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  • Gender Equality is a Jewish Value

    24 October 2013

    By Dr. Martin Rosenberg, October 2013

    [image - Dr. Martin Rosenberg]

    Even as a child attending an Orthodox shul, I was bothered by my mother and sister having to go upstairs to separate seating. And I wondered why my coming of age in the Jewish community was a big deal, but my older sister's was not. As one who grew up in the 60s through the civil rights and the early feminist movement, I have always believed in gender equality and have focused both my personal and my professional life as a feminist art historian on this ideal. Once my spouse and I had children, we had to figure out what type and values of Judaism to which we wanted them to be exposed. The only form of Judaism we could embrace was one of absolute gender equality. We firmly believe that all the aspects of Judaism that are worth preserving and transmitting l'dor v'dor are completely compatible with complete gender equality. Jews who reject this principle need to explain why they believe only men are created bezelem Elohim (in the image of God). Whether in the United States, Israel or elsewhere, a Judaism that rejects equal participation by women is an impoverished Judaism.

    Dr. Martin Rosenberg is a feminist art historian, profoundly engaged with progressive Judaism, who has focused both his personal and his professional life on issues of gender equality. In partnership with his loving spouse of 41years, Ellen Fennick, they have raised two children who embrace these values as well.

     

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  • Gender Trouble

    23 January 2012

    Suddenly, it seems, gender segregation is everywhere in Israel—buses, army bases, Jerusalem sidewalks, Beit Shemesh schoolyards and, above all, the front pages. What is going on here? Why is all this happening now?

    Let's begin with the second question. "This"—that is, efforts by some sectors of Israeli Orthodoxy to set terms for the public presence of women that are very different from those of the secular majority—has been underway for years. Indeed, the better question is, what has taken mainstream Israel (if there still is such a thing) so long to take notice?

    There are various trends at work here, but we can make one large assertion: The center no longer holds, and one of the most volatile seams along which the fault lines run is gender.

    Let's start with the buses. In the late 1990s, at the request of some Haredim, the Transportation Ministry created bus lines, serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and cities, on which women would enter from and sit in the back, on an officially "voluntary" basis. The lines were called "mehadrin" or "beautified," the talmudic term for religious practices combining special piety with an aesthetic touch. They were deemed legally permissible because Israeli law allows discrimination when it is necessary to provide access to public services and does not harm the common weal. All the fundamental questions (necessary? common weal?) were left wide open.

    The lines grew to number around 50. Their biggest problem was the violence, verbal and sometimes physical, regularly meted out to religious and secular women who, for whatever reason, entered and sat in the front. In 2007 one victim—Naomi Ragen, a well-known Orthodox novelist who is, not coincidentally, American-born—went to court, represented by the Reform Movement's Center for Religious Pluralism. Under orders by Israel's High Court to issue a formal report, the Transportation Ministry concluded in October, 2009 that the segregated buses were illegal. The Transportation Minister tried to distance himself from the report and, for months, pleaded for more time. The Court finally ruled that the segregated lines could proceed—on an entirely voluntary basis, with clear signs to that effect. The lines still run, at times through force.

    Next, Beit Shemesh. Situated near ultra-Orthodoxy's holy cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, it has attracted growing numbers of Israeli Haredim. They have joined the traditional but religiously moderate Mizrahim who arrived when it was a hardscrabble development town and the American Modern Orthodox, who began arriving in the 1980s. Many Haredi arrivals were from Jerusalem's Meah Shearim, a venerable and veritable nuclear reactor of Haredi ideology, zealotry, and occasional violence. Ultra-Orthodox cities have been growing in Israel since the mid-1990s. But in Beit Shemesh, the ultra-Orthodox urban space abuts dissenting populations, religious Zionists as well as American Haredim who are changing Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, both anathema to the zealots.

