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The Window Across From My Window


“The Window Across from My Window” is taken from Israel as a Pluralist State: Achievements and Goals, a collection of essays published by the Schechter Institute to mark the 10th Anniversary of the Marc and Henia Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance. Articles were submitted by past prize recipients. Sharon Leshem-Zinger was awarded the prize in 2002. This year the award ceremony will take place in Jerusalem Wednesday, November 29th, as part of the Schechter Campus Groundbreaking Celebration and Commencement Exercises.

During the month of Av in 2006, a ceasefire commenced in the Second Lebanon War. It was difficult for me to write this essay during those days, due to the tough and worrying mood that prevailed, generally and personally.

Already at the outset of the war, I felt tremendous frustration, confusion and fear. To be truthful, I asked myself, what does pluralism have to do with war, and how will it fare after the war ends? How fragile are the chambers of the heart and how quickly will they re-fortify themselves behind shelters and aggressive, defensive patterns? But, as I dwelled more and more on this point, I felt that there is indeed a link between pluralism and war.

In times of war, pluralist processes take place which stem from solidarity and cooperation between different groups opposed to a common enemy. Thus we witnessed the civilian population supporting one another, without regard for the differences between themselves. Similarly, we saw soldiers – Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, secular, etc. – fighting side by side with a profound sense of brotherhood.

Brotherhood is indeed important, but in many ways it is fragile, easily damaged as soon as the common enemy draws back, exposing its deep and untreated cracks. In my humble opinion, the war was caused in part by the absence of a probing, pluralist dialogue among us, among our neighbors, and between us and them. It also testifies to the lack of belief in the possibility of this kind of dialogue, and in its power to have a far-reaching influence.

I would first like to attempt to define what pluralism is and what it is not:

Pluralism is not “automation.” Israel and the Western world are witnessing a trend towards privatization, alienation and automation, in which existing systems are breaking apart and being replaced by new and divisive ones.

The process of automation can be compared to a cancer, in which a single cell begins to act “selfishly,” ceases working to the benefit of the rest of the body’s cells and becomes unsynchronized with the system as a whole. This cell then begins to divide and reproduce at an accelerated rate. The resulting systems are not synchronized with each other and produce distorted and disproportionate effects.  (It is worth referring to Dr. D. Chupra’s Body and Mind Forever, Modan Publishing, 2001).

As opposed to this, pluralism is, in my humble opinion, the ability to allow autonomous sub-systems and individuals to exist while preserving their unifying factor and overall coordination with the master system. Pluralism requires system coordination, made possible by mutual respect and recognition, and it requires coordination born of an ability to willingly accept restrictions.  (I borrow the term “willingly accepting restrictions” from Erich Fromm’s, The Sane Society, Rubinstein Publishing, 1975).

In Israel, apparently, this synchronization and coordination are lacking. Many times there are groups that try to force their beliefs on all, without realizing that this can cause a rift and a collapse of the entire society. They do not understand that coordination and mutual recognition between entities can contribute quality, enrichment and empowerment.

The assassination of Yitzchak Rabin z”l, which occurred because of these kinds of distortions, among other reasons, created a terrible rupture and a profound shock that sent shudders rippling throughout many groups and members in society.

Many study halls have opened which emphasize the spiritual meeting point of the different streams in Jewish society. The feeling that spurred this trend on was that alienation between the religious and secular populations brought disaster in its wake, and that it was imperative to immediately and in a serious fashion begin bringing together different groups in order to mend and rebuild pluralism in Israeli society.

The Disengagement: “If I had not entered the eye of the storm, I would have been most fearful of the earthshaking events about to happen”

In recent years, I have been privileged to be part of the process of conflict management and facilitation of various groups which are at the center of the storm in Israeli society. I thus found myself facilitating and training facilitators for mixed secular-religious groups, Jews and Arabs, and evacuees from the Gaza strip (Gush Katif “Jewish settlers”) and leftists in the half year prior to the Disengagement/ Expulsion/Uprooting. If I had not entered the eye of the storm, I think I would have been most fearful of the earthshaking events about to happen. Being inside and active within the storm caused me distress and anxiety, yet simultaneously afforded me calm and a feeling of hope.

I will try now to describe, through a pluralist lens, a few of the insights I gained through this work. Due to space constraints I will limit myself to a description of group facilitation at a meeting of Gush Katif with leftists, conducted under the auspices of “Voices in the Negev” in partnership with the United Nations Department of Violent Conflict, six months before the Disengagement.

