Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg

Director, Program on Conflict Resolution

Bar Ilan University

December 1998

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of Israeli independence was the realization that while we have been able to establish and defend the Jewish State against external enemies, internally, we start the second Yovel very divided internally. While the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, and the controversy that continues to surround this event, brought the problem to the foreground, it is not by no means a new phenomenon. Israel is a society divided along many different fault lines. We are divided by ethnic background (Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Russians, Moroccans, and Ethiopians, etc.), according to strongly held ideological and political views (Right vs. Left; “settlers” vs. Peace Now, etc.) and also between religious and secular communities, and within the religious community itself, between Haredim and Mizrachi (or Modern Orthodox). At times, these differences show a very ugly face, with anger and violence. No group has a monopoly on these characteristics, and no group is immune.

If I were a sociologist, I would be able to focus on the causes of these differences and divisions, on why the Jewish people, after so many years of suffering at the hands of others, of galut and weakness, seem to be unable to stay together and united while establishing and building the modern Jewish state that was so miraculously created by the Zionist movement. Clearly there are strong differences in ideology and philosophy, particularly over the type of state that Israel should be and what a modern Jewish state means after 2000 years of exile. Some people believe that we have an obligation to create a Torah state, while, on the opposite extreme, the committed secularists insist on attempting to destroy what they see as the backward and stifling constraints of the Jewish tradition and Halacha. For both groups, the stakes are very high, and there is no room for compromise, when it comes to the determining the future of the Jewish people. There is also no room for pluralism, for let and let live, or tolerance. Any weakness will be exploited, and could allow the other camp to win the cultural wars.

If I were a psychologist, I might investigate the psychological basis for this intense conflict, despite the fact that almost all of us have come to Israel, from different parts of the world, in the past 100 years. Perhaps this is the result of the pressure and stress under which all Israelis live. We all live with the daily concerns of terrorism and war, and this kind of tension may have destroyed our nerves. We let the tension out on each other, because there is other way to release the pressure. Some analysts go even further, arguing that the generations of stress from pogroms, inquisitions, and then the terrible Nazi Holocaust has created an inbred tension. In modern Israel, according to this explanation, the violent confrontations between Haredi groups and the police, and with secular groups, are an expression of the expression of stress created by generations of persecution. In a psychological transformation, the Israeli police become the substitute for the German, Polish, or Russian police and KGB, and the Israeli secularists, with their nose-rings and punk hairstyles, are the substitutes for the goyim who led the pogroms.

Alternatively, if I were an economist, I would look for explanations in terms of conflicting interests, according to the models of game theory or similar frameworks.

However, I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or economist, and it seems to me that beyond attempting to explain the reasons for this internal conflict, we need to focus on the means to reverse this trend, to create a sense of unity and a united destiny. The academic discipline of conflict resolution is focused on developing techniques that, over the long term, will provide the foundation for this process.


The essential ingredient in any conflict resolution process is the recognition by all the parties that despite their disagreements, they also have important goals and objectives that can only be met through cooperation. In the language of academic conflict resolution models, this process is known as the transition from a zero-sum orientation, in which the perception is that one party’s gain is necessarily another’s loss, to one that is “positive sum”, in which cooperation can serve the interests of both sides. A “zero-sum” framework is one of total conflict, while a positive-sum framework is based on joint efforts to avoid the penalties and costs of conflict, and to realize the benefits of working together. A positive-sum view is not based on some sort of idealist or naive surrender, but rather the understanding that while important differences and conflicts may continue, there are also common dangers to be avoided, and mutual benefits to be realized.

Unfortunately, in most conflict situations, there is a tendency towards radicalism and polarization, in which cooperation becomes impossible, and common threats or mutual benefits are not seen. Conflicts often become personalized, and the “other” is seen through demonizing filters which lead to this polarization.

In Israel, the conflict between religious and secular has led to the development of very negative images which, in themselves, overpower the sense of a common fate as Jews. The hatred of many secular Israelis for the religious community, with whom they have almost no contact, and about which they know very little, is very strong, as is the hostility of the religious and particularly haredi community for secular Israelis. The secular communities are angry over what they see as religious coercion, and the increasing political role of the religious (they do not generally distinguish between the national religious or modern orthodox, and the Haredi). They also resent what they see as special privileges, and most importantly, the mass army exemptions, enjoyed by most of the Haredim.

