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  • A Long Way To Go

    24 October 2013

    By Ilona Lee AM, October 2013

    Thirty years ago when I became president of my WIZO group. there were no female rabbis and no females presidents of mainstream Jewish organisations in Sydney.

    There have been marked changes since in both the general and the Jewish community. A woman was elected for the first time as Prime Minister of Australia and, in Sydney, we now have three female rabbis attached to reform and Masorti (Conservative) synagogues. Over the years, I have been president of one of our major communal organisations and have been on the executive of four others including the roof body of the New South Wales community and the major fund-raising organisation.

    Surveying the Australian scene today, however, we still have a long way to go. Our first female Prime Minister was poorly treated and driven from office (many would say, because she is a woman) and, in the Sydney Jewish community, there is currently only one female president of any major communal organisation, including our day schools and synagogues.

    Why is this so? It is true that the way is open to women. But, most Jewish women in Sydney still shoulder the major roles of house management and child care whilst also holding down responsible jobs. Being a communal leader here is usually at least a half-time occupation, often more, but with no remuneration. Thus it is almost impossible for a woman to put her hand up for a leadership position until her children have grown and professional responsibilities decrease or she is wealthy enough to have paid assistance. So, until we make further strides forward in the general community and the tasks of managing home and family are more equally shared, women will continue to be underrepresented in Jewish communal leadership roles.

    Ilona Lee AM
    NIF Au Board Member

     

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  • A Member of the Israeli Women’s Movement

    11 October 2013

    By Annice M. Benamy, October 2013

    My connection to my Jewish heritage was strengthened when my husband David (z'l') and I visited Israel in 2008 and 2013. Because of gender equality in American Judaism, David and I shared a love for Judaism that eventually became spiritual. Our involvement in synagogue life grew because we were able to participate together in many activities. I want to see Jewish and Israeli women continue to rise as leaders of equal rights. On our last visit to Israel, we spent 2 weeks touring schools and organizations we are involved with in the US. One of the organizations we visited was Women of the Wall. We spoke with Lesley Sacks and Shira Pruce to see how we could bring their message back to our community. I was able to witness firsthand the energy at the Kotel on Shushan Purim when Megillat Esther was read. My husband watched from the plaza taking pictures and videos of my participation. I am now a member of the Women of the Wall Speakers Bureau so I can encourage groups to help Israel's women's rights movement. Just as the feminist movement in the US was successful, so too will the women's rights movement be in Israel.

    Annice Benamy lives in Teaneck, NJ. She is a member of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, NJ.

     

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  • A Sea of Blue T-Shirts

    06 April 2011

    daniel100On the same day a couple of weeks ago, NIF supporters in Washington, DC and Tel Aviv participated in two enormous rallies.  On the one hand, the two events were very different:  In Washington, hundreds of thousands gathered for satirist Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  In Tel Aviv, the occasion was far more sombre: the commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.  At their core, though, both rallies were animated by a growing concern over the rising rhetoric of political extremism that increasingly characterizes the public conversation in both the US and Israel. Here, it’s the Tea Party; there, it’s the Loyalty Oath and the Conversion Bill.  In both cases, extremism threatens the liberal democratic values we hold dear.

    Read more...

  • A Touch of Patriarchy

    14 October 2013

    By Leanne Gale, October 2013

    [image - Leanne Gale]

    I still remember the first time I prayed with Women of the Wall. I wasn't particularly afraid to go: after all, I was simply returning to a place I had been countless times before, to offer prayers I had memorized for as long as I could remember. As a young American Jew studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I was excited to wake up early in the morning in time to make it to the Kotel and celebrate Rosh Hodesh with a friendly group of inspiring women.

    But that morning was scarier than I thought. As we prayed, donning prayer shawls and harmonizing our melodies, police snapped pictures of us from up close. More than once, a particularly aggressive officer approached our shlichat tzibbur (the woman leading services)and demanded that she remove her tallit. Other women, opposed to our prayers, screamed in our direction and spat on our shoes. In the end, four women were detained, and we all finished our Rosh Hodesh "celebration" outside of a local prison.

