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  • A View from the New Knesset

    27 February 2013

    A View from the New Knesset

    Tamar Sandberg(Tamar Zandberg, a new Member of Knesset from the Meretz party, is our guest columnist this week.)

    What a couple of years we had! In the summer of 2011, I was marching in the streets, together with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, calling for a more just and equal society, one which cares for the weak and celebrates freedom and democracy. This was the most inspiring political moment Israel had in decades.

    Soon after, we were told that the protest has died. Crushed under the daily banalities of the Knesset and manipulated by "King Bibi," as some reporters began calling Prime Minister Netanyahu. The government seemed determined to hold on to the status quo on every front, isolating itself from the world and sowing fear and resentment among its own citizens.

    Then came the elections, with a result that could only signify a turning point. An unprecedented number of new members of Knesset, a record breaking representation of women (despite still being outrageously low) and a decreasing average age of MKs – all demonstrate the desire for a new era in Israeli politics.

    Make no mistake. There are more progressives in this Knesset, but also more members that support the settlements and still many that have little patience for the democratic principles on which Israel was founded. The clouds which have gathered over Israel in recent years are still there, but for the first time in a while, we also see hope. We see an opportunity. And that’s all we could have asked for.

    During the last Knesset term, we focused on blocking initiatives which threatened the most basic freedoms in Israel. We fought against the confrontational attitude our government has presented to the world, and against the moral corruption that the occupation has brought at home. Many of you have stood by us on those battles, and I can assure you that your voice was heard in Israel, loud and clear. Our success in the last elections is also your success.

    We could do even more now. We could answer the public call for change with a progressive vision of Israel: A country which provides for all its citizens, a place which views cultural variety and difference of opinions not as a threat but as its source of strength; A state which promotes tolerance and treat all people and religious with respect – including all members of the Jewish people; a nation which can replace the urge to conquer with a desire to care. And most urgent of all: A country which doesn’t deprive the freedom of another people.

    It won’t be easy. We are still faced with many – including some members of the future government – who do not share our values. Even among those who believe in change, some view this change in a very different way that we do. We need all the help we can get. I am sure that we will find you continuing your support for a democratic and caring Israel, because you know that Israel deserves better than what the last four years have offered. As the last elections have showed, Israelis know that too.


    MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

  • Adalah’s advocacy brings Israel closer to the ideal established by Israel’s founders

    06 March 2012

    March 6, 2012

    The not-so-stealth campaigns against the Arab civil rights organization Adalah, its supporter the New Israel Fund, and the values of democratic and minority rights are hitting new lows.

    For example, NGO Monitor recently went public with an op-ed it knew to be wrong, along with some manipulative interpretation. Having wrongly accused Adalah of participating in a European BDS conference, they attempted to associate the organization with the BDS campaign — even after they were told of their error and after the conference took place without Adalah’s participation. In fact, boycott is not a part of Adalah’s mandate, simply because it seeks change through Israel’s legal system. Meanwhile, other organizations use NIF’s support of Adalah as a wedge issue in an attempt to delegitimize both the New Israel Fund and Arab civil society. This is not a minor matter.

    In some places, the leading organization advancing civil rights for society’s most disadvantaged minority occupies an honorable place in civil society. Just look at how the NAACP is regarded in America. In Israel, it’s troubling that Adalah, which has won countless cases in court on behalf of Israeli Arab citizens, is regarded with suspicion at best.

    Despite the unique circumstances here in Israel, Adalah has trod a path of ideological and pragmatic moderation. Adalah uses litigation to advance human and civil rights in Israel, and their impact speaks for itself. This organization won a precedent-setting victory in September 2011 on behalf of an Arab couple excluded from living in the village of Rakefat. In 2010, the High Court of Justice ordered the Tax Authority to discontinue tax breaks based on location, which discriminated against Arab-Israeli towns and villages, following an Adalah petition. In a groundbreaking victory this past fall, the Kiryat Gat Magistrate’s Court ordered the State to cancel 51 demolition orders issued against the Bedouin village of Alsira; the judge criticized the razing orders because the families have been living in the village for decades.

    And just this week, the High Court overturned two clauses in the Income Support Law that forbade poor people from owning a car. The petition, brought by Adalah and other NGOs, now protects poor Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, from having to surrender vehicles they need for work, medical or family needs or risk losing their income benefits.

    The common thread in these achievements is that Israel is a more just, more equal, and more democratic state. Israel’s founders set out to create a Jewish state. But they were crystal clear in their desire to see Israel provide meaningful equality for all of its citizens, including the Arab minority. Adalah’s advocacy brings us closer to this ideal.

