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Former Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon

Former Knesset member preaches tolerance, Israeli style

Former Knesset member Ruth Calderon thinks Israel’s social problems can be improved by adhering to a simple Hebrew expression: savlanut, or “tolerance.”

Even when that means tolerating people you may not like.

“How do we Jews resolve differences at a time when we have conflicts that are difficult to speak of?” she asked at a March 29 presentation at the JCC of San Francisco. Pointing to synagogues where rabbis refrain from preaching about Israel for fear of offending one contingent or another in the congregation, she said savlanut was the way to deal with potentially explosive conversations, and the people who exacerbate them.

“You dislike them, but you tolerate them,” she said.

Calderon was in the Bay Area recently as scholar-in-residence at the Oshman Family JCC, in addition to her talk in San Francisco. Back home, as a member of the Yesh Atid party, she served in the Knesset from 2013 to 2015. A fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute, she advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, speaks up for the liberal streams of Judaism, and advocates for civil and same-sex marriage in Israel.

Calderon’s core message at the JCC talk was one of greater pluralism in her homeland. Pluralism, she said, is about coexistence. “When the gardener is pluralistic, he lets everything grow,” she told her audience.

Beyond mere tolerance, Calderon said Israel’s bickering religious and political factions could benefit from practicing another time-honored Jewish tradition: machloket, a respectful disagreement that leads to shared learning.

“There can be tension between equally strong scholars,” she said. “They don’t agree with each other, but they need each other in order to study. You can like someone but disagree with them. You can learn from each other.”

If you can’t stand in the other person’s shoes, how can you meet in the middle?

Some of the issues in need of further discussion, she believes, are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the right of women to pray at the Kotel, or Western Wall. Jewish identity — recognizing all Jews and convincing all Jews to recognize their own Jewishness — is also of paramount importance. “Many Jews are ambivalent about their own Jewishness,” Calderon said. “Many non-Orthodox think they are not legitimate Jews.”

Calderon added that these attitudes run deep within Israeli society. “Secular Jews feel they are not Jewish enough,” she said. “The Orthodox are always willing to tell them what to do. Israel was founded to be a homeland for all Jews. All Jews deserve a say.”

She also noted that Israel’s ongoing military presence in the West Bank has become an embarrassment for American Jews and is pushing some away from supporting the Jewish state. “Most Israelis don’t want to occupy,” she said. “Being free is a basic tenet of Judaism.”

To illustrate machloket, she divided the audience into small groups to discuss some of the thorny issues presented in her talk.

At one table, participants cited their inability to listen to extremist views from either side.

“If you can’t stand in the other person’s shoes, how can you meet in the middle?” asked one woman.

Another participant noted that in the United States many people have difficulty speaking to each other respectfully. Others lambasted extremist groups that mask their support for terrorist groups under the guise of respecting cultural diversity.

“I don’t have to deal with sociopaths,” argued one man.

Everyone agreed that reclaiming their Jewish culture was important.

“I don’t want to live without Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews next to me,” one person said.

“We need to find a voice to make Israel the best state it can be,” another audience member added. “It’s good to have a home.”

David-Elijah Nahmod
David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod is an American/Israeli dual national of Syrian descent who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv. Currently in San Francisco, his eclectic writing career includes LGBT and Jewish publications, and horror movie magazines.