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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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  • How NIF Decides

    12 June 2014

    How and when NIF decides to take a stand on an issue is rarely a simple process. But no matter what, NIF always stands for democratic debate and dissent. Let us know your thoughts on the issues that matter to you and to NIF, and be assured – we’re listening.

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  • I dream…

    24 October 2013

    By Barbara Ford, October 2013

    Born in Sydney Australia I have always been a member of a Liberal/Progressive congregation. There have been many changes since I did my Bat Mitzvah with a group of 10-12 girls all dressed in white. Rabbis were male only wearing ceremonial gowns.

    I have been privileged to be on a Synagogue Board and be Vice President for a short time at my congregation. Now as President of ARZA I am able to tell the story of the WOW. I have been at the Kotel with the WOW when a lady was detained for wearing a ‘mans’ tallis. Many find it hard to believe the struggles that have taken place over the past 25 years. We salute WOW on the amazing milestones that they have achieved.

    I dream that Israel will fulfil its promise as stated in the Declaration of Independence and that this will ensure that Israel becomes a truly democratic and inclusive society.

    I dream that Israel will respect the way I want to be Jewish and will allow me to be legally married by a Pluralistic Rabbi; that either all or no Rabbis will be paid by the state; and that land will be given to the Reform movement to build its synagogues as it does to other groups.

    I dream that I can go to the Kotel with my family and be able to wear a tallit, if I choose, and to pray as a family at the Wall together.

    I dream that Israel will acknowledge and embrace the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

    Barbara Ford
    ARZA President

     

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  • I Want To Sit Downstairs

    24 October 2013

    By Ilona Shechter, October 2013

    "Granny, why can't I sit downstairs?" I always asked my Grandmother as we sat upstairs in the women's section in the shul in Muizenberg, the seaside suburb of Cape Town. Her answer was always unsatisfactory, as was the answer that my Grandpa gave me when I asked him why I couldn't have a Bar Mitzvah like my cousin Stanley, who got to chant from the Torah, sing Haftarah and lead the service. I was so jealous. All that awaited me, was a group of girls sharing a Haftarah on a Sunday night and a party afterwards! After driving my Grandparents crazy with questions, it was suggested that my parents join the burgeoning Progressive movement where I would be treated with much greater equality. And it certainly happened, with the exception of Bnei Mitzvah. Girls still didn't have that opportunity and it upset me and took me until I was 49 to attain that moment in my life, my rite of passage.

    It was in California, where we now live, that I finally put on a tallit for the first time. It was one of my Grandpa's and as the garment fell about my shoulders, I felt the embrace of not just my grandfather but my Jewish heritage, culture and faith, and it was such a warm embrace and I felt as though I had earned this right to put on this garment along with every other Jew. I could never understand the restrictive stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox held in Israel, during my year that I spent there - I still don't. I do know that as a Reform Jew, I need to fight it. With all of the strength I have as a woman, as a teacher, as a proud, passionate Jew. Judaism is my heritage and right as much as it is any man's and I deserve every privilege that this incredible faith offers, as does every Jewish woman, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform or any other stream of Judaism.

    I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and am married to an Israeli and we have 1 son. I am a teacher in a Jewish Day School where I teach Jewish Studies, Israel and Holocaust to 6th and 8th graders. I am a Museum Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a winner of the Grinspoon Steinhardt award for Excellence in Jewish Education and I am really proud of this and very humble, as I love what I do. I am also an Alum of the Yad Vashem International School of Holocaust Studies.

     

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  • Israel Can't Afford to Get It Wrong

    26 November 2014

    Daniel Sokatch says the 'Jewish State' law, in any of its formulations, would essentially change the nature of the State of Israel.

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  • Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

    14 January 2014

    Recently, Israel has been beset by a pair of controversies relating to its Arab minority: the proposal to resettle Bedouin Arabs against their will and the call to "transfer" Arab citizens to a future Palestinian state.

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  • Israeli Independence Day 2048: Shaharit's Centennial Celebration

    26 April 2012

    Imagine what Israel will look like on its 100th birthday.

    Israel of 2012 is a place of stark contradictions. For most Jews, Israel is a dream fulfilled: a national home and a place of their own. It is also a homeland for Palestinians who also seek a state of their own. Israel is a boisterous democracy, with courts committed to humane, liberal values and a contentious watchdog press. It is also a country where discrimination,, especially against Arabs, is commonplace. Israel's economic success has been remarkable, from the agricultural miracles wrought by the collectivism of its early days to the "Start-Up Nation" it has become. But economic growth has left many behind, producing gaps between the powerful haves and the vulnerable and often alienated have-nots. Israel is a rich and splendid quiltwork of cultures - some woven here and some gathered from every corner of the earth – that together produce literature, music, arts, sciences and scholarship of world renown. Yet many see it as a culture in decline, newly reluctant to fund universities, libraries, theaters and museums. Israel is a land of extravagant natural beauty. But its landscape is blighted by strip malls and polluted water and air, as open spaces yield to the asphalt and concrete of thoughtless development.