    It wasn't until I arrived home that I realized the enormity of my experience. On my first Shabbat back at Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, I rejoined my beloved Reform Jewish community for Kabbalat Shabbat. My dear friend, Rachel donned a prayer-shawl as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and effortlessly rose before the mixed gender congregation to lead us in song. But as I looked around me, my mind flashed to the image of the Israeli police officer reaching out to touch the woman who had led us in prayer at the Western Wall. To the screaming. To the prison. I slowly leaned back in my seat, feeling relieved to back in Philadelphia rather than Jerusalem. I felt safe and loved in the American Jewish community.

    Before Women of the Wall, I had never realized how vulnerable women can be to the patriarchal practices of many religious authorities. The experience jolted me to examine the religious experiences of other women, Jewish and otherwise, and to more deeply explore the implications of feminist thinking for all of our immediate lives. Today, despite the rapid changes that have taken place, I still feel unsafe as a Reform Jewish woman at the Kotel. I sincerely hope that I can live out my Judaism in Israel just as intentionally and fully as I can in the United States. But even more importantly, I hope that more of us can open our eyes to the patriarchal legacies that remain alive and well today in our tradition. We must all work towards a future in which a woman need never fear a strange man touching her body as she attempts to offer her prayers to God.

    Leanne Gale is currently living in Jerusalem as a NIF-SHATIL Social Justice Fellow.

     

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  • A View from the New Knesset

    27 February 2013

    A View from the New Knesset

    Tamar Sandberg(Tamar Zandberg, a new Member of Knesset from the Meretz party, is our guest columnist this week.)

    What a couple of years we had! In the summer of 2011, I was marching in the streets, together with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, calling for a more just and equal society, one which cares for the weak and celebrates freedom and democracy. This was the most inspiring political moment Israel had in decades.

    Soon after, we were told that the protest has died. Crushed under the daily banalities of the Knesset and manipulated by "King Bibi," as some reporters began calling Prime Minister Netanyahu. The government seemed determined to hold on to the status quo on every front, isolating itself from the world and sowing fear and resentment among its own citizens.

    Then came the elections, with a result that could only signify a turning point. An unprecedented number of new members of Knesset, a record breaking representation of women (despite still being outrageously low) and a decreasing average age of MKs – all demonstrate the desire for a new era in Israeli politics.

    Make no mistake. There are more progressives in this Knesset, but also more members that support the settlements and still many that have little patience for the democratic principles on which Israel was founded. The clouds which have gathered over Israel in recent years are still there, but for the first time in a while, we also see hope. We see an opportunity. And that’s all we could have asked for.

    During the last Knesset term, we focused on blocking initiatives which threatened the most basic freedoms in Israel. We fought against the confrontational attitude our government has presented to the world, and against the moral corruption that the occupation has brought at home. Many of you have stood by us on those battles, and I can assure you that your voice was heard in Israel, loud and clear. Our success in the last elections is also your success.

    We could do even more now. We could answer the public call for change with a progressive vision of Israel: A country which provides for all its citizens, a place which views cultural variety and difference of opinions not as a threat but as its source of strength; A state which promotes tolerance and treat all people and religious with respect – including all members of the Jewish people; a nation which can replace the urge to conquer with a desire to care. And most urgent of all: A country which doesn’t deprive the freedom of another people.

    It won’t be easy. We are still faced with many – including some members of the future government – who do not share our values. Even among those who believe in change, some view this change in a very different way that we do. We need all the help we can get. I am sure that we will find you continuing your support for a democratic and caring Israel, because you know that Israel deserves better than what the last four years have offered. As the last elections have showed, Israelis know that too.

    Yours,

    MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz)

  • Adalah’s advocacy brings Israel closer to the ideal established by Israel’s founders

    06 March 2012

    March 6, 2012


    The not-so-stealth campaigns against the Arab civil rights organization Adalah, its supporter the New Israel Fund, and the values of democratic and minority rights are hitting new lows.

    For example, NGO Monitor recently went public with an op-ed it knew to be wrong, along with some manipulative interpretation. Having wrongly accused Adalah of participating in a European BDS conference, they attempted to associate the organization with the BDS campaign — even after they were told of their error and after the conference took place without Adalah’s participation. In fact, boycott is not a part of Adalah’s mandate, simply because it seeks change through Israel’s legal system. Meanwhile, other organizations use NIF’s support of Adalah as a wedge issue in an attempt to delegitimize both the New Israel Fund and Arab civil society. This is not a minor matter.

