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From a Distance: Vive la difference!

Last Friday my husband and I took our grandsons to the beach. Every time we got to an intersection, we were surrounded by a swarm of youngsters wearing election campaign hats and T-shirts, who offered us car stickers or literature promoting their candidates.

Big banners waved in the breeze, reading: “Only Netanyahu,” or “Ehud Barak, Israel Wants a Change.” At the Bnei Raban intersection, I saw young boys in payot and black suits talking quietly and earnestly to young people in shorts and green-lettered Meretz caps.

No voices were raised. No one was trying to prevent anyone else from reaching the cars, or hanging up their banners. In fact, both sides seemed to be enjoying the rare contact, the chance to debate some of the issues with an actual member of the foreign tribe they were fighting so hard to defeat.

Because in Israeli society the lives of these young people rarely intersect. There are so few opportunities for them to talk seriously about the differences between them.

While no once denies there were nasty confrontations here and there, for the most part the racist and often incendiary rhetoric of the election campaign came from the leadership, not the people. And the slogans, the insults, and the political manipulation of insults to rile up the basically good-natured populace didn’t really work, as far as I could see.

To be sure, out in the spring air, political activists could be seen giving out Tommy Lapid’s anti-haredi newsletter comparing the benefits given soldiers to those given yeshiva students, while Aguda’s young boys were happily distributing Shabbat candles. Each of them looked earnest and dedicated and hardworking and convinced of their own particular truth. Neither seemed bent on preventing the other from trying to get their point across.

What a country! I thought, recalling the American political campaigns of my youth. Aside from the passion surrounding the Vietnam War, how dull those elections were – “It’s the economy, stupid,” the basic theme of almost every single one of them.

In contrast, Israel faces so many profound issues that affect people’s lives, touch their hearts, and inflame their imaginations.

It’s not just the peace process; it’s how peace will look. There is no question that the vision of heaven on earth for Meretz will look radically different than for a member of Agudat Yisrael.

Whose vision will prevail, is, of course, what elections are all about. But given the tensions of our society, and the frequency with which governments rise and fall, it is safe to say that we cannot expect – nor should we want – the democratic process to melt away the valid differences between us.

AT Nitzanim, I watched a handsome, happy Russian family enjoying the sun and surf on the seashore, parents building sand castles with their charming blonde kids. On the road home, stopped at a light, I glanced inside the car beside me and saw a haredi family dressed in its Shabbat finery – dark-haired little boys in their white shirts and payot, a lovely young mother, a distinguished-looking father at the wheel – driving to Jerusalem, perhaps to spend Shabbat with the grandparents.

How much poorer and duller a place our country would be without the two of them, with all their differences, and all their conflicts. Who says that the solution is for one to defeat the other, with one set of values, one lifestyle taking over?

And now the elections are over. No matter which candidates won, the entire country can only really win if we continue to respect and give credence to the ideas of everyone who participated, including the minorities.

Respect. And compassion, and love.

Because we are a very small country, and wherever you go there is an intersection. If only we can bring ourselves to stop there a while, in between elections, instead of rushing past each other with barely a glance, our minds made up, our hearts stony and solid, wallowing in self-righteousness.

If only we could say that one truth doesn’t have to cancel out the other, no matter who got more votes; that the views from both sides of the fence are valid, both important, both valuable contributions to our understanding of who we are as a people, as a nation.

And the young people that were out there, working so hard to make the country a better place according to their own particular formula, shouldn’t we all feel proud of them, every single one?

Shouldn’t we hope that after the banners are torn to tatters, and the stickers peeled off the cars, that they’ll remember the talks they had with their opponents at the intersections of our beautiful, diverse, and vibrant young state?

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