    All these contradiction can equally fund hope and despair. Increasingly, despair wins the day. It is a regrettable fact that most discussions of Israel’s future are self-lacerating and unflaggingly critical. They proceed from an unspoken assumption that today’s problems will only worsen tomorrow. Polls show that only a minority of Israelis believe that the future will be better than our embattled present. This pessimism is twice a problem. It prevents us from seeing Israel's extraordinary achievements, and thus from identifying those things that can strengthen and expand on those achievements. And it discourages us from giving voice to a vision for a better future. Absent such a vision for the future, it is hard to figure out what we ought to be doing today. Despair breeds inaction which in turn breeds despair.

    In the Fall of 2009, the Shaharit initiative was born. Its goals at the outset were at once both modest and ambitious – to bring a diverse group of Israelis together who would together imagine the future, and would then strategize about how to bring such a future into reality. We brought together a unique group of twenty participants, which has met regularly for the past two years. They came from varied social, cultural and religious backgrounds. They are Arabs and Jews, religiously observant and secular, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi, immigrants and native-born Israelis. All of us share criticisms of the current ideological discourse in Israel; we also share an aspiration to establish the intellectual and social infrastructure from which a new approach to Israel's future can emerge.

    To do this, we took to the road, meeting with leading scholars of Israel's politics, economics, law, history, culture and society. We spoke with politicians and policy makers. And we set out to revisit the country. We spent days and nights with Ultra-orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh. We did the same with Russian immigrants in Ashdod, with Palestinian Israelis in Nazareth, with Mizrahi residents in the development town of Yerucham, with Bedouin in the neighboring unrecognized village of Rachma, and beyond the Green Line in the settlement of Kfar Etzion and the Palestinian town of Beit Jallah. We travelled to Efrat, Uhm el-Fahm, Tirat Carmel, Ein Hud, Haifa and Jerusalem. When the summer protests produced tent camps across the country, we visited them from Kiryat Shemona in the north to Dimona in the south.

    In every place we visited, we found people working with single-minded devotion to strengthen the places which they live – their neighborhoods, towns and cities -- and to building bridges between these communities and those that surround them. We met with concern for the future of the country, and frequently with disgust for its politicians. No less, we met with quiet and determined hope that things can be better.

    Our most surprising finding was a great and growing discrepancy between the way Israeli politics and society are discussed, at home and abroad, and the way they operate for real around the country. The dichotomies that so many of us have for so long believed define the country – Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi, Jew vs. Arab, secular vs. religious, center vs. periphery, native vs. immigrant, left vs. right – no longer reflect the complexity of Israeli society. There are commonalities in values and in visions that have gone largely unnoticed, and in these things that we share one find seeds of a common future characterized not by conflict, but by community.

    We are publishing the conclusions from our experience in a series of essays. The first – Israel at 100 – indeed envisions what 2048 might be. In keeping with the spirit of Shaharit, it chooses optimism to pessimism; hope to despair. And in an attempt to capture something of our own conversations over the last two years, we have chosen to publish it as a Talmudic conversation, with the commentaries of Shaharit's travelers illuminating the essay.

    It is of course far from certain that the future we describe will come to pass; the nightmares of the pessimists have a plausibility that one cannot deny. And yet, after revisiting the country and its people, seeing and hearing people of different backgrounds and different beliefs, we have seen that the seeds of such a future have already been planted. With much work, and a good bit of luck, these seeds will blossom and, by the time Israel celebrates its first centennial, will flourish.

    In 1906, Theodor Herzl ended Altneuland, his novel anticipating a Jewish State, with an aphorism: “If you will it, it is not a dream.” This implausibility was dismissed by Herzl’s contemporaries, but only forty-two years passed before Israel was established. Herzl himself insisted that the seeds of the future he envisioned had already been planted when he wrote, and that his was less an act of prophesy than it was of sensitive observation of a future already unfolding. Today there are many who regard Israel with bleak resignation that leaves little room for hope. They are wrong. For those able to look with a careful eye and an open heart, there is far more here, and far more to come, then they are willing to imagine. It takes no great act of imagination to envision an Israel at 100 that is decent and sustaining for all Israelis, at peace with its neighbors and at home in the world.

    Click here to download Israel at 100 (PDF).