Similarly, the religious camp is angry about what they see as secular coercion, in the public facilities and institutions that operate on shabbat, are not kosher, etc. Why should religious Israelis pay for and agree to the operation of public television and radio stations on shabbat? More importantly, religious Israelis see the secularists, who know almost nothing about Jewish history, culture and traditions, as embracing Western secular culture, and abandoning any responsibility for or interest in Jewish continuity and revival.

So the fundamental question that we face is how to stop this polarization, and begin the necessary transformation from all out conflict (zero-sum frameworks) to one in which some basic cooperation is not only possible, but understood as necessary for survival? How, despite the anger and personal animosity, can both sides see the bigger picture, and begin to cooperate, without being asked to change their fundamental objectives. A Haredi is not going to give up his or her goal of a torah society, and a secularist is not going to accept the authority of Halacha or the rabbinate.

The good news is that the seriousness of the disease has finally been recognized, very late, but not too late. According to surveys, almost two-thirds of the population views the religious-secular conflict as Israel’s most pressing problem, even more pressing than the conflict with the Palestinians. Some younger leaders of the Labor Party and the secular establishment, such as MK Yosi Beilin, have become aware and very concerned about the profound ignorance of the secular community regarding Jewish sources and tradition. Although the previous generation of apikorsim was well educated, and knew what they were rejecting, the younger generation, raised in secular Israeli institutions, are entirely and tragically ignorant.

Threcognition is the first step -- we knothat we have a very severe problem.

Still, given the history and intensity of conflict, it would be a mistake to underestimate the challenge. These conflicts are not going to be solved by a few dialogues, or calls for mutual respect and understanding. This process will take many years -- if we are optimistic, at least a generation. Once we have agreed that there are (still) common interests and the need for establishing some “rules of the game” for cooperation, we are ready for the next stage of activity.


While it is important to avoid creating the impression that there is some magic formulae or treatment, like a medical procedure, that can be applied to resolve or, to be more accurate, manage and control conflict, there are some methods that have proven to be helpful when applied systematically. The “treatment” can be described and applied in terms of three levels of activity: local “people to people” dialogues, workshops for mid-level “public opinion leaders”, and, at the top of the pyramid, the negotiation of a social contract involving the highest level of decision-makers, who will be committed to implementing its terms.

1) The “People-to-people” approach

When I was a student in the U.S., I came in contact with a number of Israeli academics and officials, most of whom were not religious. Not only were they not religious, but the younger ones were totally ignorant of basic Jewish practices, such as shabbat and kashrut, and had no idea of what went on and what one does in a Bet Knesset. In contrast, even the most distant Reform Jews in the Diaspora were much more familiar with Jewish tradition and teachings. When my wife and I would invite them to join us for shabbat dinner, many often revealed that they had never been at a religious home before on Shabbat. And in some cases, these were very senior and well respected academics (from Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities, not Bar Ilan, of course, but this is exactly the problem of Israeli society, and highlights the importance of a university which is not fundamentally anti-religious in nature).

The discussion in these encounters was very revealing, and I know that our experience is far from unique. Among secular Israelis, there is a huge wall of ignorance and prejudice towards the religious community in Israel. Of course, there is little chance for developing a “positive sum” approach and cooperating against common threats when there is absolutely no communication, no meeting places, and both sides only have caricatures and stereotypes on which to base their perceptions of “the others”.

These very misleading stereotypes, which result from the lack of any form of direct contacts, are an increasingly prominent feature of the Israeli social and political landscape. In many cases, they are not used deliberately, in order to create additional anger and resentment, but are the result of profound ignorance. Instead of dealing with the rich multitude and complexity of different approaches to Judaism and the Jewish people that have been developed over thousands of years, modern Israeli culture attempts to reduce everyone to a few simplistic, and misleading images.

This is particularly true in the Israeli academic community, where, at least in theory, people should be most sensitive to the misleading and conflict-reinforcing impact of such stereotypes. For example, recently, Tel Aviv University ran a workshop on secular-religious relations, and the proceedings were published and distributed widely. This workshop was, in itself, a conscious effort to promote dialogue, (although at the second level of opinion leaders, which I will discuss later). The cover of the proceedings contained three pictures: The first depicts a Haredi in full dress, praying with arms upraised in religious ecstasy. The second panel contains a classic photo of a “religious settler”, with gun at his side, standing grimly by in front of a caravan apparently somewhere in “the territories”. And finally, in the third panel, two young women jumping, hugging each other, and obviously enjoying life.