One of our ground rules was to introduce into the discussion, which combined the spiritual and the emotional, elements of identity and the art of politics. The existential fear of engaging in such discussion, between opposing sides trying to get closer, is deep-seated and somewhat justified. But the danger of refraining from talking about identity and ethos, in a country of such dramatic political tempest, is no less. Without this exchange, people can still learn to recognize and more fully see each other’s world, but the deeply rooted “Pandora’s boxes” remain sealed and threatening.

“Autistic Tribes” – Symbiotic Patterns

In these times, Israeli society seems to be split into autistic tribes, pulling down screens and raising defensive walls in order to protect their positions and identities from the threatening “others.” The feeling of absolute justice and hallucinatory omnipotence of each group is also a characteristic of this autism. This can be seen in the existential conflict (Gush Katif – Left, Jews – Arabs) when two groups often sit facing each other, divided by barriers reinforced by an accumulation of historical residue.

Along with this description I would like to offer another, of separate “autistic tribes,” within which are concealed symbiotic patterns: no group lets the other make its voice fully heard, for the awareness is symbiotic and in it the “other” is seen as linked to my fate – we are as twins, non-identical but Siamese. This is the internal picture, in which if the “other” makes his voice heard, he will threaten my existence. In this consciousness nothing separates us, there is no “empty space,”  (This term refers to the definition established by Rabbi Nachman of Breslau, Likutei Moharan , Karo R. Yisrael Dov Odesser, Jerusalem). and I cannot permit the other’s words to float on their own in space; I must immediately refute them, before they invade my being. The “other” is perceived simultaneously as being detached from, and as intolerably linked to, me. The more we look inside this “tribe” (especially in times of crisis), the higher the level of symbiosis, and any deviation is regarded as a threat or even a betrayal of the group. Also, there is a split between the “good” and the “bad;” the bad is cast out, and the “other” is blamed as the sole instigator of evil, while the inner circle is seen as extremely benevolent and idealistic.

Finding a Crack in the Fortifications of the Opposing Camp

In my view, one of the central purposes of the conflict group work is to open that free space and allow for separate and independent processes. In this process, an attempt is made to encourage each person to make room for others, while at the same time make his authentic voice heard, without detracting from his group identity but with the aim of expanding it. Without blurring the different positions, but in the hope of feeling less threatened when listening to them. In addition, there is a chance that in the course of the sessions and inner work, each person will recognize aspects in himself that he perceives as negative, will deal with them and take greater responsibility for them.  (Similar to object perception of M. Mahler in her numerous books, such as: Margaret Mahler, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, 1975).

Central to the different groups and their participants were two fears. The first can be described thus: If we get closer to one another, we may risk being swallowed up and prone to lose our distinctive identity. This fear grew and evolved into a larger issue unique to this particular struggle: the fear that the two sides coming closer would blur our (“our” refers to the various groups). struggle, which is just. The mere fact of our willingness to engage in dialogue with the other side causes us to be regarded as traitors, for we have granted legitimacy to those diametrically opposed to us.

At the other extreme was the fear that we would find ourselves alone. Here too, in addition to individual  (Which Mahler refers to in her “Theory of the Object”). fear, was added group fear (of each side), when we discovered we were further apart and existing alone, without our brethren  (Here the groups differed widely and there existed a profound disagreement as to the identity of the brethren.). and without legitimization. For we are suspected of causing a rift in the nation and breaking it apart, hence we lose in our just and moral battle.

These fears were accompanied by two urges: to destroy and to build.  (As in Sigmund Freud’s “Eros and Thanatos,” Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Writings of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 4, Dvir Publishing, 1977.). The desire to build bridges is clear, because the meeting can be a source of support and empathy; but there is the fear that if the attempt succeeds, I will risk losing my solid perceptions of the “other” and I will have to construct a new worldview – plus, I will risk losing the status of righteous victim.  (This fear was of course felt by all sides).

Ongoing dialogue groups enable a process that slowly, over the course of various stages, opens a chink in the fortifications of the opposing sides. This is in order to signal to the separate and unique identity that adherence to beliefs and principles is possible without denying the “other’s” existence or rejecting a genuine and intimate dialogue with him.