    Religious zealotry has a long history in Israel. In the 1920s and 1930s, Abraham Isaac Kook was dismembered in effigy, denounced as a Christian missionary, and doused with buckets of water in the streets. Rhetorical violence is a staple of Haredi discourse; indeed, it has become an art form. But the mounting violence against women, no doubt reflecting sincere conviction (not to mention the need for enemies and the bored young Haredim unsuited for yeshiva life), also seems to bespeak increasing internal tensions.

    Israel's Haredim are increasing (some predict they will be in the majority by 2030) and are no longer an enclave. Though traditionalist, they have internalized modern aspirations to remake society and strategies of ideological mobilization. Far from monolithic, they have they have their own internal kulturkampfen. Haredi singers perform before mixed audiences. Haredim serve in special military units—and often face community ostracism. Haredi women have made extraordinary educational and occupational strides. The response by some has been to send them, literally, to the back of the bus—and push them out of view elsewhere.

    The Haredi-controlled Health Ministry has forbidden women to appear at ceremonies honoring these same women. Female community board members have been forced to sit behind mehitzot (partitions) at meetings. There have been attempts to enforce separate hours for men and women in government offices. It took a petition to the High Court to get women candidates' campaign posters onto Jerusalem's buses. Egged and its advertising firm were sued last week because of the onerous security deposit they require—a guarantee against likely vandalism, they say—from companies that use women's faces in bus advertising. Other lawsuits (including one co-filed by this writer) have challenged separate sidewalks for men and women. In conversation and on Haredi websites, many Haredim oppose forcible segregation and the accompanying violence. But they have almost no collective voice and no support from Haredi leadership.

    The recent furors over women's singing in the Army come from a different, less obvious direction. Increasing numbers of IDF soldiers and officers are so-called "Hardali" (Haredi Dati Leumi). Unlike Haredim, they participate in the military and favor the idea of the Jewish state—but reject its integration into Western culture. One element of their program is sexual modesty, or tsniut—partially for Haredi-like aims of male-female separation and the repression of public expression of sexuality, but also as a marker of national identity and a means of channeling romanticism in the direction of the sacred.

    Both Haredi and Hardali countercultures seek to maintain the crucial gender divide while dissolving Israeli society's boundaries between the religiously public and private, between religious and mundane. Indeed, the surrounding Israeli society has been a key, if silent, player here.

    First, Haredim and Hardalim seeking an ideology and identity distinct from the surrounding society find in gender a powerful source of difference. Second, their excesses are in part a reaction to the freewheeling sexuality of secular Israel, whose socio-cultural norms are more European than American. Third, secular politicians and secular Israel at large have until just recently been thunderingly indifferent. These battles have been waged, in court and elsewhere, by lonely groups of feminists, Reform Jews, and moderate religious Zionists. They have been met with incomprehension by journalists, politicians, and other secular elites who see the mehadrin bus lines simply as political spoils and who, from the Prime Minister on down, have buried their heads in the sand for the sake of coalition politics.

    U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed all that when she talked about the situation at the Brookings Institution. The Prime Minister and the political class now understand that they have a problem. Yet they may not understand that it is more than a public relations problem. At stake here is the constitution of Israeli public space and civil society.

    In Israel's early decades, for better or worse, the Mapai Labor Zionist establishment constituted both the state's ruling body and society's symbolic and civic-religious center. Mapai, with its flaws, offered a governing ethos and a plausible interpretation of Jewish history and identity. Its political eclipse beginning in the 1970s, then its fissile social and cultural collapse in the ensuing decades, left Israeli society increasingly fragmented. One casualty has been the idea of a public, civic space, open to and shared equally by all. Major political parties lay less claim than before to representing the entire public and avowedly sectoral parties are growing. The creation of entirely Haredi cities, largely in the territories, has further eroded the idea of neutral civic space.

    In that respect, the public outcry galvanized by the broadcast of ultra-Orthodox thugs tormenting Naama Margolese is of a piece with last summer's economic protests. In both cases, many people, particularly in Israeli middle-class society, who could choose to live elsewhere but who serve in the army, pay taxes, and still feel Zionism in their bones, have shown that they feel the common weal has been sold off in pieces—and that they want it back.