Now, which is the preferred photo, and by implication, lifestyle, for secular students and faculty of Tel Aviv University? The hidden message, conveyed through these primitive stereotypes, is that the secular lifestyle is the only “normal” one for Israelis, and that only the social misfits would choose one of the other options. The Haredi and settler stand alone, without friends, and the secular photo is the only one in a social context. The secular editors could and should have chosen pictures of religious children playing basketball, to stress the common elements.

These images are matched by the stereotypes of secular Israelis in the advertisements for the Shas religious schools and yeshivot. In these promos, the secular community is uniformly portrayed as drug addicts and juvenile delinquents without values or roots. There is no subtlety or complexity in this video -- the message delivered by Arye Deri, the leader of the Shas Knesset faction and its main political figure, at the end, is that the only way to save these children from a life of drugs and acid parties is to enroll them in the Shas school system. This theme is also repeated frequently in the sermons of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of this group.

These negative stereotypes of secular Israelis are not confined to Shas and its supporters, but are widely held in the religious and Haredi communities. Just as the simplistic portrayals of religious Jews are used to justify anti-religious policies and biases, the rejection of all secular Israelis as addicts and criminals reinforces the self-righteousness of the religious community. When each group loses sight of the individuality and diversity of the others, and sees only negative images, there is no basis for dialogue or mutual understanding.

So the message at this level is that dialogues at every level of society are extremely important. The dialogues that are conducted now in many high schools, universities, community centers, and various social and political organizations are an important start in correcting the stereotypes.

Bar Ilan University plays a very important role in this process, and the religious secular dialogues that were supported by the Late Hans Bachrach, and continue in this framework, are growing. Bar Ilan’s mixed faculty and student body, which is divided almost equally between religious and secular students, is unique in Israel as a meeting place for different groups. Similarly, the Gesher organization has organized a wide network of people-to-people dialogues, most recently on the third anniversary (Yahrzeit) of the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rabin.

However, as important as these dialogues are, by themselves, they represent a drop in the bucket. They can only involve a small number of people, and the message will take many years to begin to overcome the barriers. From my experience and that of my children in high school who are active participants, most of these meetings consist of angry exchanges and accusations, as each side spills out its long list of complaints that have been built up over the years. Both sides begin with their stereotypes, totally convinced that they have legitimate complaints, and eager to show the other side the error of its ways. It takes a number of sessions to go from the shouting and hostility to the next stage, which involves listening and defining areas of agreement. In a few cases, personal relations do begin to develop which overcome the barriers and stereotypes, but these are the exception and not the norm.

Some of these dialogues are also burdened by poor leadership, particularly when they involve students. For examples, in meetings between secular and religious high-school students that took place in Jerusalem, moderators who identified with one group or another did not provide the neutral intervention and guidance that was expected, and turned the dialogues into intense debates. This resulted in an increased gap in posit, rather than a narrowing of the gap.

Another problem with some people-to-peopldialogues is that they often primarily of those participants who are already among the “converted”, or at least are relatively flexible and open to the potential for cooperation. At the same time, the opponents of dialogue are not involved. This can create a situation in which the participants have the illusion of meaningful interaction, and incorrectly assume that the people that are on the other side are, in fact representative of the broader community. (This is a major problem in the case of dialogues between Israeli and Palestinians in which the majority of Israeli participants were members of unrepresentative groups such as Peace Now. On the basis of these meeting, the Palestinians drew some general conclusions about Israeli perceptions, and created expectations about Israeli policies. They were surprised when these expectations were not met, and they became aware of the fact the Israelis with whom they had met were not representative.)

While it would be a mistake to dismiss the critical importance of these dialogues, which are opening some doors and overcoming barriers of understanding, however slowly, their impact should also not be overestimated. This is only one facet, albeit an important one, in the process of building an effect mechanism for conflict management and ultimately resolution in Israel.

2) Programs for “Elite Opinion Leaders”

Even under the most optimistic and successful of circumstances, people to people processes are only one level of a complex model for promoting the transition from zero-sum to positive sum conflict situations. In any public or political conflict, in order to reach this stage, it is necessary to mobilize and involve elite opinion leaders, such as journalists, academics, teachers, rabbis and Jewish educators, business leaders, and mid-level politicians. In a top down process (as will be discussed in detail below), in which conflict resolution is initiated by the major political or religious decision makers, these opinion leaders serve a mediating function as a bridge towards influencing the general public and changing attitudes at the mass level. They provide a “force multiplier”, to use a military term, in that they have access to large audiences on a regular basis, and can influence the views of these audiences, whether in the classroom, through the press, or from the pulpit of a synagogue.

