One of the great frustrations I’ve faced when dealing with dialogue here is that some people aren’t pluralists. Being a pluralist, as I see it, is about saying “I have one way of doing things, you have another, let’s co-exist.” It means legally allowing people to do things you don’t agree with. It’s not about getting into a war of whose tradition is better, it’s just accepting that we’re all in this together with some right to autonomy.
In the Jewish World, this is a frequent dilemma. There are Orthodox Jews who see Reform Jews as inadequately Jewish (hence why my movement is not recognized by the Israeli government). There are secular Jews who think Orthodox Jews are overly superstitious, conservative, and backwards and should just modernize with the times. While in the U.S. Jewish pluralism is stronger than Israel (perhaps because it’s not tied up with a government), there are still issues in places like Hillel and Hillel and Hillel.
That being said, you can’t even being to compare American pluralism with what goes on in Israel. Here, there is no separation of Church/Synagogue/Mosque and State. Which means progressive Jewish movements are put at a disadvantage financially, legally, and politically. The same could be said for people who feel Jewish and aren’t recognized as such and also people who just aren’t religious at all. Of any background.
I find that communities here struggle- on all sides- with the idea of letting someone else do something you disagree with. You’ll find militant vegans protesting Hasidic kapores rituals but not protesting the hamburger joint on their block. You’ll find Reform Jews railing against Hasidic intolerance, while making fun of their clothes, their language, and their religiosity. If you replace Hasidic with Hispanic, I doubt my fellow Reform Jews would make fun of their culture. Of course you also have the more well-known bigotry of Haredim who throw stones at cars and “immodest” women, etc etc.
These circles of intolerance extend to other religions here. I’ve met Greek Orthodox Christians who claim they came before the Catholics. I’ve met Catholics who railed against Evangelicals. I’ve met Evangelicals who told me I’m not being a good Jew. I’ve met Muslims who said Arabic was the world’s first language, as uttered by God. And couldn’t believe I didn’t convert to Islam after reading the Quran. I’ve met Arab Christians who don’t particularly like Muslims. And Arab Muslims who don’t believe Jews have any connection to this place- and told me this to my face. And I’ve met Arab Muslims who get ridiculed by other Arab Muslims for being half-Romanian or immodest or even for being Bedouin.
And of course, you have the Palestinians who want to wipe Israeli Jews off “their land”. And the Israeli Jews who don’t recognize Palestinians even exist.
It’s enough to make your head spin. Probably like yours is now.
So at times like these, when people here just fill you with sadness and anger, I like to think of strong counterexamples. At a time when Islam is turning increasingly fundamentalist- or at least its fundamentalist elements are growing in prominence- I met the most unlikely Muslim pluralist.
I visited the Arab village of Tira, which you can read about here. I briefly mentioned my interaction with Jamila. Jamila is a high school student. She works at a toy store. I had never been to an Arab toy store, so I wanted to see what it looked like.
She was super sweet. While I came in trying to show my deference to her culture, all she wanted to talk about was Israeli and American culture. She really wants to visit Tel Aviv more. She loves American movies. Hebrew is her favorite subject, Harry Potter- not the Quran- her favorite book. Nothing wrong with liking the Quran- I personally love parts of it. Just that Jamila is not who you might expect to say this.
Because Jamila wears a hijab. A headscarf. Generally a sign of religious conservatism or perhaps devotion to tradition. And a bone of serious contention in Western Europe.
When she kept talking about how much she liked Jewish culture here, I asked why. Her answer contains a grain of truth we all should pay attention to.
She said: “what I really like is that when you go to the beach here, the Jewish women can wear whatever they want.”
Before you launch into a Western-style approbation of hijabs, that’s not what’s going on here.
I asked her: “so you mean you wish you didn’t have to wear a hijab?” After all, I have met Arab girls here who have told me that.
She said: “no, I wear a hijab because that’s my tradition. I’m Muslim. What I like is that they don’t have to. The Jewish women have the choice. I like riding my bike, but some people here don’t approve because I’m a woman.”
In other words, Jamila is a pretty awesome example of a pluralist. She wears a hijab- and would continue to do so- she just likes that Jews here tend to have more choice. That she could wear a hijab but maybe her sister wouldn’t. Or would change her mind according to her views over time.
Jamila, surprisingly, is a good example for all of us. We do not have to agree on many things. I admire the Hasidic community for keeping Yiddish alive, for preserving certain customs, and for their birthrate to be honest. I see other things in the community, such as homophobia or gender politics, as quite problematic. And people ask me: “well Matt, you’re a queer Reform Jew, how could you possibly like Hasidim? They won’t accept you.”
To which I say: “I’m a pluralist.” I can like what I like about certain communities and not like what I don’t like. I can accept that both aspects exist. And I’m entitled to my feelings on them. Unlike some of the more militant secularists here, I don’t want Haredim to abandon their traditions because they’re “backwards”. I do want more of a separation of religion and state. And there are things I like about their community. The things I don’t- well, sometimes you have to find other avenues for making your case rather than imposing laws. And- this is the tough one for many people- sometimes you just acknowledge that it’s there, whether you agree or not. And that it’s maybe not my role to change everything about how someone else lives.
Like Jamila and her hijab, I don’t want everyone to be like me. I want people to be free to choose their own path, even when I don’t want to follow it. It’s important to remember coercion can flow in all directions, left and right. Muslim and Christian. Orthodox, Reform, and Secular. Israeli and Palestinian. My respect for conservative traditions is not necessarily at the expense of my progressive values.
Lehefech, as we say in Hebrew. “To the contrary”. It is because of them.