Victory of ultra-nationalists in Israel may estrange U.S. Jews07 September 2012
More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. U.S. Jews must find ways to support progressive voices in Israel whose values we share as they fight to take back their country.
By Daniel Sokatch | Jan.14, 2013
For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender - one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn't really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.
But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.
Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president's pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn't go over so well with American Jews.
That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What's more, most American Jews don't disapprove of President Obama's position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president's handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.
But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they - the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.
Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel's relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel's expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that -the world is against us." None of this was lost on worried American Jews.
The coming coalition is likely to redefine -right wing" in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party's traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government's agenda.
I don't think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel's international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I'm sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk. Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel's founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.
On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today's post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.
This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel's image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.
Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.
This article was originally published by Haaretz.com.
Violence Against Women Degrades Jewish Concept of Modesty17 January 2012
The unconscionable physical and verbal violence against women in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere have degraded the religious concept of tzeniut (modesty) by associating it with misogyny and oppression. Some Orthodox condemnations of that violence, by objecting to means while acknowledging shared ends, have added to that degradation. My purpose here is to directly reject the ends, in other words to offer a vigorously Orthodox and halakhic understanding of the purposes and parameters of tzeniut that opposes the goals and not just the means of those who seek to use tzeniut as a weapon to subordinate women or intimidate them out of the public square.
Here are four key points:
1. Tzeniut is a broad Jewish value whose practical expression is opposition to unnecessary and meretricious self-exposure, whether of the body or of the soul. It relates to all people, male and female alike, and all of life. Reducing it to a code for women’s dress and actions reflects an unhealthy obsession, equivalent to reducing love to an expression of (exclusively male) lust.
2. Tzeniut is intended to preserve and expand the domain of intimacy. Intimacy is constructed by exclusivity of exposure, by sharing things about oneself that one does not share broadly. People with inadequate emotional boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship though emotional sharing, and people with inadequate physical boundaries are less capable of achieving relationship through physical intimacy.
3. Tzeniut is intended to preserve the integrity of personal space – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. People who “spill” emotionally compel others to respond to them – to feel pity when they express suffering, anger when they express betrayal, and the like. This legitimately feels like a violation. The same is true of unwanted touch, or of unwanted visual erotic stimulation.
4. Tzeniut is one value in the complex web of Jewish values, which must constantly negotiate its place in that web. It can be trumped, or attenuated, when it comes into conflict with other Jewish values. From the halakhic perspective, once tzeniut is correctly defined as unnecessary self-exposure, it becomes clear that it should not be applied mechanically, but rather on the basis of a sensitive and dynamic understanding of the necessary.
Indeed, we need to recognize that Halakhah does not directly obligate women to dress or behave modestly , however that is defined. Such obligations emerge instead via the obligation v’lifnei iver lo titen mikhshol – “you must not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus19:14). The Talmudic Rabbis understood this verse metaphorically as creating a covenant of mutual responsibility, with the specific consequences that Jews are responsible not to create circumstances that cause others to violate prohibitions, that preclude them from performing ritual obligations, or that distract them from the study of Torah. Each of these consequences is readily conceptualizable as an obligation to respect the others’ space.
Now the "stumbling block" argument is always a potentially dangerous weapon. Here is an illustration: The Talmud states that lifnei iver forbids fathers to give corporal punishment to grown children (Moed Qatan 17a), because this will cause the children to rebel and therefore violate their obligations to treat their parent with honor and reverence. But what if children will rebel even when asked to perform minor household chores? Worse, what if children learn this rule, and then give preemptive notice that they will disobey any parental command – does this effectively bar any exercise of parental authority? If I tell my neighbor that if she ever cooks broccoli again, I will be driven to eat a cheeseburger – can I control her diet by claiming potential spiritual injury?
The answer is of course not – Halakhah does not allow one person to take advantage of the covenant of mutual responsibility so as to prevent another from living a normal fulfilling human life. By the same token, Jewish law does not allow men to use erotic lifnei iver to prevent women from living normal fulfilling lives.
Now what constitutes a normal fulfilling life? It should be clear that this is a sociologically dependent category. In some societies it may be necessary to jog in public, but not in others; in some societies it may be necessary to sing in mixed company, but not in others; and so on. It is likely that in each society, whatever is done habitually will have minimal erotic impact, and have minimal capacity to express intimacy. None of these societies is intrinsically preferable according to Jewish law, so long as they are fully compatible with taking the obligations and values listed above with great seriousness.
Tzeniut is more easily implemented in a homogeneous society, where expectations of dress, behavior, and fulfillment are largely made by consensus. It becomes much harder in a heterogeneous society, and harder still at the intersection of sharply distinct homogeneous cultures, where each side has difficulty even imagining why the other might see a particular behavior as an assault on psychological space, or conversely, as an infringement of normal human fulfillment.
But people of good will negotiate such situations while making every effort to find solutions that serve everyone’s interests. By contrast, thugs beat up their opponents and try to make them leave or hide. No one who properly understands tzeniut could believe that physical, psychological and emotional assault, i.e. violent intrusions on the space of others, are viable means of implementing the values behind it. The thugs in Beit Shemesh should be condemned by all those who hold tzeniut dear, not because they are overzealous, but because their understanding of tzeniut is warped.