    Americans may be astonished that we need to debate whether women should sit in the back of the bus. But in Israel, this debate, unwelcome as it is, can still be a good thing. Proponents of Israeli civil society, religious and secular, must demonstrate that they can mount a principled defense of their core values and their conception of the public sphere.

    In this brave new networked world, passively following MacWorld's dictates du jour is as demoralizing and useless as a return to an imagined Haredi idyll in the shtetl that never was. Faced by a flood of emails, images, videos, status updates, and tweets, which may reshape not only our communications but our inner worlds, we—not just Haredim or Hardalim—should renew the indispensable Jewish value of tsniut. It teaches that I must contain some of my own presence, not to erase the others but to let them, him or her, be and flourish.


    Dr. Yehudah Mirsky studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. This piece originally appeared at Jewish Ideas Daily. It is crossposted here with permission.

  • Good Luck, Martin

    08 August 2013

    August 8, 2013

    Last week, the news was dominated by Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And now, once again, the world waits to see if, at last, real progress can be made in resolving the conflict and arriving at a two-state solution.

    It isn't an easy wait.

    According to the polls, most Israelis aren't feeling particularly optimistic about the potential for peace. The blogosphere is full of predictions of the failure of the nascent process. And even as talks resume, the Israeli government announces that it will extend its subsidization of a number of settlements by adding them to the so-called National Priority list (even as many struggling communities actually in the State of Israel are left off the list).

    None of this seems conducive to creating a positive atmosphere for the new peace talks.

    And yet . . . Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in many ways the spiritual father of the Jewish social justice movement of which NIF is a part, warned of the "heresy of despair," and indeed urged the active "defiance of despair." Defying despair doesn't mean pollyannishly ignoring the very real challenges that the forces of peace and justice face at this juncture. It doesn't mean understating the difficulty of the task. And, even harder, it doesn't mean allowing the hope that peace may at last be on the horizon to turn our attention from our critical work of supporting those Israelis who work to hold their country accountable to the highest ideals of Jewish tradition, liberal democracy and international human rights. Even when what they have to say and report can sometimes seem to spoil our hopes for the peace process, their work is ever more important, especially in the face of extreme opposition from the radical ultranationalists.

    Luckily, the forces of peace and justice have an asset even Heschel didn't anticipate: Ambassador Martin Indyk. Even though it means he will step down from his long-time position on NIF's board in order to serve, I'm very happy and extraordinarily proud that Secretary Kerry has named Martin to serve as the special envoy to the peace talks, and as leader of the American team. Martin has devoted much of his career to pursuing peace between Israel and its neighbors, and he is a tireless advocate for an Israel that lives up to the vision of its founders. He has served as a wise, passionate and committed NIF board member and he has helped our organization go from strength to strength.

    Beyond all of this, he is a mensch, a man who practices what he preaches, and who does not give up easily. If there is anyone who can carry out this almost-impossible job, I know it is Martin. I know you join me and the rest of the NIF family in wishing him strength, patience and success. Godspeed, Martin. We are all counting on you.

     

  • Good-bye, "Madiba"

    19 December 2013

    When I look back, I have no doubt that I joined the New Israel Fund because I was fortunate enough to know Nelson Mandela. So here is how it goes.

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  • Government by Executing the Messenger

    15 January 2013

    Government by Executing the Messenger

    By Rachel Liel


    Ostensibly, a stormy debate is proceeding in Israel.  It’s “There’s no one to talk to” versus “Abu Mazen is a partner.”  It’s “Let’s not turn into Greece or Spain” opposing “The middle class has turned into the government’s ATM.”  It’s “Throw Hanin Zoabi out of parliament” against “Freedom of speech for all.”  But in reality there is no real discussion, as facts are created in the field.  The recent firing of Dr. Gilad Natan from the Knesset Research and Information Center is the last link in a chain of targeted terminations among those in the public sector who dare to stray from the government’s line.

