The last name I expected to come up at our Shabbat table last week was Jon Stewart. I was hosting a serious, soft-spoken public intellectual from Israel, Bambi Sheleg — who was in town on a speaking tour — and her words to my Shabbat guests were anything but funny and ironic.
Since she launched her bimonthly magazine Eretz Acheret (A Different Place) 10 years ago, Sheleg has made quiet waves in the Jewish state. Her magazine doesn’t go for easy drama or sexy opinion. It tackles complicated issues dealing with social, cultural and spiritual developments in Israel and among the Jewish people.
I can’t imagine Sheleg doing a “Daily Show” in Israel with the snarky and hysterical ridicule that has made Jon Stewart famous.
Yet there she was, at our lunch, extolling the virtues of Stewart. In particular, she was responding to what she saw as his call for “sanity” in dialogue and public discourse.
Everything about Sheleg screams sanity. I met her in Jerusalem last summer, and for three hours she mesmerized me with her seriousness. She cares deeply about the issues that affect Israel. She is originally from the world of religious Zionists, but over the years she has become a lot less ideological and a lot more introspective. She preaches humility over ideology.
Around the time of the Gaza disengagement, she wrote a controversial piece that got her in trouble with her religious Zionist brethren, because she talked of the mistakes they made, and how, in their zeal to settle the land, they ignored other important issues and “disengaged” from much of Israeli society.
It was vintage Sheleg. Take on your own, but do it from a place of love and intelligence.
She hates to win arguments.
Her ideology has become civilized debate. Her magazine has given a voice to Israelis from all walks of life, from Charedim, settlers, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Tel Aviv artists, women, academics, impoverished Israelis and the Israeli-Arab sector. Her writers take on divisive issues like conversion and the rabbinate with long and intense essays.
A few years ago, her magazine was credited with what the Forward newspaper called “one of the most important but barely publicized rulings in the history of the Jewish state.” It was a Supreme Court decision to cancel the privatization of the country’s prison system, and it was influenced by an Eretz Acheret cover story: “Can the State Abdicate Its Role as Responsible for the Correctional System?”
In short, she’s Israel’s earnest answer to Jon Stewart.
What they have in common is a deep aversion to extremism of any kind. Stewart expresses his disdain for extremism by making fun of it. Sheleg expresses her disdain by creating an alternative.
Stewart will get up at a rally in front of thousands of followers and rail against “the country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-panic-conflictinator.” Sheleg will talk to a small group and quietly say things like, “In the media, radicals get all the attention ... my goal is to build bridges between people rather than focus on what divides us.”
They have similar goals, but they play different instruments. As I reflected on those two instruments after Sheleg’s visit, a thought occurred to me: Maybe these two personalities need each other.
Stewart is the perfect opening act for Sheleg. He’s the guy who can work the crowd and get them pumped up for the heavy stuff that’s about to follow. He’s no policy wonk, but he’s wicked smart, and he knows a dumb debate when he sees one.
Sheleg is the ideal follow-up to Stewart. She does the heavy lifting of transforming the “dumb debates” into civilized dialogues that promote smart and humane solutions.
Israel needs a Jon Stewart to make Sheleg’s moderation more noticeable, and America needs a Bambi Sheleg to make Stewart’s brilliant rants more than just brilliant rants.
It’s unfair to beat up Stewart because he doesn’t offer solutions, just like it’s unfair to beat up Sheleg because she hasn’t made her centrist movement more entertaining. Still, it’d be nice to see what would happen if their movements joined forces.
I can just see it. After doing a bit on politicians who can’t speak the truth, Stewart would hold up a magazine called A Different Place and say to his audience of millions: “Now go to this magazine’s Web site and try to sit still for 30 minutes as my partner Bambi Sheleg leads a roundtable on the meaning of truth in politics. And then tell her what you think, because this woman’s a really good listener.”
In Israel, where ridicule and satire are common fare, I’m sure they can find an Israeli version of Stewart to break the ice for Sheleg’s earnest offerings and add millions to her readership. This would be bridge-building at its highest level.
Maybe that’s why Sheleg was so enthused at our Shabbat table about someone who is so different from herself. She knows a good bridge when she sees one.
For more Journal coverage of Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, click here.