 There is one possible exception: an obligation (probably for married women only) to cover (or braid or tie up) their hair. This requires a separate analysis. For a more extensive halakhic and textual treatment of the points raised in this article, please see the version found at www.torahleadership.org.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and Rosh Beit Midrash of its Summer Beit Midrash program, a member of the Beit Din of Boston, and Instructor of Rabbinics and Bioethics at Gann Academy. He previously served as Orthodox Adviser and Director of Education at Harvard Hillel and as Talmud Curriculum Chair at Maimonides High School. Rabbi Klapper lectures in many public and academic forums and has published in numerous popular and scholarly journals. Many of his articles and audio shiurim can can be accessed at www.torahleadership.org.
Visting Hebron - A Day for Deep Reflection16 November 2014
Sunday, November 16, was day 6 of our tour, and although the prior five days laid much of the foundation for what we were about to learn, our trip to Hebron deeply affected us, far beyond what most of us may have expected.
Vote for Change!21 February 2014
One of the great pleasures of working at NIF is seeing how members of our community find inspiration from the activists we support in Israel. And through this, strengthen their relationship with Israel . . . The Vote for Change idea is simple. We profile four organizations through the eyes of one incredible activist and ask you to help allocate the modest prize fund. Our aim is to bring to life the fantastic work being achieved in the grassroots in Israel and to inspire and educate wider audiences here in the UK and beyond.
Voting for human rights, with our feet!08 December 2011
By Hagai El-Ad, Executive Director of flagship NIF grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel
This Friday, Tel Aviv will witness the country's third annual Human Rights March. Thousands of people from different backgrounds will come together for the most diverse event of the year, united through one universal message: all human rights for all human beings.
In an uplifting initiative, Haifa too will witness such a march – for the first time ever. Activists seasoned in the summer's social justice protests, joining hands with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and many others, will take to the streets of what is not only one of Israel's best examples for a shared society, but also happens to be my hometown, in a joint march for equality, rights, and justice.
Clearly – more Israelis are standing up for human rights. That is good news in a country where fewer members of Knesset are doing so.
In recent weeks, the assault on democracy in the Knesset reached new lows. It is a broad assault – targeting the High Court of Justice, civil society organizations, freedom of speech, and the rights of Israel's largest minority – the Arab citizens in this country. In a deeper sense, much of this legislation is either inspired by the occupation or meant to enable its prolonging. Sometimes the bills presented by MKs seem like a parody of their dogmatic initiatives, such as the bill requiring a loyalty oath in order to get a driver's license (I didn't make this one up). Sometimes it is simply plain embarrassing, such as when MK Akunis recently stated, on camera, that "[Senator Joe] McCarthy was right about everything." (I didn't make this one up either).
Self-inflicted parody aside, the danger to democracy thus created is very serious – coming from a stable coalition government that has already succeeded in advancing some of these bills into law, that is running all the key committees in the Knesset, and that seems relentless in its pursuit to change the rules of the game, even mid-game, in order to get what it wants. Constitutional principles? These are the days of the tyranny of the majority here. Democratic values? "It is democratic because we have the majority now," so goes the answer.
Fortunately, such answers have not resulted in the public giving up on continuing to fight for a different future here. After a summer of massive public demonstrations for social justice, the Knesset indeed seems to not only ignore all that, but also to be back to its anti-democratic agenda. But we have a different outlook.
We believe that Israel shouldn't be competing internationally to be the most socioeconomically unequal nation, or the one with the highest poverty rates. Recent OECD figures put Israel together with the U.S. amongst the worst such societies of the developed nations, with gaps in Israel growing faster than in almost any other OECD country. We believe that housing, education, and health are human rights – not commodities. We will continue fighting for these rights.
We believe that all Israelis are equal – fully equal. That the systematic discrimination inflicted on the Arab citizens of Israel is as shameful as it is illegal. That the rising expressions of racism in this country can easily be traced back to statements made by the Foreign Minister, and to the proper actions not being taken by the Prime Minister. That when some of us are less equal than others – none of us are equal. We will continue fighting for full equality.
We believe that the realization of human rights is incompatible with a prolonged military occupation. We will continue fighting not for a "better" occupation, but for nothing less than its end.
We believe that freedom of speech is for all of us, certainly not only for those expressing what the government enjoys hearing. We believe that discrimination and segregation in public spaces against women in Israel has reached levels that render us aghast – but that even a single such instance is already too much. We believe in human rights.
So if you are in Israel, come to the annual Human Rights March. If you have friends or family here, tell them to come to stand up for our rights with the many others that are similar to you and the many more that are different. When we stand up together for all our rights, we not only demand a more just future: we create it.
We Are Proud To Support Human Rights And Democracy13 January 2014
Since the massive asylum seekers demonstration in Tel Aviv on December 28th, there has been a coordinated and unprecedented right-wing campaign accusing NIF/SHATIL and its grantees of instigating the asylum seekers as part of a wider strategy aimed at transforming Israel into a "state of all its citizens." This is one of the most concerted attacks on NIF for quite some time. For example, Ronen Shoval, who this week announced that he was resigning as Im Tirtzu chair, wrote the following in an op-ed: "Lurking behind the infiltrators is a series of organizations that seek to delegitimize Israel that are financed by foreign countries and funds (such as the New Israel Fund), whose goal is clear: to do away with Israel’s Jewish and democratic character." Similar allegations have been made by a number of other right-wing figures.
We Are Stronger - But Are We Strong Enough?01 May 2014
From lessons learned to hope for the future, Hagai El-Ad reflects upon the past 6 years as head of flagship NIF grantee the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
We Know, We Know14 November 2013
"We who are active in the American Jewish community know that the conversation has moved on from ‘Israel-right-or-wrong’ to asking a deeper question: How can we help our Israeli cousins build an Israel that is right?"