Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Extreme tolerance

Egypt’s “body politic” continues to suffer terrible convulsions.  Protests and counter-protests have degenerated into violent confrontations and those have sunk into horrific blood-baths.

With his characteristic (if slightly unnerving) detachment, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague recently opined that
“there may be years of turbulence in Egypt and other countries going through this profound debate about the nature of democracy and the role of religion in their society”.
Of course, calling what’s happening in Egypt a “debate” may be Mr. Hague’s biggest understatement yet; but it is true that it’s about “the nature of democracy and the role of religion in their society”.  Most importantly, however, could that “debate” be resolved a bit quicker than “years of turbulence”?  Because the latter alternative means that many Egyptians would not live to see the end of that “debate” – and that’s an option too painful to contemplate; after all, not all of us are blessed with Mr. Hague’s unflappable sang-froid!
If it’s about the nature of democracy and the role of religion in society – then I’d suggest that there is a good model that Egyptians might consider adopting – or at least using as a source of inspiration.  Hint: it’s situated just to the north of Egypt – and I don’t mean the Mediterranean Sea.

You've got it; call me naïve and unrealistic; but hasn't Israel, ever since her modern re-establishment, been confronting the same issues?  And yet, the “debate” hasn't been quite as dramatic…  Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here?

Modern Israel has been established as a Jewish state; while for many Israelis (including yours truly) the ethnic/national aspect of that definition is the important one, for others “Jewish” has also a strong religious connotation.  Yet Israel is also home to a large minority (circa 20%) of Muslims, as well as other, smaller minorities.  Similarly, many in Egypt wish to define the state as “Islamic”; yet Egypt is also home to a large minority (10-15%) of Christians.  Ultra-pious, “Haredi” Israelis want a state in which the Halacha – Judaic legal tradition – inspires (or even dictates) the law of the land; secular, “Hiloni” Israelis fear and oppose such outcome – they want to see a Jewish state, but one governed by modern, liberal legislation.  Similarly, pious Egyptian Muslims wish to see the Islamic law (Sharia) informing (if not dictating) the laws of Egypt; secular Egyptians fear and oppose such plans.

Many (including many Israelis like myself) are critical of certain aspects of the role of religion in Israel; yet Israel’s convulsions remain in the realm of real debate, while Egypt sinks into mass fratricide.  Israeli Arabs may feel disadvantaged (just as Egyptian Christians do) – and sometimes they may have a point; but – thank God – Jewish mobs don’t ransack mosques in Israel!

Israel may be criticised; indeed, for some this has become a favourite sport; but wouldn't it be nice if Egypt’s “debate” could be made to resemble the Israeli one?  How does one achieve that?  What’s the “magic ingredient” that, added to Egypt’s overheated cauldron, would turn it into something resembling more my granny’s bubbling pot of gefilte fisch?

Allow me to call that ingredient “extreme tolerance” – and do excuse the oxymoron.  I know, I know: it’s hard to view Israelis as “extremely tolerant”.  If anything, we are extremely argumentative and confrontational; we seem to endlessly argue with each other (and with everybody else); tempers flare easily, voices rise to shouting and offensive terms pierce their way through the veneer of civility.  But, you know what?  That’s just cultural idiosyncrasy; it’s not serious.  Because at the end of the day, we don’t shoot and don’t take clubs to each other’s skulls.  We argue and argue and argue – and then argue some more.  And then find a way around the issue, one that leaves us all quite a bit dissatisfied – but which allows us to continue not to shoot or break each other’s skulls.  And to go on arguing, of course.

Did you know that Islamic Sharia is part of Israeli law?  Yes, it is!  If you are a Muslim in Israel, you will be married and divorced in accordance with the Sharia; disputes regarding marriage, divorce and other aspects of personal status will be resolved by an Islamic Court.  The Court’s decisions are recognised by the authorities and the salaries of the qadis (the Islamic judges) are paid by the (Jewish!) state.  Matters pertaining to the personal status of Jews are resolved by a rabbinic Beit-Din; Druze and Christians have similar arrangements.

Not just Israeli Muslims and Christians have their own education systems, funded by the state; so do Jewish Haredim, who teach a curriculum different from that of mainstream Jewish Israeli schools.

As a secular Jewish Israeli, I am often irked by such arrangements.  Why do I need a rabbi to get divorced?  And, since according to the law of the land a person only needs one Jewish grandparent in order to acquire Israeli citizenship, why is the state-funded Rabbinate allowed to refuse that same person the sacrament of marriage – just because his/her mother isn't Jewish?  But then, I know that there are other Israelis who insist on precisely those kinds of antiquated rules; and for whom anything else would be even harder to endure.  So I swallow my righteous indignation and find a way around it – one that manages to accommodate (just about!) my crucial interests and theirs – in an elegantly imperfect way.  Is your sweetheart not Jewish enough for Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate?  Here’s what you've got to do: the two of you will buy flight tickets to Cyprus; or perhaps you wish to make it a honeymoon, in which case you might book a cabin on one of the cruise ships plying the waters between Haifa and Limassol.  Once on the non-kosher Island of Aphrodite (how appropriate!), the two of you can get married according to Cypriote law; back in Israel, the authorities will recognize your foreign marriage, just as if it had been performed by the most pious rabbi in Bnei Braq.  There, problem solved!

Of course, all this is far from ideal: you will rant and rave that you can’t marry whoever you bloody want in your own bloody country; the rabbis will wave their beards in indignation at your un-kosherness.  But then you’ll both get on with your lives. And don’t you think that “extreme tolerance” exists only in matters of religion.  Around 10% of the members of my country’s parliament – the Knesset – are Arabs.  And some of them (most of them? all of them?) – speaking from the lectern of Israel’s Parliament – openly call for the country to be dismantled.  My blood boils when I hear them; but I'm willing to pay that heavy price for democracy.  I will defend them with my own body and will fight for their right to speak against mine.

“Extreme tolerance” happens when you accept from the start that you simply have to find an accommodation – there’s no alternative.  To the point where, in order to satisfy “the other”, one has to accept imperfect, even uncomfortable solutions.  And one has to strip down one’s comfort to the “bare essentials”.  “Extreme tolerance” requires you to accept that “justice” may look entirely different when you stand in somebody else’s shoes.

Of course, “accept” does not imply acquiescence – God no!  I’ll throw my hands in the air in desperation – a lot!  I’ll argue loudly, until I'm red in the face; I’ll yell and scream, I’ll rave and rant – and hope to one day convert my Haredi compatriots to my oh-so-modern form of Judaism-light; one day, my Arab compatriots will understand my point of view and become proud Zionists.  But, until that day, I’ll refrain from shooting them.  I’ll grind my teeth and tolerate them; extremely so.

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