In this process, a space opens in which one can feel at wondrous moments the compassionate Buberian “I-Thou” relationship.  (Martin Buber, Religiosity and Destiny , A, Jerusalem , Zionist Library Publishing, 1959, pp. 70-79.). The empty space created allows a coordinated, mutual respect of differences, as it creates an ethos of unity. At these moments a vision and experience of God [ [????? is internalized, replacing the illusory denseness and nothingness.  (In the intensity of leading the group, at the height of the storm and two months before the fateful day, I dreamt that I arrived at the convention of public figures at Machtesh Ramon in the Negev . At the bottom of the crater (of smaller dimensions than the actual), children classified as ‘youth at risk’ played in the water. The honored guests sat at the crater’s edge engaged in serious discussion about how to solve the problem of youth at risk. It was very warm, and I craved the coolness of the water flowing in the crater. I went in the water and began to play with the children. I said I was a fish and they swam with me as if they were fish. It was great fun. Little by little the important people at the top came down in their suits to the water. As we all splashed about, the waters began to rise, forming a huge tsunami. It was most frightening. Suddenly I saw on the wave outlines of light, highlighting the names of all the settlements. The beauty of it captured my heart and for a moment I forgot the terrible danger we were in. I raised my eyes to look for more of this beautiful sight, and to my surprise I saw my beloved sister on the huge wave. The wave continued to gather force and threatened to crash down on us all, including those at the edge of the crater. My sister shouted to me, “Don’t be afraid! Become the water!” I heeded her words and I turned into water. After a few moments I reached the shore and once more assumed human shape. I checked on the people on the shore. I remembered that my sister was still on the wave and in grave danger. I shouted to her, “Don’t be afraid! Become the light!” She turned into light, returning to the shore and regaining her human form. Finally, the waters subsided and quiet returned… The dream became a kind of internal guidebook for me for the entire period that followed. It encouraged me to seek the essential below the outer shell and to believe in goodness).

At the conclusion of the Gush Katif “Settlers”-Leftists group session, we asked the participants if they were interested in an expedited training course for group facilitation for short-term groups such as theirs. Almost all of them did indeed undergo the training.  (The central view at the professional basis of the School for Group Facilitators for Journey Towards Identity at “Voices of the Negev” is that the facilitator learns to simultaneously withdraw and be present. He thus learns to leave space for a meaningful process, through thoughtful attention to his and others’ search for personal, interpersonal, spiritual and social identity, realizing the importance of the group as a support and empowering entity).

Fortunately, at this stage our veteran partners from the Yaakov Herzog Center and others joined us and supported expansion of the project, (Including “Reconciliation Directive,” “Panim,” and the “New Israel Fund.”). resulting in opening an additional five short-term dialogue groups. The group meetings ended about a month before the Disengagement -Gush Katif was off limits, becoming a “military closed area.”  (In this period a dialogue tent was set up at the Sa’ad Junction, initiated by the kibbutz and “B’sod Siach.” Many groups joined this initiative (including Voices in the Negev, Sapir College and the Herzog Center). It was interesting to see many current and former participants in the Herzog and “Voices” Batei Midrash and workshops taking part. This presence indicated, in our opinion, the internalization of the pluralist language). Obviously, after the uprooting there were difficulties, disappointment, much pain and anger among the uprooted Gush Katif residents towards the leftists. Some of them believed and expected that the leftists would more actively join their struggle to remain in their organic communities. Others sought a concrete address for their anger.  (I believe that something additional took place, difficult and riveting in any story of disengagement/uprooting/exile: The Gush Katif residents directly experienced the humiliation and hardship of standing at checkpoints and of being uprooted; the leftists were collectively accused of being forceful, merciless and browbeaters. Here was in essence a role reversal. If each side were humble enough to learn from this new reality, there would be a chance for a softer, more compassionate, seeing and inclusive society).

Some in the leftist camp were hard pressed to deal with the anger, accusations and rejection hurled at them. I believe that some of them felt a measure of guilt about uprooting the Gush people, which created a sharp dissonance and confusion concerning their broader world view (in which justice was done and the terrible injustices suffered by the Palestinians were lessened). This period also was characterized by existential distress, which did not afford the emotional freedom or the space in which to resume the dialogue.

The Need to Continue the Dialogue

The dialogue which resumed, partially and in a different manner, is of a different character. It is in its early stages and definitely saturated with tougher emotions. Many Gush people are in the depths of a traumatic and post-traumatic process, and the meetings are of a different nature. The difficult war exacerbated many existing wounds of the uprooted settlers, because for them it was proof that their sacrifice had been in vain.  (The timing of the Disengagement anniversary, silenced and virtually forgotten because of the war, which had attracted the media and public notice, combined with the choice on the part of most of the uprooted settlers to keep silent out of solidarity in a time of national crisis, was surely very difficult for those who strove to brand into the national consciousness their pain, anger and frustration at being “driven out” as they saw it, while feeling neglected and abandoned). The existential danger exposed by the war, and the fear of the collapse of the political process, also distressed many of the leftists.

