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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).

  • It Won't End with the Vote

    08 November 2012

    8 November 2012

    daniellevySome Israeli and American friends have undoubtedly spent the last twenty-four hours casting re-elected President Obama and Vice President Biden in the roles of Samuel Jackson and John Travolta from the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction -- plotting how best to avenge Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s unseemly interventions in the American election. Make no mistake, the Israeli Premier’s blunt incursions into America politics were real, unbefitting of his office and did not go unnoticed in the White House.

    Equally, make no mistake that President Obama is not about to indulge in a round of tit-for-tat and that Israel’s path out of its current deep malaise ultimately depends on whether Israelis themselves can drive progressive change. Certainly those who care about Israel in America have a role to play, including President Obama himself. The President’s actions in the coming months regarding the Israeli/ Palestinian file and the Iran file and other Middle Eastern matters in his in-tray will clearly impact the Israeli scene.

    But perhaps the biggest impact will be a product of how Israelis and Americans relate to the subtext of the way in which Israel became entangled in American electoral politics and of the deeper questions on the Israeli ballot in January. The key issue in both, without wishing to over-dramatize, is that of Israeli democracy. Israel was never a perfect democracy (and neither is anywhere else, although Israel’s challenge in balancing a self-defined Jewish state and equality for all its citizens is particularly pronounced) but the democratic deficit Israel has recently experienced is of a whole new order of magnitude. The Israel-related shenanigans in Tuesday’s elections are only superficially about the super-donor who is shared by Israel’s prime minister and the GOP challenger. Something else was also going on here. It was partly an attempt to redefine American and Israeli shared values as being less about liberal democracy and more about some kind of civilizational struggle on behalf of a narrow view of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which would seemingly necessitate cutting certain corners when it comes to democracy. And, apparently, the current Israeli government has no intention of reversing the occupation and is on a path away from governing a democracy.

    The hope now is that in reasserting the American interest in resolving the conflict and being allied to a democratic Israel, that president Obama will also serve the Israeli interest by reminding Israelis of the democratic path its future must tread. It matters that President Obama should re-launch a credible drive to advance de-occupation and a resolution on Israel/ Palestine.  It is not for the President to interfere in Israeli politics – again, no tit-for-tat --  but he can certainly articulate clear goals and principles and remind Israeli voters of crucial issues that might otherwise disappear from the agenda for the convenience of leaders of both Likud and Labor.

    This can not only be about President Obama, it is also about us. The President made that much clear in his victory speech, when he turned to the crowd and the listening American public and said that “the role of citizen does not end with your vote.” Looking back over the last twenty years of struggle, for instance for gay rights, it seems remarkable the progress that has been made from ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to a president promoting marriage equality.  Looking at the punishment voters meted out to Senate candidates espousing obscenities with allegories of rape and a woman’s right to choose- in states not known for social liberalism- proves again the potency of that fuller version of citizenship.

    That is the challenge that the president has set for many communities – and  not least the NIF community -- to create a moral, intellectual and public climate on our issues that disqualifies and makes inadmissible a set of policies that drive Israel further from the camp of liberal democracy and deeper into the murky waters of occupation, extremism and intolerance. A clearer, strong and committed voice from American Jews supporting the plethora of progressive voices struggling in Israel today is the best way to start responding to the divides between Israel and the U.S. made all too apparent by this week’s election.

    Daniel Levy is a board member of the New Israel Fund, directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow of the New America Foundation.

  • It's a New World

    24 October 2013

    By Marcia Cohn Spiegel, October 2013

    [image - Marcia Cohn Spiegel]

    I grew up in the 1930s when I was one of the rare girls allowed to study Hebrew, knowing that I would never read from the Torah or be on the bima of my shul.

    As a grown woman in the 1970s and beyond, I became a member of various groups of women who struggled with the language of liturgy and the role of women in the synagogue. We were part of the changing society that redefined the role of women. We taught, organized, and created new ways for women to be. We wrote songs and wrote articles. We gave sermons. It was exciting not only for us but for our daughters and granddaughters.

    When I visit Israel, I want to be able to function as I do at home. I do not want to be deprived of the status it took so many of us so long to achieve. There are a few places around Jerusalem where I am comfortable, but not yet at the Kotel. While I will not live long enough to see a great-granddaughter’s bat mitzveh at the Kotel, I hope my granddaughter will be able to join her daughter there.

    Marcia Cohn Spiegel is a graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Her expertise is in addressing stigmatized behaviors in the Jewish community, i.e. addiction, physical, sexual and domestic violence.

     

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  • Jews in the Desert and Conversations about Social Justice: NIF at JFNA’s TribeFest

    17 April 2012

    By: Penina Eilberg-Schwartz, NIF Director of New Generations in San Francisco


    I had the great pleasure of representing the New Israel Fund at the Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) TribeFest conference at the end of March. TribeFest was a remarkable thing – over 1500 young Jews convening in Las Vegas to talk about Jewish identities, social media, engagement strategies, social justice, and Israel.