As a result, in the process of transformation from a zero-sum to a positive sum situation, in which both sides recognize the importance of at least some cooperation, and in which limits and “rules of the game” are defined to prevent escalation, it is usually necessary to gain the active involvement of this middle level.

In our case, we have yet to be very successful at this level, and I believe that it is accurate to say that with a few exceptions, there has not been much of an effort. Indeed, despite all of the talk about the need to create frameworks for conflict resolution, the centrality of involving the “elite opinion makers” has largely gone unrecognized.

The exceptions consist of the university and think-tank meetings and workshops, which involve a broad spectrum of academics, journalists, a small group of Knesset members, and some religious leaders. In general, however, these workshops have themselves been characterized by intense conflict and heated arguments, in which each side presents the case for his or her views, and attacks the other side. In addition, with a few notable exceptions, these activities do not involve Haredim, and as a result, one important party to the conflict situation is largely absent. As a result, these workshops have not contributed to the conflict resolution process, and may, in some cases, have exacerbated the situation.

What is needed is an intensive program involving journalists, teachers, rabbis, businessmen and women, and politicians at all levels and from all groups, including the Haredim. (There are an increasing number of Haredi journalists, and a handful of “public personalities” who are also familiar to the secular audience.) Once they are convinced of the importance of transforming the conflict and, more importantly, of the centrality of their role as opinion leaders in the process, programs can be developed for the schools, community centers, and synagogue groups.

However, in tightly controlled hierarchical Haredi communities, and to a somewhat lesser degree also in the national-religious or right-wing modern orthodox groups, this will require agreement from the top leadership. Thus, even in the best of circumstances, and we are still from this stage, without the intensive involvement and commitment of the top layer in the conflict resolution process, the activation of the elite opinion leaders will be limited and incomplete.

3) A Social Contract at the Top

Fifty years ago, the conflict between the religious-secular communities was resolved through what was called the “status quo” agreement. This agreement covered a broad spectrum of issues related to religion and state, such as the role of the rabbinate in issue of personal status (marriage, divorce, etc.), public observance of shabbat, kashrut in public institutions, separate and autonomous educational systems, and similar difficult topics. Status quo meant that the practice that was accepted at the time would continue unchanged, not because these practices were necessarily desirable, but precisely in order to avoid conflict on this front while issues of life and death for the Jewish people required close cooperation.

The “status quo” was a “top down” agreement originating with the leaders of the different groups (Ben Gurion for the dominant secularists, the Rabbis for the religious), Although this proved somewhat problematic, particularly when it came to new topics for which there was no “status quo” (television, El Al), the agreement generally held for almost 50 years.

For our analysis, the important element of the status quo agreement was that it was arrived at through the direct intervention and decisions of the leaders of each of the major parties. This was part of a broader social contract, which provided a recipe for avoiding conflict and maximizing the cooperation that was necessary to realize the common interest in protecting the Jewish people. Even the non-Zionist or anti-Zionist elements among the Haredim were willing to accept the status quo for this reason. Similarly, the agreement to provide exemptions from army service for the Haredim was part of the social contract.

After 50 years, the status quo agreement and the broader social contract have broken down. While there are many reasons for this, some of which I discussed at the beginning of my talk, the question before us is not one of diagnosis, but rather one of prescription. How can today’s leaders either repair the old system based on the extension of the “status quo”, as advocated by some? Or, if, as seems likely, it is so antiquated as to be beyond repair, the question for today’s leaders, and their constituents, is whether a new social contract can be negotiated, to provide the essential rules of the game for the next fifty years?

The good news is that some steps have already been taken in this direction. Last year, when the latest version of the long-simmering “who is a Jew” controversy, in the form of the Conversion Law, threatened to lead to a full-scale breakdown in secular-religious relations, the Ne’eman commission was formed in the effort to resolve the conflict. The members included a wide spectrum of leaders from the modern Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform groups, (although no Haredim). They agreed to create special classes, to be operated jointly with a single set of requirements, for potential converts. Although this plan was rejected by the Chief Rabbinate, the report was published and endorsed by the Knesset (and many religious members voted in favor, in spite of the opposition of the NRP’s rabbinical mentors), and the organizations are being developed. This is a major and very positive prefor cooperation.

