization, where we never have to encounter the humanity of another person.

“There always will be people who can maintain hateful views and are comfortable expressing them in person, but the average person tends toward moderation in face-to-face encounters,” Rabbi Fridman concluded. Hatred is a threat to civilization, now as always; his hope is that the kind of openness to others Hinam promotes will lead to the kind of tolerance that any civilization needs, both in Israel and here in the United States.


Who: Rabbi Daniel Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and Yaron Kanner of Hinam

What: Present an evening of small-group discussion

When: On Tuesday, October, 23, at 8 p.m.

Where: At the Jewish Center, 70 Sterling St., Teaneck

How much: Free and open to the community

For more information: Go to www.jcot.org or call (201) 833-0515

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