    TribeFest was a deeply important place to celebrate the work the Jewish community is doing in the name of social justice – fighting poverty domestically and globally; promoting equal opportunities in education, bringing Jews abroad to witness the challenges of marginalized communities, and that is to name just a few areas of work among many. My colleagues who planned a session with me about Jewish social justice strategies entitled “How do you Tikkun?” (Repair the World, JDC, AJWS) represented organizations doing just that crucial work.

    So there was much to celebrate.

    Still, celebration of the Jewish community’s place within social justice movements can eclipse important self-critique, and reminders of the great work yet to be done.

    On the first day of the conference I was sitting in a hotel suite with representatives of JFNA from Jerusalem and the American Zionist Movement in New York, waiting for the arrival of Stav Shaffir, one of the leaders of Israel’s tent protests last summer. We were putting final touches on our session about the protests and how they fit into a global context, into a world where things – at least in some arenas – seem to be tipping toward the power of crowds, of the voices of many rather than those of a privileged few.

    When Stav walked into the suite, we almost immediately began talking about Las Vegas. She was wondering about the workers in the Venetian hotel – where they were, and how they were treated. She felt like they were invisible in all the extravagance of the enormous restaurants, bars, never-ending casinos, and fake canals of the Venetian Hotel.

    “When we go somewhere in Israel now,” she said, “we always look for the workers, and if they are not already organized, we organize them. It’s our hobby now.”

    Stav’s reaction pointed to a significant incongruence in TribeFest. I, for one, felt uncomfortable talking about social justice work among the casinos and extravagant, yet cheap-looking, hotels. Like Stav, I wondered about the negative socio-economic impact of Las Vegas, and how we as a community might be participating in it.

    At the New Israel Fund, our work does not affect workers’ rights in Las Vegas. We have, however, been deeply engaged for over thirty years in issues of workers’ rights – and other issues of socio-economic justice -- in Israel.

    Israel’s Declaration of Independence enshrines democracy and equality for all people – regardless of race, religion, or sex. It is a beautiful document, but its values – as in America – have not been so easily translated into reality. There is a contradiction between this written commitment and the reality of the lives of immigrants, women, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and -- as the tent protests affirmed -- of all Israelis. Israel’s social safety net has been severely compromised – by policies of privatization, dramatic subsidies for the ultra-orthodox, and funding for the settlement enterprise. There are immense challenges not only for groups with traditionally less power and privilege, but for everyone living in Israel. That is why Stav and other young leaders like her organized a protest. That is why Israelis pitched their tents last summer, and marched through the streets in staggering, inspiring numbers.

    In Israel, as in meetings of American Jewry, if we do not look deeply into ourselves and see the extent of the work that needs to be done, if we focus too heavily on celebration, we face a real danger. If we celebrate too much, we won’t take to the streets.

    In Israel there is a great deal to celebrate – I know that for me, meeting Stav Shaffir, engaging in a new way with the incredibly moving protests of last summer and hearing about the work she is continuing through The Social Movement, reminded me of that. And there is so, so much needed in Israel - repairing the gutted social safety net, protecting and furthering religious pluralism, fighting for environmental justice, and working towards more true and complete equal rights for women, immigrants, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is the work of the New Israel Fund.

    We should celebrate our communal accomplishments. We should be proud. And TribeFest offered an essential opportunity for us -- speakers and attendees, lay leaders and young Jewish professionals -- to do both. But TribeFest also reminded me of how our Jewish community needs to talk more about the ways we are implicated in the injustices we speak out against, and about how we can do better. Thinking about all of this, I felt proud of the way the New Israel Fund family asks some of the hardest questions and acts so bravely and strategically to address them.

  • Judaism belongs to every Jew

    25 October 2013

    By Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman, October 2013

    My connection to God was strengthened at a Women of the Wall support service in NY last March. There were over 300 people. Some didn't even personally understand women who chose to wear tallitot, but believed in religious freedom for all - not just those who agreed with them. Seeing all these people who didn't even know us personally, and some who have never been to the Kotel, care so much for this issue was incredible. I had an aliya that day, and when I called out Barchu et Adonai hamvorach, and the congregation responded, Baruch Adonai Hamvorach Leolam va'ed, my heart expanded. It was the most honest and vulnerable prayer of my life.

    I am sad that I have not had this amazing kind of connection at the Kotel yet. When I am there my awe of God is clouded by my fear of violence. Israel needs to step up and stop enabling the Ultra-Orthodox. If one is not pushed to give back to its country, work for a living and think about anyone outside of his / her community, then how can we possibly expect s/he magically knows how to compromise? The Ultra-Orthodox are not the core problem of this issue. We are, the government is, and our country that has been enabling this kind of behaviors is. Like anyone who has been enabled, there is Haredi panic and anger, and in their case violence, at the prospect of losing the safety of their bubbled life. But Judaism belongs to every Jew, and every Jew must stand up and engage, despite threats from the entitled few.

    In NY on Rosh Hodesh, surrounded by people who whole-heartedly supported what I have been fighting for month after month was an incredible feeling. One that I'm not used to on Rosh Chodesh. There was not one part of me that was scared, not a bone in me that wasn't connected to God. It will be a blessing when I can call out God's blessedness as openly and freely in Jerusalem as I can in New York.