In February 1998, religious MK Alex Lubotzky (Third Way) and MK Yossi Beilin (Labor), two of Israel’brighter younger leaders, and rabbis associated with the Meimad movement, issued a draft outline for a new social contract to replace, by common consent, the status quo agreements governing the enforcement of Shabbat

observance and personal status. This outline calls for allowing more public

transportation on Shabbat, as well as licensing the opening of more entertainment centers (movie theaters, etc.), but it would prohibit commercial activity, such as the opening of shopping malls on Shabbat. The contract would abolish the myriad of local religious councils, but maintain the central role of the Chief Rabbinate with regard to personal status, and also providing alternatives for couples to marry outside this system. A permanent consulting body on archeology respecting the dead would include both archeologists and halachic experts. In addition, the secular school system would strengthen its Jewish studies curriculum, to provide even the secular students with a basic understanding of the richness of the Jewish tradition, and allow them to make their own decisions regarding religious observance.

Following this effort, a few weeks ago, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, a group of 100 individuals from different sides of the religious-secular divide met at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha in the effort to lay the foundations of a new social contract. The participants included Lubotzky, Education Minister Yitzhak Levy, who is also head of the NRP, MKs Hanan Porat (NRP, Dedi Zucker (Meretz), Avraham Poraz (Shinui), and Shmuel Jakobovits, a Haredi figure (and son of Lord Immanual Jacobovits) who heads a group call Uri Kavodi. The discussion included the potential for new legislation to revive the status quo, on the one hand, and an agreement based on behavioral changes that would allow for the end to all religious legislation, at the other end of the spectrum. Some participants even suggested that some sort of combined Sanhedrin, or “supreme committee”, made up of influential religious and secular thinkers, to arbitrate religious-secular conflicts as they arise.

The Role of the Program on Conflict Resolution at Bar Ilan University

It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the seriousness of the problem and the challenge to the Jewish people posed by the divisions between secular and religious divisions, not only in Israel, but also in the Diaspora. Any success in the effort to narrow the gap and begin the transformation from almost complete hostility to the limited cooperative framework of a positive sum situation requires multiple and long-term efforts.

In this context, the Program on Conflict Resolution, initiated by Hans Bachrach, z’l, which I have the honor and responsibility to direct, as well as the student dialogues to which he also contributed, are important contributions. Bar Ilan is still, and perhaps more than ever, an essential meeting point between the religious and secular population. The student dialogues, as well as the daily interaction between these two communities is almost unique in the segregated Israeli society.

Beyond this people-to-people contact, our program, which I am honored to direct, has initiated a comprehensive program for the second and first layers of this process. We have initiated a number courses in conflict resolution, both in English, and this year, in Hebrew, and have added two new faculty members who specialize in this process. By sponsoring simulation games and student debates, the participants are gaining very important experience in this process.

Last year, we held our first conference, which included a keynote session on the Neeman Committee, and an address by Alex Lubotsky. This year’s conference will focus on the Jewish tradition and conflict resolution. Our objective is to include a wide range of “elite opinion makers”, academics and Jewish educators, journalists and Haredi leaders. On the third day we will invite top decision makers, including Chief Justice of the High Court Aharon Barak and also Chief Rabbi Lau, to continue the discussion of a modern and revised social contract for Israel and the Jewish people. The papers and discussion will be published, in Hebrew and English, if we have enough funds, and will be used in our classes to give our students and Israel’s future leaders a foundation for continuing this work.

None of us have any illusions about the difficulties that we face in this process. Even the most optimistic among us acknowledge that it will take many years to reverse the bitterness of gulf of ignorance that separate religious and secular communities. But at the same time, we also realize that there is no greater challenge facing Israel and the Jewish people in the next 50 years.

This is also the legacy that all of us received from Hans Bachrach, z”l, for whom negotiation was not merely an academic subject, but the essential element in the ability of Israel and the Jewish people to survive. He understood that the threat that we face was no longer primarily from the outside, but from within, from the inability to settle our differences without violence and in a framework of mutual understanding and respect. Hans Bachrach also recognized that the academic community had an important role to play in this process, and Bar Ilan University was uniquely positioned to contribute in this process of conflict resolution within the Jewish community. Yehi Zichro Baruch.