Center Field: Unearthing our subterranean sins

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-24-09

A friend of mine was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism – she double-majored in guilt. She recently moved to Abu Dhabi. She reported being appalled that lovely, progressive Westerners there paid the going wage to their help – meaning practically starvation wages. Even though the economic promises that lured her there were not paying off as she hoped, my friend paid anyone who worked for her what she considered to be a suitable, North American wage.

My friend’s indignation got me thinking about our moral blind spots in society, the abuses we don’t see because we’re so used to them, but for which we nevertheless bear responsibility because by not objecting to them, we perpetuate them. These subterranean sins are a fundamental phenomenon of modern life. Historians and philosophers talk about John Locke’s social contract, how people in society give up certain rights to get certain benefits. But it is a fiction. Most of us are born into our respective societies and simply accept the rules of the game, with no real thought, no explicit buy-in, and minimal negotiating power to change the rules.

Still, it’s worthwhile to consider those features of our society that implicate us and to ask: what communal sins are we overlooking?

Jewish thought is clear on the subject. In fact, the entire tshuva – repentance – mechanism is for sins committed beshgaga, unintentionally. The guilt of intentional sins cannot be dispatched so easily. Our inadvertent sins are the ones we can try to repent for on Yom Kippur.

The first sin the world would expect Israelis to seek atonement for would be Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. After the attempts at peace during the Oslo years and the Gaza disengagement which resulted in such Palestinian demonization and violence, I don’t think Israelis should feel guilty on a collective level. However, on the level of what the liturgy calls ben adam lechavero, one human being to another, Israelis have much to atone for. After two years in Jerusalem I am astonished by how little contact Israeli Jews have with Israeli Arabs. I am appalled that all Israeli Jewish schools do not start teaching Arabic in first grade. I am amazed that so few Israelis have been to an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast, or even know when Ramadan was – it just ended on September 19.

We see a similar problem with haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews). Few non-haredim have attempted to reach out to haredim or bothered to learn the lay of that land. Many of us were quick to condemn the unjustifiable hooliganism of the few haredim who think the best way to preserve the Shabbat is to resort to violence. But too few of us – myself included – bothered to acknowledge those haredi rabbis who condemned the violence or learn about that community’s internal dynamics on the Shabbat parking lot issue.

In general, people-to-people ties help reduce group conflict. Personal bonds often prevent people plunging from outrage at individual bad acts to casting aspersions against groups.

People-to-people ties also establish social networks that can help mediate group conflicts that do arise. In Montreal, we talk about the “two solitudes,” how French and English speaking Quebecers live side by side with little interaction. Here in Jerusalem we have three solitudes – or even more, if we start thinking about how fragmented Israeli society can be.

More broadly, since the end of the Palestinian wave of terror, and the unfortunate wave of Moshe Katzav-Ehud Olmert political corruption, I sense too much resignation in the Israeli body politic. When I travel in North America, people always want to know: “What’s the mood” in Israel? Once upon a time, the whole society seemed to freeze every hour with the beep-beep-beep signaling a new round of news bulletins. Today too many Israelis prefer to bury their heads in the sand. Too many accept the corruption of too many politicians, the growing crime rate, the broken political system, the underfunded and increasingly dysfunctional educational system, the roughness and selfishness festering in too many corners of society.

These days of repentance really need to be days of the wake-up call, when the sound of the shofar reawakens a sense of a communal can-do spirit that problems need to be identified clearly and can be solved, individually and communally.

Of course, every society has it troubles and blind spots. Americans, who are so quick to condemn Israeli Jews for ignoring Israeli Arabs, refuse to acknowledge their own complicity in the growth of the American underclass. These days, amid the economic crisis, many talk about the newly-unemployed. But millions of chronically unemployed are not even counted any more – they are statistically invisible.

Members of this underclass are disproportionately black. Despite the rise of Obama, the despair of so many African-Americans continues. This phenomenon remains another one of America’s great subterranean sins.

Moreover, reciprocity is essential here. Palestinians, haredim and others should also ask what they can do to reach out, build bridges, reduce tensions.

Our sages taught us that subtle transgressions require more repentance. May this coming year be a year of exposing then eliminating our subterranean sins. Let us hope that right-wing Israelis denounce the anti-Arab racism of too many in their community, just as left-right repudiate the anti-Semitic anti-Zionism perverting their community. Let us find Palestinians willing to condemn terrorism and Jews willing to renounce the complacency that stalls the peace process. Let us find haredim willing to stand up against those violent elements in their community and let us find secular Jews willing to confront their anti-religious prejudices.

And let us all try to go beyond group definitions, to treat individuals as precious human beings, rooted in their communities but also united by common yearnings for peace, mutual respect, and personal satisfaction.

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