    Tax districts and real-estate exclusion are not the stuff of revolution. Because opposing Adalah’s successes would be too obviously racist and discriminatory, its adversaries instead point to the organization’s participation in a theoretical proposal for an Israeli constitution more than five years ago. At that time, Adalah and other leaders in the Arab community proposed a model that emphasized the democratic nature of the state at the expense of its Jewish aspects.
    An invitation to discuss

    It is certainly worth arguing with the authors of that document, and I do. But let us remember that at the time that document was written, Israel was abuzz with conferences about what we might want in a constitution. Adalah’s “democratic constitution” proposal told us, the Jewish majority, that there are other ways to think about our most structural issues – and that actually inviting Arab citizens to participate in the conversation might be useful.

    The truth is, despite repeated false claims to the contrary, Adalah does not focus on changing the nature of Israel as a Jewish state. It seeks to achieve equality for all, as promised by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Adalah’s purpose, admirably fulfilled, is to chip away at the legislative and social discrimination that the Arab minority faces on a daily basis.

    It may be that this very success is why Adalah, and its funder the New Israel Fund, attract such enmity. Only the bravest ultra-nationalist ideologues are honest enough to say what they are really after – a state without Arab citizens, or one in which those citizens docilely accept second-class status. Instead, the mouthpieces for the extreme right that attempt to preserve a veneer of respectability, like NGO Monitor, opine that it should be illegal for Adalah and other NGOs to receive funding from democracies abroad (using the same arguments that the Egyptian and Russian governments, those paragons of democracy, are using these days.) Then they try to bully NIF into dropping its support as well. Given that almost every Israeli NGO, including NGO Monitor itself, gets significant funding from overseas, the only conclusion is that these ultra-nationalists believe that Adalah should be utterly defunded, and cease to exist.

    That would be a tragedy for everyone. Just this month, Adalah director Hassan Jabareen pointed out that his organization is frequently criticized by various sectors in the Arab world for not being more ultra-nationalist. A recent example is Adalah’s statement criticizing the Syrian regime for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Adalah’s objective of socio-economic equality for the Arab minority irritates both the Islamists and those who think that any encounter with the machinery of the Israeli state is wrong. Destroying Adalah means empowering those whose real aims are innately destructive, both in the Jewish and Arab communities.

    We can’t allow the attacks on Adalah to succeed. The survival of Israel’s democracy depends on allowing the voices of unpopular minorities to be heard. We, the majority, will not always like what Adalah has to say, or the light they shine on discriminatory practices. It doesn’t matter. Living up to our own best interests and values means that we must engage with our fellow citizens when they stand up for their rights. The attacks on Adalah may hurt that organization. In the long run, they will hurt Israel more.

    Yehudit Karp is the former Deputy Attorney General of Israel and a member of the International Council of the New Israel Fund

    Click here to read the article as published by the Times of Israel.

  • Aloud and Clear

    11 April 2013

    April 11, 2013

    American and other overseas NIF supporters and Israeli NIF supporters share a set of values and a vision for Israel, but we don't always see all of our issues in exactly the same way. Pluralism and freedom of (and from) religion is a case in point. Some Israelis are bemused and a bit taken aback by how painful attempts by the state-sponsored rabbinical establishment to narrowly define "who is a Jew," and to enforce sexist rules about who can pray and how at the Kotel, the Western Wall, are to their American friends. Some Americans, on the other hand, do not fully appreciate how restrictive and offensive the almost total control of the same rabbinic establishment over life-cycle events -- from birth to marriage to burial -- is to their Israeli cousins.

    And sometimes something happens to remind us all that we are fighting the same fight. Last week police warned our partners at Women of the Wall that they were prepared to file charges against women for praying at the wall, including saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead, aloud.

    This is too much. It is time for all of us who care about justice in Jerusalem, wherever we live, to stand up with and for the Women of the Wall and the values of pluralism and equality that they stand for every month at the Kotel. I ask each of you to join me in signing a statement of support for these brave women, and to learn more about their struggle. Let them know that they are not alone.

    Even as I write this, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky is submitting recommendations to the prime minister on how to accommodate the rights of women – and really, all non-Orthodox Jews -- at the Wall. Now is the time to make sure our voiced are heard, in Israel, Europe, North America and Australia. Our sisters in Jerusalem need us.

    Daniel Sokatch

  • An Eventful Day on the NIF Study Tour

    14 November 2014

    This guest post by Benette Phillips gives an overview of a very interesting and intense day: two sessions in the morning, a guided bus tour to three vantage points, a sumptuous lunch, a meeting with three key leaders of KIAH, and a light and sound show at the Tower of David in the Old City.