    Hallel Abramowitz-Silverman can be followed on twitter @purplelettuce95.

     

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  • Judaism is not one-size-fits-all

    24 October 2013

    By Dawn Rosen, October 2013

    [image - Dawn Rosen]

    I believe that Judaism was never meant to be one-size-fits-all. And I believe Judaism was meant to evolve. As a Reconstructionist, I understand that being Jewish means much more than religion and rituals; its culture, music, history, our stories, our family, and how we work to enrich our communities and make the world a better place. In the modern world there is no rationale for women not to have the choice to be equal partners in all aspects of life. If I didn’t have the egalitarian options, I don’t know that I could have found the means to have meaningful engagement in a Jewish life.

    Years ago I stopped visiting the Kotel as it was/is just a further reminder of the lack of tolerance for liberal, egalitarian Jewish life. In North America we have choices. I can wear my tallit, I’ve learned how to lead services and leyn (read) Torah. I have choices.

    I was in just in Israel and when I realized I would be there for Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan, I immediately signed up to stand with Women of the Wall at the Kotel. It was my first opportunity to do so and I was so proud to be there with these women of all ages and backgrounds. My 81 year old mother, who was with me visiting Israel but not well enough to risk the crowd, asked me to wear her tallit so she would feel that she was also standing with WOW along with me.

    In a few generations perhaps the children of our sons and daughters will ask why these women had to work so hard just for equal status. They will ask, hopefully, because it will be taken for granted by their generation. That’s my hope along with a strong Jewish diaspora in support of Israel being a light to all nations. Amen.

    Dawn Rosen lives in Toronto and is an active member (for over 20 years) of Congregation Darchei Noam, Reconstructionist Synagogue of Toronto. She is a Certified Management Account working full time and is a wife, mother and grandmother.

     

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  • Kaddish

    24 October 2013

    By Emma, October 2013

    I grew up as a Reform Jew in London. Until I went to university, I would go to synagogue every week because my father insisted that my sister and I should. My father himself rarely attended synagogue except at festivals. To get to synagogue we had to travel by bus quite far. I got used to the service and, of course, was accustomed to women and men sitting together.

    Some years later I went to Israel where I met my husband who came from a much more Orthodox background. I rarely attended synagogue in Israel because it felt alien. However I learned Hebrew from being there and therefore found the Reform services, once I was back in London, less satisfying than I had done previously.

    I did not have a bat mitzvah and never learned to read from the Torah. In fact while I speak and understand Hebrew, I find reading more difficult. I was relatively unconcerned about women's role in Judaism - apart from not appreciating being separated from the men. If women wanted to be rabbis, they should, I thought, but it was not a path I sought for myself.

    Much later, one aspect of the service became important for me - the reciting of Kaddish, something that some Orthodox rabbis will not allow women to perform. I had occasionally tried to recite Kaddish at the yartzeit of my father - and later my mother - if my elder brother was unable to do so. But it became essential for me following his very untimely death. For eleven months I attended a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue virtually every Shabbat and recited Kaddish for him. Reciting Kaddish has now become something I find very important.

     

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  • Keep Calm and Pray On

    14 March 2013

    14 March 2013

    "Keep Calm and Pray On." That was the motto this week as NIF-grantee Women of the Wall ushered in the Hebrew month of Nissan at the Western Wall with hundreds of supporters. Tamar Zandberg, Michal Rozin and Stav Shaffir, three newly elected members of Knesset, were right in front, leading the way for the entire group. Their presence helped keep the police at bay and, unlike in past months, no arrests occurred. The leadership displayed by these MKs was a true embodiment of the spirit of International Women's Day, celebrated just last week.

    And while that was happening in Jerusalem, 400 people gathered (“in the rain!” one of our staffers told me) at a solidarity event in New York, which was co-sponsored by NIF. 200 more gathered an event outside of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. This is a model of the spirit of the new Israeli-American partnership NIF and our allies are forging, one that recognizes that our struggles and our causes are connected. Activists in Israel know that their sisters and brothers in America have their back.

    The momentum displayed at these events is part of what I hope is a new trend in progress for the rights of women in Israel. The 19th Knesset has an unprecedented number of women, and many of them are courageous champions of our values. As is the custom in Israel, new members of the Knesset give speeches. Some of the speeches were terrific (check out Ruth Calderon's Talmud lesson, now something of an internet sensation), but one in particular blew me away. New Labor MK Merav Michaeli talked about her vision for Israel, and how vital it is for those who have power to stand up for those who don't. After the past three-plus years we've spent fighting scores of antidemocratic bills coming out of that very chamber, it was a beautiful thing to hear those words from the rostrum of the Knesset:

     

    Although our work is far from over, there has been significant progress in fighting for women’s rights. Our grantees are doing critical work, and not just on International Women’s Day. The new members of Knesset, coupled with the events of the past week, leave me feeling that maybe – just maybe - the tide on women’s rights in Israel is beginning to turn.


    Daniel Sokatch
    CEO