Freedom08 May 2013
On Monday, May 6, 2013, nine Eritrean female asylum seekers and their 10 children were released from a detention center in Israel. The asylum seekers had not committed any crime, but were facing indefinite detention for entering Israel without proper documentation.
From Boston to Jerusalem25 April 2013
From Boston to Jerusalem
As everyone the world over knows, last week was a very hard week for the Boston region where we are quite unaccustomed to suffering from acts of terror. I live in Watertown, MA, ground zero for the final manhunt for the perpetrators of the bombing and other crimes. The last gun battle, essentially on Kabbalat Shabbat, was minutes from my home. The silver lining to the senseless violence and suffering is the feeling of solidarity and support Bostonians felt. We all used social media to react in real time to updates on the investigation and manhunt. I was personally touched by the outpouring from friends, family, and colleagues from around the world, including from so many of my co-workers, both Jewish and Arab, in Israel.
However, the aftermath has left us with some issues to ponder that will not resolve quickly.
First, our cousins in Israel, sadly, have much more experience with this sort of trauma than we do. We got a hint of this as we made the transition from the Boston Marathon bombings, which coincidentally took place on Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, to Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, the following day. Annually, Israelis make the shift between solemnity and joy, shared sacrifice and national liberation. With last Monday’s events still fresh, the shift to Yom Ha’atzmaut was particularly hard this year for Boston Jews. Will this added dimension better help us understand the Israeli experience? What will Yom Ha’atzmaut feel like next year for us?
Second, people are beginning to question whether locking down much of the region was necessary. I personally don’t quibble with the decision. I was glad to have my family close at hand last Friday. And as one NIF board member suggested recently, Boston is really a small town. We all know each other, so it made sense that we would all, in unison, obey the call to stay out of the way as if part of a small town. However, another Watertown family interviewed in Ha’aretz suggested that they could not imagine Israel shutting down a major city to hunt down one nineteen-year-old kid. What is the right balance? Hopefully, we will not have to learn the right answer for ourselves the hard way in the future.
Lastly, the region felt relief and joy when the surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured. The accolades heaped on our first responders were gratifying and touching to listen to. A friend of mine brought his kindergarten twins to the Watertown police station to thank the police in person. A marathoner walked in at that moment to deliver her medal to show her appreciation. Now that the euphoria is dying down, what implications will last week’s events have on social policy? Will it harden our hearts or open them? Will immigration reform suffer? Will civil rights be curtailed in the name of security? Will we act in kinship with those who endure terror daily around the world?
All of us in Boston are grateful that chapter one of this nightmare has concluded. The healing process is only beginning. As we look to move forward, it helps me to think of Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel’s words at the Boston interfaith service attended by President Obama. Ronne quoted Rabbi Nachman of Breslav who said, “The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the important principle is to transcend, somehow, your fear.”
New England Regional Director
From Exclusion to Community10 October 2013
By Charlotte Glazer Baer, October 2013
In my big Atlanta Conservative shul, I was the best student in my Hebrew class. I had a good, strong voice, knew all the prayers and chants and led Junior Congregation services every Saturday – until I became Bat Mitzvah. After that, I was no longer allowed on the bima. Boys who barely could recite a prayer became the leaders. My father said, "What does it matter? Keep studying the language." He hired Israelis to read Bialik with me. But the exclusion burned in my gut.
Years later, in Kentucky, my egalitarian havurah changed everything. I was able to take my turn in leading services and in helping others learn. One Shabbat we honored 3 recent bar mitzvahs, and all 6 parents were on the bima. I said as a joke, “Because we’re all up here, you will have to wait a few minutes until we can get the food from the kitchen.” Without a murmur, several men stood up and went into the kitchen to help.
We all need to make community together.
After growing up in Atlanta, Charlotte Baer spent time in Lexington, KY and Boston, Mass. She and her husband now live in Washington, DC.
From exclusion to inclusion09 October 2013
By Helen Stein, October 2013
In 1995, I traveled to Israel with my (male) research assistant. Our first stop, after we got off the plane and through customs, was the Kotel. We approached the Wall naively, without noticing that my kind was not welcome everywhere. Suddenly I was surrounded by 5 or 6 screaming young Orthodox vigilantes, who made my transgression clear. This was a very bitter moment for me. In my homeland, about which I already had some ambivalence, I was being scolded and castigated for being a woman.
In June 2013, six years after joining a Reconstructionist synagogue, I made my Bat Mitzvah with a group of other women. We all composed creative liturgy for our service -- poetry, art work, music, guided meditations. All of us were called up to the Bima and all of us chanted Torah. I was wearing a tallit that I had made out of fabric my mother gave me 40 years ago. I felt so proud of my congregation and denomination for its equal treatment of women and for my right to be a full participant in the Jewish religion. I was doing what my mother, raised in Reform Judaism a hundred years ago, never would have dreamed of.
Helen Stein is a 67-year-old New Yorker and clinical psychologist, who is a proud member of a Reconstructionist synagogue.
From Hope to Fear07 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.
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!!
Mary Etta Kiefer
Gender Equality is a Jewish Value24 October 2013
By Dr. Martin Rosenberg, October 2013
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.
Gender Trouble23 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.