  • An Eye Opening Shabbat

    11 October 2013

    By Amiee C. Kushner, October 2013

    As a young woman who grew up in the ’80s with a feminist mother in the Bay Area, discrimination was always something that was to be strived against, but rarely did I actually experience it. As an adult there was always an orange on my Seder plate, women on the bimas in my spiritual homes and a mechitza was something from old dusty books about sheltl life.

    This past July I embarked on my long delayed first trip to Israel. Through my involvement in NIF I knew of the institutionalized gender discrimination that occurred in Israel, but I was thoroughly unprepared for the pain of experiencing it first-hand.

    People talk of their “ah-ha” Israel moments and mine began the minute I stepped up to the entrance of the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat and saw the signs indicating separate entrances for women and men. The bold, black lettering over the gates began a profound, almost physical, shock at the realization that a significant portion of the Jewish men I was surrounded by saw me as lesser and unworthy of same level of spirituality connectedness to my faith as they.

    Oddly our group was granted entrance through a third gate, not segregated by gender, or I doubt I would have been able to enter. I made it a few feet past the mechitza into the tiny women's’ section shrouded under a scaffold, before turning back and awaiting the rest of my group to finish their prayers, desperately wanting to flee. I was told by our tour Rabbi prior to walking to the Kotel that I would experience a deep spiritual connection to Judaism and my ancestors, but all I could feel was spiritual deflation.

    Upon returning home my first act was a donation to Women of the Wall. I then reveled in rediscovering the joy of my home community where girls are called to the Torah alongside the boys, where women are rabbis and leaders, and the Sabbath bride is greeted is among equals.

    Amiee C. Kushner is an active leader in San Francisco's Young Adult Jewish community, including as a New Gen Leadership Council Member for the New Israel Fund.


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  • Approaching 100 Days of the (Third) Netanyahu Government

    01 July 2013

    By: Shatil Center for Policy Change

    June 2013

    This is the fifth installment of the "rolling document" series examining political developments in the nineteenth Knesset and in the thirty-third government. It aims to illuminate the connection between the political arena and our social one. This document highlights opportunities as well as concerns of relevance to the political work toward social change.

    The Netanyahu government is several days away from its 100th day. This grace period, as it is customarily called, has done anything but depict the Prime Minister or his entire government with grace.

    The period's focus has primarily been one of seeking to understand the arena. The government has eight (!) new ministers and the same number of deputy ministers. None of them have ever served in such complex or high positions, and some of them have yet to fully internalize the package of power, capabilities, circumstantial forces, and needs of the realms entrusted to them. Around them are more than thirty new Members of Knesset in both the coalition and opposition who are also learning firsthand about the wonders and complexities of Israeli politics and the Knesset.

    This set of facts helps to understand why, after such an impassioned electoral campaign, with such surprising results, it is still difficult to assert anything about the abilities or aspirations of the new government. One thing has already become clear: the glue binding the coalition parties is weak. The parties' heads and members are different and diverse. They differ in their values and represent different extremes of Israeli society. With such wide ideological gaps, it is hard to foresee any dramatic changes in the various arenas of life. That assertion, however, must be qualified when discussing the economic realm. Netanyahu and Bennett, Lapid and Livni – all share (almost) the same economic views and have a similar take on how to address the current economic crisis.

    The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the "brothers" (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

    The Prime Minister would prefer to identify the contested arenas and let the "brothers" (i.e. Lapid and Bennett) fight it out, creating distance and division, to avoid any harm coming to his own standing, and avoid the public criticism. This is certainly the case regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, but also with economic issues such as monopolies, housing and others.

    The significant processes in this government are still in the trial phase. Few of the previous government's priorities continue, but the broader missions, for which the new and veteran players have now been chosen, have yet to get underway. In contrast, larger processes such as reducing centralism in economic control; cutting the State's investment in its citizens; preparing for the new budget; or managing the State's natural resources – have been dealt with extensively, under internal and external political pressure from many quarters and broad media coverage – sometimes biased and problematic – but with too little public or civic involvement.

    The ruling Likud Beiteinu party has long since become a battlefield where everyone is fighting everyone else. Netanyahu and Lieberman face opposition from members of both parties, where there is strong opposition to merging the two parties. Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev staunchly oppose unification and have marked themselves as a new force not reluctant to confront the weakened Prime Minister. Danon has turned into a serial troublemaker, harassing the Prime Minister from the right in his attempt to lead various Likud institutions, and pronouncing especially problematic diplomatic statements.

