Opinions on an opinionated people

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Nov. 1, 2001

JERUSALEM - In France, it's "Je pense donc je suis." In Israel, in a Jewish twist on the Cartesian approach, it's "I think, therefore I am... opinionated." To speak one's mind in Israel is to reaffirm one's existence. It's a rare question, especially one about current events, that elicits no comment for an answer. Not to harbor and express a point of view on the issues of the day is virtually unheard of. It's as if such reticence would be seen as an unmitigated shame, a sign of inadequacy.

The other evening at my in-laws' home in Jerusalem with various relatives around the dinner table, talk quickly turned - as it invariably does - to what's been in the news lately. It didn't take long before the conversation climbed in decibels and opinions swirled in all directions like a desert storm. The debate eventually subsided by the end of the meal but everyone remained firmly entrenched in their opinions.

That's the way it often is at any gathering of more than one person in Israel. True to the tired, old joke about two Jews and three opinions, this country is one, big op-ed page come to life. Israelis are nothing if not highly opinionated. They seem only too happy to share their editorial position with you. They get their point across loud and clear, and in your face if necessary, whether it be in heated conversations at the local cafe, in frequent protest demonstrations, on ubiquitous bumper stickers or on TV and radio.

What are they so worked up over? There's never - and I mean never - a shortage of issues about which to wax passionately. Some are perennial; others spring from recent developments. The list is endless.

  • Yes or no: Should Prime Minster Ariel Sharon deploy Israeli soldiers in Palestinian-controlled areas?

  • Yes or no: Should Foreign Minister Shimon Peres meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while violence against Israel continues?

  • Yes or no: Should Israel release hundreds of Arab security prisoners as demanded by Hizbollah in exchange for four Israelis kidnapped by the Lebanon-based organization last year?

  • Yes or no: Should the government dismantle new Jewish settlement outposts established in the past year in the West Bank?

  • Yes or no: Should there be a greater separation between synagogue and state and official recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism?

  • Yes or no: Are Israel's so-called "targeted killings" of Palestinian terrorists effective or as it an immoral policy that simply increases Palestinian desire for revenge?

  • Yes or no: Should the government end the special status of ultra-Orthodox men who neither share in the national burden of military duty nor do community service?

  • Yes or no: Should Israel evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip in the interests of a peace agreement with the Palestinians?

All of these are matters of no small consequence. Many are life and death issues not easily reduced to yes or no answers. Most concern all citizens in some way and, as such, command great attention. Such loaded subjects are not easily avoided in Israel.

Any day of the week, you need only turn on the TV or radio for a fresh installment of intense national debate - on news programs, live coverage of Knesset sessions or political talk shows. One of the most popular is called Politica, which brings together pundits, politicians and other assorted concerned parties to tackle questions linked to current events. More often than not it turns into a cacophony of conflicting voices.

Living in Israel, you often find yourself in situations resembling Politica. There are times when you're left dizzy by the surfeit of opposing opinions coming at you and the Gordian knots they represent. When you are in such a discussion, you must choose how to respond. Do you beg to differ or defer judgment? Like with so many other things, it depends on the time, place and the company you're in - and the issue at hand.

Sometimes I just sit back, take in all the perspectives and consider which ones seem the most cogent. It's not unusual that seemingly contradictory opinions spanning the political spectrum all seem to make sense to me. That's when things get really confusing. That's when I go to the computer and write another column for the CJN page called Opinions.

< Back