    Natan was fired not because anyone doubted his professionalism or his integrity.  On the contrary, his research concerning migrants garnered praise and appreciation.  And according to Natan, his supervisors knew and granted approval when he wrote opinion pieces unrelated to his research work.  The sin Natan stands accused of is a “political slant” — laundered language veiling dissatisfaction with the criticisms implied by his research findings and with the way his personal opinions displeased those who are determined to please.

    Before Natan, it was Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, the government’s Chief Statistician.  He was fired by e-mail after he challenged the figures published by the Ministry of Finance and the privatization of the public’s savings, calling that privatization the “Great Pension Robbery.”  And so with a quick e-mail, a news item and a half, and regrets from the Prime Minister over the method but not over the dismissal decision, the matter is behind us.  One less subverter in our midst.

    And before Yitzhaki… Adar Cohen, the supervisor of civics studies at the Ministry of Education, who had no idea he was one of those subverters till he was fired — just like Gilad Natan — for a “political slant.”  Cohen had let through, heaven preserve us, material tinged with a critical hue:  content that dealt with pluralistic democracy, human rights, and equality.  Not on our watch.  Despite the petitions and the newspaper articles, another messenger found himself sacrificed on the altar of loyalty to the regime.  The next supervisor of civics studies presumably internalized the message.

    The same message was recently delivered to the ambassadors who represent Israel around the world, at their meeting with National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror.  Legitimate questions raised by some of the ambassadors regarding the wisdom of Israel’s political moves — including astonishment on the part of UN Ambassador Ron Prosor at the announcement of building in E1 — ran up against Amidror’s statement that “whoever disagrees with the government’s policy can resign or go into politics.”  In undiplomatic language, that’s called stifling dissent.

    Thus the commander’s spirit, hovering in the corridors of government, makes itself felt.  The current regime does not tolerate criticism and brooks no departure from the official line whether in the context of research (Natan), of statistics (Yitzhaki), of content (Cohen), or of outreach (the ambassadors).  The clear message is that everyone must speak in a single loyal and “patriotic” voice, and anyone daring to pursue their own professional truth to the limit is condemned to removal.

    As if that weren’t enough, the custom of vengeance against the messenger is part of a broader and far more worrisome norm.  The demand for an utterly obedient professional staff is merely part of how public discourse now suffers anti-democratic, nationalistic, and sometimes even racist erosion in the hands of extremist politicians and muffled journalists.  The firing of Gilad Natan reminded us how fragile Israeli democracy is and how near the threats to it are approaching for everyone who believed they were safe.  

    The writer serves as the New Israel Fund's Executive Director in Israel. This article was originally published by the Israeli news site Walla.

  • Highlights from "Mobilizing for Progressive Change"

    12 June 2014

    Check out videos from Mobilizing for Progressive Change, an event NIF held in Boston last month. We honored our long-time board member, Franklin M. Fisher.  We were inspired by our New Generations Activists and were then treated to a hope-filled conversation featuring Peter Beinart, Rachel Liel, and Rabbi David Rosenn. 

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  • Hillary Clinton is not the problem

    12 December 2011

    Instead of bridling at Western criticism over the anti-democratic wave that’s rising in Israel, we should take it as an indirect compliment – and as sound advice. It is precisely because Israel has a reputation as a vibrant democracy that our friends abroad are dismayed; the Israel they know doesn’t do this sort of thing.

    RachelLiel200Israeli soldiers aren’t supposed to walk out of ceremonies – with the encouragement of their spiritual leaders – when women dare to sing; that sort of thing happens in Iran. Israeli women aren’t supposed to be ordered to sit in the back of the bus; that sort of thing went out in the 1950s with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.

    These were points made last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington. She added that Israel shouldn’t be passing laws aimed at drying up the funds of peace and human rights organizations, because that is another thing democracies don’t do.

    “Who is Hillary Clinton to preach to us?” shot back some of the Knesset members behind these Knesset bills. “She’s exaggerating.”