    The Jewish Home party is discovering the complexities in preserving the new-young-pluralistic image it cultivated throughout its election campaign, led by its new, young leader. The two streams composing the party do not agree on its objectives, or even its values at times, and the connection among its components is not always clear. Of note is the realm of religion and State: Naftali Bennett has so far managed to lead to internal decisions, but that does not necessarily attest to the way future challenging decisions will be negotiated.

    Yesh Atid also features diverse ideologies. The chairman ostensibly allows freedom of movement for the various agendas within the political space, but in the end they must all rally around one line of leadership. It is expected (and desirable) that Yesh Atid ministers and MKs will challenge the party. The Minister of Social Affairs and MK Ofer Shelach for example do not perceive their role in the party or in politics the way Lapid does. That tension is likely to increase; we will thus see a new accumulation of forces and voices that will try to draw the whole party toward positions more in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians, less antidemocratic legislation, and more opposition to further harming the weaker segments of the population.

    Hat'nua has not managed to make its presence felt in any effective way; its ranks serve as a repository of various ideologies and MKs with essentially fragmented bases and identities. The chairwoman's ability to lead the party is also limited; the Ministry of Justice and the Minister's other roles have yet to find significant expression, and Livni has frequently been overruled in those areas where her influence was supposed to be greatest.

    In the background lies a cautious optimism that stems from the Israeli public's position: a new Channel Ten – Camille Fuchs survey indicates a strengthening of Meretz, perhaps up to ten MKs (the survey asked: if elections took place today, for whom would you vote?); Shelly Yehimovich and Labor gain an electoral vote; Likud-Beiteinu would lose a seat; Jewish Home would add one; and Yesh Atid's would remain unchanged. Tzipi Livni would lose half her strength, according to the survey, while the Arab parties would gain one seat each. There would ostensibly be a Left bloc of 61 MKs, assuming Yesh Atid could be somewhat identified with the Left.

    The Diplomatic Arena:

    After various difficult statements by ministers and deputies in the Likud – Elkin, who ruled out negotiations; and Danon, who disparaged the consecutive visits by John Kerry – came Minister Bennett's latest assertion, redefining the chances of true negotiations. There does not at present appear to be a scenario in which Netanyahu could initiate a diplomatic process with the Palestinians without losing the little stock he has remaining in Likud. He has no support within the party, and certainly not with Bennett.

    Shas, which announced in the past it would consider joining the government in the event of real negotiations, now sees a potential new channel through which to gain strength: it proposed to Bennett and the Religious Zionist camp a guarantee not to assist Netanyahu if the former leave the coalition, in exchange for not cutting government allowances for children and reducing the effects of legislation directed at yeshiva students (Slomianski is head of the Finance Committee). Deri has even hinted that together, the Haredim and religious Zionists number 30 seats, a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu knows this well and will avoid as best he can any testing of that issue.

    In contrast, Yair Lapid, quoted a month ago in The New York Times as opposing evacuation of settlements, this week (20 June) stated in the Washington Post something of a completely different character:

    "I think that eventually we will have no other option but to pull lots of settlements out of the West Bank. What we call the blocs will stay, such as Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim and Gush Etzion, but basically, of course, if you have a two-state solution, you will pull settlements out of the West Bank. There is no other option."

    Yet it remains doubtful that Lapid will adhere to this new line.

    In the background stand Minister Livni and the head of the opposition, Yehimovich, speaking into every open microphone about the urgent need for negotiations and the window of opportunity and other verbiage we know all too well. In practice, there does not seem to be any leverage to force the leadership toward a true pursuit of a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

    Social Justice:

    At present, all the coalition delegation heads adhere to a certain consensus (with slight exceptions), regarding the ways out of the economic crisis. While critical voices have been heard from the Minister of Social Affairs, opposing the cuts to his ministry's budget – or from Orly Levi, Miri Regev, and Gila Gamliel – those voices alone are hardly sufficient to affect the advancement of such an anti-social budget.

    Civic and public action focused on the proposed budget and on alternatives. It has encountered difficulty in penetrating public opinion and moving the public to show more pronounced opposition. Difficulties are also present in influencing the various committees or the ruling party insiders to reassess their overall conception of the budget.

    It would seem more effective and proper to examine ways to divide the campaign into focused issue areas - housing, employment, health, cost of living, and education. Those arenas could serve as a focus around which to build ad-hoc, narrowly defined, political and public partnerships through which to pursue support on both sides of the coalition-opposition aisle, support that crosses communities and audiences.

