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  • From Hope to Fear

    07 June 2012 by Stephen Slater

    I met George Kulang in 2007, he had heard of the plight of Sudanese refugees fleeing first from genocide, and then racism and state sanctioned murder in Egypt. Like myself, he had arrived recently in Jerusalem. I was part of a group of student activists from Hebrew University, where I was studying for my Masters in ancient Jewish history.

    George stands a head taller than most but weighs far less. Scars mark his face from ritual cuttings done in his tribe. But he looked at me with gentle eyes, and he said, “When I came across the border, I was tired and thirsty. I walked for a long time. Then I saw an Israeli flag, and I thought to myself, I must walk to that flag, because the Israelis are good, they have democracy, they will not turn us away. When I came to the flag, I could see that it was a military base. I walked up to the gate and I called out to be let in. No one answered. I called again. No one answered. Then I went to a nearby tree and sat down. A little while later, a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform came out and gave me a jug of water and a piece of bread. He gave them to me, and he said, ‘Do you know where you are?’ I said, ‘I am in Israel.’ He said, ‘Why are you here? I told him. He said, ‘You can’t stay here.’ I said, ‘I can’t go back’.”

    In many ways this exchange captures the relationship between my Sudanese friends and the state of Israel.

    When I asked George what he wanted to do with his time in Israel, he looked at me and replied confidently, “I want to read the Bible in Hebrew.” George is a Christian from the South of Sudan, so the Hebrew Bible is his holy book. Though he could read it in his native Dinka, he wanted to read it in the language in which it was written. This man, who had literally walked out of Africa and across the Sinai, wanted nothing more than to learn the language of his holy text. I too had come to study in Israel in order to learn to read the Hebrew Bible, and was by then teaching it to American and European students. So I agreed to teach him Hebrew. He learned quickly. Due to his knowledge of Arabic, he found many cognate words. “Learning Hebrew is easy,” he once told me with a broad smile. We found a scholarship for him to come to a Hebrew Ulpan. Then, after working for over a year, he had saved up enough money to pay for Ulpan fees on his own. He worked below minimum wage while paying rent and taking care of himself. And every evening he studied. When I asked him what he would do upon his return to Sudan, he said, “I will teach my people Hebrew.” George has since returned to Sudan, but he has not been able to find a job. His country teeters once again on the brink of war with the Sudanese government. Many times while working with George, I was overcome by his hope. His story is filled with many crushing experiences. Though he averted his face to tell me this, his wife and children were killed when the Janjaweed raided his village. That is when he walked out of Sudan. He experienced torture in Egypt, so he walked across the Sinai. He sat in an Israeli jail for months. But every time I spoke to this tall, soft spoken man, I heard hope spring anew.

    These noble and proud Sudanese people now live in fear again. After the anti-migrant riot in Tel Aviv I called a leader of the Sudanese community in Israel to ask him how they were doing. He said, “It has become dangerous for the community, so that we can’t even go out at night. I called one of my friends yesterday, and I said, ‘I have to tell you, make sure you go on the good side of the street. Don’t go in corners.’ My friend responded, ‘Thank you for telling me, But I already know. I didn’t go out from morning to night.’ He added, ‘Visas have been cancelled three months ago, so they are not able to work.” My friend had been working in a hotel before his visa was taken away. Voices for Sudan, a US based Sudanese advocacy group, claims that many Sudanese are now facing starvation in Israel.

    I asked my friend if he feels safe in Israel today. He answered, “I don’t feel safe. I am concerned for my life. You don’t know when you will be taken by the police, arrested and deported. You don’t know how long it will be. We’re living in an uncertain future. We are living in fear. We might be attacked in the street.” To illustrate the point, he went on to tell me, “I have another friend who was beaten up by migration police, they broke his arm, drove him around for a long time, then dropped him on the street. He was lucky to find an American doctor. He almost died. His shoulder is in pain.”

    When I heard all this I told him, “You know this is hard for American Jews to hear.” He responded, “I know it is hard for you to hear. But southern Sudanese find it hard to believe too. When we had never come to Israel, and someone said this or that bad about Israel, we would have fought to say, it is wrong, Israel would never do that. I tell you my friend, the South Sudanese people believe in Israel.”

    On May 24th, at a political rally in South Tel Aviv, politicians egged on a crowd with sayings like, “Sudan is not here.” Soon anti-African violence broke out; migrants were chased through the streets, their property destroyed as they fled. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced plans to quickly expel 25,000 Africans from Israel, and to expand the detention facilities in the Negev to hold the rest until deportation could be arranged. He specifically targeted the South Sudanese and Eritreans for deportation, and has scheduled flights this month and next to send my friends and a large portion of their community back to Africa. Directly following the announcement, arsonists lit fire to an apartment building, trapping 10 Eritreans inside.

    When there is rioting against "foreigners" because they are foreigners, when a building is burned down because it is full of foreigners, when governments declare a mass deportation of foreigners, then we who have been foreigners must speak up. We must speak for the kind of Israel that my Sudanese friends have believed in, a place where all people are safe from harm. Now is the time for a unified voice from around the Jewish world telling the Israeli government that this kind of behavior coming from citizens or from our Prime Minister is unacceptable.

  • From the Mailbag -- "Keep Talking!"

    15 November 2011

    With permission from Mary, we're posting below a note we received in response to Daniel's email update regarding the anti-democratic legislation currently under debate in Israel.

     

    Dear Daniel:
     
    I wish every Israeli and every American would read your stirring remarks. I am always moved. When visitors pick up some books from my coffee table, they are often puzzled by my having books on Israel and its people. I am delighted by such queries. it gives me the opportunity to talk about the struggle of Progressives and the difficulties they face daily. Because of your articulate, persuasive arguments, many find the courage to continue to speak out, and work for the solid democratic aims that will gain the freedoms that will benefit all Israelis. Further, their struggles will bring about greater awareness in the U.S. of the importance of a secure, strong Israel.
     
    I wish that I could donate more; I ache to jump in and say, "How can I help?" It is seldom that I wish I were young, instead of 82 and ailing, but while I'm here, I will always tell people that freedom in the U.S. and other democratic countries is dependent, in part, upon the success of the Israeli Progressive movement. Certainly, the future of the Middle Eastern countries--perhaps all of Asia, may hinge on the valiant, determined people inside and outside Israel, Jewish or not. I am Christian, and to be Christian means, to me, an appreciation of the Hebrew tradition, spiritual, historical, and political.
     
    Daniel, KEEP TALKING!!
     
    Shalom.
    Mary Etta Kiefer

  • 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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