    The fact is, however, that Clinton isn’t saying anything that Israelis from every sector of society haven’t been saying with increasing heat and volume in recent weeks. The U.S. secretary of state is taking her cue from Israeli politicians in the opposition and government, from the Israeli media, from an array of Israeli public figures, and from the growing “buzz” among the Israeli public over the shocking, reactionary phenomena we’re witnessing, a buzz that has carried beyond Israel’s borders.

    We must always keep in mind that these words of reproach from abroad are not coming from our enemies, but from our friends. Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, reportedly told the Prime Minister’s Office that the new bill to heavily tax foreign donations to local NGOs would affect U.S.-funded groups that teach English, promote Jewish-Arab coexistence, and seek to empower Bedouin women. German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told Jerusalem officials that the bill would play into the hands of European elements hostile to Israel.

    Can’t the promoters of this law – as well as other legislation aimed at silencing unpopular voices – understand that such candid counsel is offered in a spirit of friendship? Will they also dismiss the warnings from American Jews like Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who wrote that laws stifling free expression, judicial independence and minority rights hurt Israel “internally” and “externally,” and mean that “the very democratic character of the state is being eroded”?

    Will they also wave off the advice of Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who, in an article dedicated to the widening exclusion of women from the Israeli public sphere, wrote: “American taxpayers, and American Jews in particular, will not tolerate Jerusalem as Riyadh-lite”?

    Again, though, these voices from afar are taking their lead from voices right here – and these local voices haven’t come only from the “left,” they’ve come from the very heart of the Israeli establishment. As early as the beginning of May, the professional staff of the Foreign Ministry issued a position paper against a previous version of the anti-NGO law, declaring that “adoption of this bill is expected to do severe damage to Israel’s international interests.” Such a law would damage Israel’s image and essence as a democracy, and would bring Israel in for sharp criticism from Europe and the U.S., the ministry staff warned.

    The politicians behind the sort of chilling legislation we’ve seen of late didn’t listen to the Foreign Ministry professionals then, and they haven’t listened to the opposition to these laws that has erupted during the current Knesset session. Now the exact same arguments are being raised by Jews and friends of Israel overseas – and still the reactionaries blame the messenger.

    Well, the messengers are everywhere now, and they’re all saying the same thing. So Hillary Clinton is not the problem, and neither is Dan Shapiro, Abraham Foxman, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin or Dorit Beinish. The problem, rather, is the assault on democracy that has been launched against this country by local enforcers who think of themselves as patriots and pious Jews.

    Rachel Liel is the New Israel Fund’s Executive Director in Israel.  Prior to her recent appointment, Rachel served as Director of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund Initiative for Social Change, which provides training and consultancy services for the NGO sector in Israel.  She joined SHATIL in 1998 as part of a long and distinguished career in public service, having served as Deputy Director of the Division of Rehabilitation Services in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, and as a Policy Analyst in the Department of Social Policy Planning of the Prime Minister's Office. She holds a Master’s degrees in Sociology/Anthropology and in Social Work.

  • How Jewish Gender Equality Changed My Life

    11 October 2013

    By Sara B. Leviten, October 2013

    When Beth David Congregation, a Conservative shul in Miami, FL, voted to have equal rights for men and women, my connection to my Jewish heritage was strengthened. I was one of 18 women in an Adult Bat Mitzvah class in 1977. The six months of study for the ceremony and the ceremony itself were absolutely amazing! It was so exciting to be part of a group of women who read the Torah portion and our Haftorah. When I read The Prayer for Our Country, I changed the words so that it wasn't sexist!

    Since then, I have been called to the Torah for aliyah many times. Twenty years later, I celebrated my 50th birthday at Temple Israel of Greater Miami by reading the Maftir and the Haftorah. That was exciting, also!

    Sara B. Leviten is a lifelong resident of Miami-Dade County. Following a 31 ½ year career at Miami-Dade County Dept. of Planning and Zoning, Leviten retired in 2010. She is an activist at Temple Israel, the feminist movement, the Democratic Party, former literacy tutor at the public library, and former volunteer usher at Gusman Center. Leviten wrote a published an article about early Miami Jewish History.

     

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