Tehila Friedman is a humble, young, new member of the Israeli Knesset parliament. In her “freshman” speech, she was moved to tears several times – rare for an Israeli, or any politician. With tears, she begged the nation’s political leaders to stop warring against each other, even as external threats loom large. It also sounded like a clarion call for prayer.
We the Israel Today staff journalists were startled by her vulnerable, transparent plea for more empathy and long-suffering in Israeli society. We bring you our edited excerpts from the Hebrew speech:
In the last few weeks, since I arrived at this “house” (Knesset or Israeli parliament), I have not stopped thinking about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the most important rabbis in Jewish history. Rabban Zakkai managed to rescue the Jewish nation from the Temple being burned by the Romans – by birthing the Beit Midrash which became the foundation of Jewish learning until this day.
I think of this leader, living inside Jerusalem [19 centuries ago], in a terrible civil war, with the Romans standing outside waiting for the right moment to “bust in” and destroy everything. The civil war among the Jews started because of a debate over how to deal with the Romans, but very quickly became a war of identity: “What you think of the Romans defines who you are. What you believe needs to be done is who you are. If I do not agree with you – I am against you. Completely. Until bloodshed.” Hatred washed everything away. In the name of hatred, knives were drawn inside the Temple. In the name of hatred, the food warehouses that could provide for the city under siege, were set on fire. Hatred between brethren turned to hunger, and hunger became despair.
Rabban ben Zakkai was not from the UN. He and his students picked a side in the struggle and fought against the Jewish zealots. But at some point he changes his mind. He understands that in a civil war everyone loses. He makes a surprising move towards Abba Sikra, the leader of the zealots in Jerusalem who has also learned that civil war is more dangerous than the enemy outside. But Sikra, who lit the “fire,” discovers that he can no longer control it. His people do not listen to him. The hatred he spread has become stronger than him.
Together, the head of the zealots and the head of the moderates, succeed in smuggling Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem. Not to turn the wheel back – but to start something new, to lay the foundations for the day after destruction.
Two thousand years have passed since Rabban Yochanan. We have returned to Jerusalem and built a country. But now, we find ourselves in the same scary place again. A deadly plague is raging outside. And inside rage the same destructive desires to defeat each other. The same blindness and folly, the same malignant hatred between us that causes us to invest most of our energy in the internal struggle. And again, as then, we burn the warehouses of trust. We cause the systems of government to crumble. We endanger, with insane irresponsibility, the very existence of our common home.
In the midst of the Corona days, during a health, economic and social crisis we have never known, with crisis in government after a year and a half of paralysis without an approved budget, a severe deficit and a recession, there are again those who want to tear each other apart. To again take every wound and societal scar and beat it until it bleeds. Again, we ridicule and mock the pains of others.
Three times, in a year and a half, we tried to subdue the other and win an election. It must stop. We must stop trying to defeat each other.
I am Jewish, religious, Zionist, nationalistic, feminist, and Jerusalemite. I grew up into a certain language and tradition. I grew up into a home and community and a tradition that shaped me. There is a lot of truth and beauty and goodness in my world. But not the whole truth. Not all the beauty, not all the best. I do not want everyone to become me. I do not want everyone to believe in the same things as me. Because I know that there is truth and beauty and good in other communities and worlds as well. And I have something to learn from them.
I have something to learn from the Eastern Jewish traditions, from Jews of the Soviet Union, from Ethiopian Jews, from the descendants of the pioneers in the working-class settlements, from the individualist liberals, and from the ultra-Orthodox. I have something to learn from the Arabs, the Druze and also the Jews of the Diaspora.
True, some of these groups and sectors have principles, values and actions that I strongly oppose, and some of them actually threaten me as a woman, as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a religious Jew. I remember and know that in each of the groups, in just about every one, there are those who see theirs as the only right way, and believe that soon everyone will recognize that they are right, and will want to be like them so they can rule.
But there are also those who understand that our differences are not temporary. That we are together, and that this is the challenge of our lives. With these I seek to forge a “covenant of moderates.” With those from all sectors who understand this challenge called “living together.” To limit the power of those on the fringes that are driving us crazy, and create a common center.
I speak in a soft tone, I know, and one may think that my message is also of a soft and compromising center. But the opposite is true. My center is a jealous center, unwilling to compromise on its centrality and taking responsibility for all the inhabitants of the country. To make this a place for everyone who really wants to live together, where there is a limit to zealotry, where there are limits to selfishness. A center that has a devotion to moderation, democracy, and a Judaism that makes room. A center that protects in its body the rules of the game that allow us to conduct a dispute without breaking down into pieces.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote many years ago about “three forces” that “are now wrestling within our camp … the sacred, the nation and humanity.” In our words: religiosity, nationalism and humanism. Rabbi Kook, a devote religious man, knew how dangerous absolute sacredness, absolute nationalism or absolute humanism were. No one alone is right. A healthy society is a society that has these three forces. Not just keep each other in check – but because we need each other.
During the six weeks that I have been in this house (Knesset), I have heard endless ridicule and venom towards entire groups in Israeli society. I heard the hope that “they” would disappear from here. And “we” will be able to rule without impediments.
Let me tell you something – they will not disappear. Go to as many elections as you want – no one will disappear. If we continue to try to defeat each other, what will be defeated will be the future of the State of Israel. What will be defeated will be our mutual commitment, our inner strength, the ability to continue this miracle called the State of Israel.
We live in a miracle. I’m the daughter of a paratrooper from among the liberators of Jerusalem. My husband’s father is a paratrooper from among the liberators of Jerusalem, and I live and raise my children in Jerusalem. My simplest and most basic day-to-day life is the fulfillment of the greatest prophecies of the prophets of Israel: of old men and women rejoicing on the streets of a city, boys and girls playing. What for my grandparents was a dream that was hard to imagine, for me is the simple reality of my life.
But I never took it for granted. Judah Amichai taught us, “From a distance everything looks like a miracle, but from close up even a true miracle does not look like one. Even someone who passed through the Red Sea in the parting of the waters, only saw the sweating back of the person walking in front of him…”
I have a miracle that I recognize as a miracle. I thank God for the right to live in this miracle. And most of all I feel responsible for it. For its well-being and wholeness.
I came here to be part of a leadership committed to the continued existence of the miracle called the State of Israel. A leadership that does not want to exact revenge for injustices, take care of its own cronies, or insist on being justified. But wants to rehabilitate and heal, reconcile from within. A leadership that does not seek to subdue the other.
Not the leadership of killers. I ask for the leadership of the healers. I believed in a unity government and the necessity to work together. I still believe this is the only way to lay the foundations for the next stage in the life of our country. To save us from destruction. To reinvent ourselves.
I have devoted much of my professional and public life to create a new Israeli and Jewish political and social center. I believe that our responsibility and duty is like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, to make an alliance of moderates. To create a new Israeli center that defines itself according to what it is, and not according to what it is not.
These are the days of the Third “*House.” And just like the two which preceded, it could easily shatter and burn up. It is not to be taken for granted. Its stability is our responsibility. Its existence depends on us. This is our shift; we are now on call.
[*editor’s note: The first 2 temples – Solomon’s and Herod’s “houses” were destroyed. Many see the modern state of Israel as metaphorically the 3rd.]