    Democracy, Racism, Shared Society:

    One of the most significant changes in the current government is that whereas in the previous government the extremist voices – those Likud MKs who spoke out or acted to pursue racist, discriminatory legislation – Danon and Akunis for example – were relatively "junior" MKs, today they have attained seniority and leadership within the party: Minister of Defense Yaalon; Deputy Minister of Defense Danon; Coalition Chairman Levin; or Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Elkin. They are the same extremist voices, but this time heard from among the party leadership.

    These ministers this represent the "new legitimacy," the space to maneuver ever rightward, and the phenomenon they represent is likely to remain.

    At the conclusion of the elections, we and many others predicted that Yesh Atid, with its variegated constituents and new MKs, would not permit the advancement of discriminatory or antidemocratic legislation. Lapid's team is made up of "good people" who have worked for positive democratic action – see Shai Piron and Ruth Calderon, Tamno-Shata, and German, Ofer Shelach and many other worthy names. At present the picture seems more complex. The Yesh Atid MKs have not rushed to oppose dangerous measures in the government. Just this week we saw how a government-sponsored bill by Yariv Levin regarding preference in hiring and other benefits for those who served in the military/national service - was easily passed in ministerial committee, despite opposition from the Attorney General.

    The ministerial committee, which includes four Yesh Atid ministers, has been unable to exert influence on the other, rightist, committee members, and sometimes even joins them. When Yesh Atid offers support, that problematic legislation is seen as receiving public imprimatur – Yesh Atid, after all, is ostensibly liberal, and they signed off on it.

    Coupled with that is the fashionable, automatic, weak denunciation of other racist phenomena, such as "Price Tag" vandalism, that have spread like wildfire, or continued discrimination against Mizrahi students at institutions of learning. These incidents all prompt automatic condemnation or a solidarity visit, which have zero political impact. There is no consensus to label Price Tag acts as terrorism, and the penalties for other acts of discrimination and racism are insufficient.

  • Be the Change

    24 October 2013

    By Cantor Linda Shivers, October 2013

    I have lived through a lot of change. I have felt a lot of the growing pains through the changes, but I am proud of all that has been accomplished for Jewish women in the majority of American synagogues. I have seen changes in the treatment and attitudes toward women in my family, my shuls, my seminary, and in me.

    When I was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the women were barely tolerated. We had women's services just once a week in the basement. No professors, not even female professors, ever came that I can remember. Now there are egalitarian services that draw the largest numbers of worshipers. Now synagogues require tallit and kippot for the girls at their bat mitzvahs, and every girl wants a beautiful tallit. More women than not have their own tallit that they wear proudly. After 30 year of role modeling, I seem women in my synagogues trying out new roles - shilchot tzibor and ba'alot kriah. Their experiences bring the holy closer to them and become renewed in their Judaism. They are awestruck with the power of Jewish ritual.

    I have been saddened by the lack of opportunities and appreciation for women's spirituality in Israel. I have been ridiculed for wearing a tallit and have had dirty water thrown at me. People have assumed motives and intentions that I don't have and have been unwilling to engage with me with an open mind. I know that many of my sisters and brothers in Israel are working hard to change this and I am trying to support them any way I can.

    Cantor Linda Shivers has been a congregational leader for 30 years.


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  • Being the First Bat Mitzvah at Shaare Zion Synagogue

    24 October 2013

    By Marion L. Usher, October 2013

    [image - Marion L. Usher]

    I grew up In Montreal, Quebec in a mostly Jewish neighborhood. I say mostly, since we had no contact with the families of other faiths. My father helped build the first Conservative congregation in our new neighborhood. Both parents were totally immersed in synagogue life. Our parents kept us close to them with weekly Shabbat celebrations, and inviting our friends over after dinner to play ping pong or watch a movie. Our friends enjoyed good food and fun times at our house.

    When I turned 13, my father turned to me and asked me what I thought about having a Bat Mitzvah. I was totally surprised since there had never been one in our synagogue. Our Rabbi, Maurice Cohen, had approached my father to see if I might be interested. I was totally delighted. The event was celebrated on a Friday night. At that time, 1955, we still had separate seating and women were not able to have allyiot. A Friday night service was the compromise solution.

    I did my Haftorah, a D'var Torah, sang some of the liturgy, and ended with Adon Olam. It was one of the most important experiences in my life. I felt empowered, something I have held onto always. What a gift Rabbi Cohen gave me when he suggested that I become the first Bat Mitzvah in our congregation, actually in Montreal!

    Marion L. Usher, Ph.D, Clinical Professor, Dept. of Psychiatry, George Washington University School of Medicine, Creator of "Love and Religion: An Interfaith Workshop for Jews and Their Partners."

    FaceBook: Love and Religion


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