I am certain of the most critical need to continue and expand the sessions, despite the expected pitfalls. This is because the past still requires processing and closure, because the present is a damaged and rift reality, and because of the uncertain future.  (A colleague who is a facilitator at the Bet Midrash “Encounters in the Shadow of the Rift,” Rabbi Dr. Ariel Pikar, related an amusing story: On a family vacation, he and his wife went to a restaurant at which they had eaten in the past. When he asked if the establishment still had a Kashrut certificate, he was told, “no, but the food is of course kosher. You can rely on me – I’m an extreme right-winger.” This story concretizes in my opinion an important process that has been taking place in Israel over recent years, especially in the last year. It seems that in many cases a mistaken identity is formed between a person’s political and cultural-religious identity).

I will conclude with a piece from Halfi’s wonderful poem:

On my window is a dove
Of delicate dove-like fragrance.
Across from my window is a window.
Across from the window is my window.
Yesterday was Sunday, today is Monday.

A crown is on the head of kings
And on their shoulders a mantle of kingship.
But the children who are thrust into the streets
Are of small height.

Here they come. Here.
I know not who.
Can I be all my life one who hates?
Whom?  (From “Song of a Dove at My Window,” Avraham Halfi, Poems, Kibbutz HaMeuchad Publishing, 1986, p. 340.).

The last two summers experienced by the country, and the difficult questions accompanying them, have shuffled the cards of pluralism, and it seems like the dove has spread her wings, and that many windows have slammed shut. A pluralist dialogue is of course easier to hold when each side is sure of his home, community and nation; after all, “children [and adults] thrust into the street are of small height”.. It is superfluous to state that the country is in dire condition: witness the multitudes of the poor, the uprooted Gush Katif settlers, victims of the war, Palestinians, both citizens and residents of the Palestinian Authority, and other whole segments of the population who feel they are a helpless minority and unprotected by the government.

Indeed, much rehabilitative work lies ahead, both in words and in deeds. At times I am plagued by a fear that perhaps in Israel we will always be “haters – of whom?”  (The question “Will I hate all my life?” from Halfi’s poem teaches us in poetic fashion that hate is often an emotional stance. The addition of the word “whom?” directs us to a type of hate that is imagined and almost paranoiac. Although this hate often stems from pain and true distress, it closes off any option for a genuine encounter and thus becomes a threatened and threatening kind of hate, directed towards an object.). In the face of this doubt I take comfort in knowing that many worthy people are engaged in the work of building trust, cultivating pluralism, and reducing hate in the gaping chasms that have appeared. Among these are of course you, friends at the Schechter Institute, with whom we will always be happy to work with in the future.

It is interesting to recall the various Batei Midrash that we held in conjunction with The Herzog Center and Voices of the Negev. At the start it was very difficult to form a circle for spiritual study that included Conservative, Reform, Traditional and Orthodox participants. The circle’s profile was composed mainly of religious and secular. In recent years at the Batei Midrash at Herzog, the circle is becoming more varied. It has been joined by Conservatives, “Modern Orthodox,” Reform and Orthodox-Nationalists. In parallel, due to the growth of pluralist dialogue in Israel, and mutually impacting processes, the terms ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have opened up to a variety of definitions.

In the last year, a number of ex-Gush Katif residents have also joined. At “Maboa,” a Bet Midrash for social and community activists, a fascinating process was created in which we saw the considerable ability of group members to support each other’s social projects, even when they conflicted with their own beliefs. It is also important to mention the Voices of the Negev School for Training Facilitators in which professionals are trained to broaden the pluralist dialogue).

The choice to enter into pluralist dialogue groups has turned out to be one of the most fulfilling and fascinating of my life, if also one of the most harrowing. Work on the “front lines” in the different groups has been similar to placing “a window across from my own,” and represents for me each time a different conflict. Each time I lead such a group I am enriched, and compelled to face questions about my identity and my own limits of openness.

Knowing that “it is not for us to complete the labor” awakens in me a hope and a prayer:

“Would that the heavens come down to reside here,
With the children in the street.”  (Avraham Halfi, from “Song of a Dove at My Window,” ibid., p.340).

Sharon Leshem-Zinger, 2002 Liebhaber Prize joint recipient, is educational director of Kolot BaNegev, a school for the training of group facilitators at the Sapir Academic College, Ashkelon.

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