    In some places, the leading organization advancing civil rights for society’s most disadvantaged minority occupies an honorable place in civil society. Just look at how the NAACP is regarded in America. In Israel, it’s troubling that Adalah, which has won countless cases in court on behalf of Israeli Arab citizens, is regarded with suspicion at best.

    Despite the unique circumstances here in Israel, Adalah has trod a path of ideological and pragmatic moderation. Adalah uses litigation to advance human and civil rights in Israel, and their impact speaks for itself. This organization won a precedent-setting victory in September 2011 on behalf of an Arab couple excluded from living in the village of Rakefat. In 2010, the High Court of Justice ordered the Tax Authority to discontinue tax breaks based on location, which discriminated against Arab-Israeli towns and villages, following an Adalah petition. In a groundbreaking victory this past fall, the Kiryat Gat Magistrate’s Court ordered the State to cancel 51 demolition orders issued against the Bedouin village of Alsira; the judge criticized the razing orders because the families have been living in the village for decades.

    And just this week, the High Court overturned two clauses in the Income Support Law that forbade poor people from owning a car. The petition, brought by Adalah and other NGOs, now protects poor Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, from having to surrender vehicles they need for work, medical or family needs or risk losing their income benefits.

    The common thread in these achievements is that Israel is a more just, more equal, and more democratic state. Israel’s founders set out to create a Jewish state. But they were crystal clear in their desire to see Israel provide meaningful equality for all of its citizens, including the Arab minority. Adalah’s advocacy brings us closer to this ideal.

    Tax districts and real-estate exclusion are not the stuff of revolution. Because opposing Adalah’s successes would be too obviously racist and discriminatory, its adversaries instead point to the organization’s participation in a theoretical proposal for an Israeli constitution more than five years ago. At that time, Adalah and other leaders in the Arab community proposed a model that emphasized the democratic nature of the state at the expense of its Jewish aspects.
    An invitation to discuss

    It is certainly worth arguing with the authors of that document, and I do. But let us remember that at the time that document was written, Israel was abuzz with conferences about what we might want in a constitution. Adalah’s “democratic constitution” proposal told us, the Jewish majority, that there are other ways to think about our most structural issues – and that actually inviting Arab citizens to participate in the conversation might be useful.

    The truth is, despite repeated false claims to the contrary, Adalah does not focus on changing the nature of Israel as a Jewish state. It seeks to achieve equality for all, as promised by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Adalah’s purpose, admirably fulfilled, is to chip away at the legislative and social discrimination that the Arab minority faces on a daily basis.

    It may be that this very success is why Adalah, and its funder the New Israel Fund, attract such enmity. Only the bravest ultra-nationalist ideologues are honest enough to say what they are really after – a state without Arab citizens, or one in which those citizens docilely accept second-class status. Instead, the mouthpieces for the extreme right that attempt to preserve a veneer of respectability, like NGO Monitor, opine that it should be illegal for Adalah and other NGOs to receive funding from democracies abroad (using the same arguments that the Egyptian and Russian governments, those paragons of democracy, are using these days.) Then they try to bully NIF into dropping its support as well. Given that almost every Israeli NGO, including NGO Monitor itself, gets significant funding from overseas, the only conclusion is that these ultra-nationalists believe that Adalah should be utterly defunded, and cease to exist.

    That would be a tragedy for everyone. Just this month, Adalah director Hassan Jabareen pointed out that his organization is frequently criticized by various sectors in the Arab world for not being more ultra-nationalist. A recent example is Adalah’s statement criticizing the Syrian regime for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Adalah’s objective of socio-economic equality for the Arab minority irritates both the Islamists and those who think that any encounter with the machinery of the Israeli state is wrong. Destroying Adalah means empowering those whose real aims are innately destructive, both in the Jewish and Arab communities.

    We can’t allow the attacks on Adalah to succeed. The survival of Israel’s democracy depends on allowing the voices of unpopular minorities to be heard. We, the majority, will not always like what Adalah has to say, or the light they shine on discriminatory practices. It doesn’t matter. Living up to our own best interests and values means that we must engage with our fellow citizens when they stand up for their rights. The attacks on Adalah may hurt that organization. In the long run, they will hurt Israel more.

    Yehudit Karp is the former Deputy Attorney General of Israel and a member of the International Council of the New Israel Fund

    Click here to read the article as published by the Times of Israel.
  • Aloud and Clear

    11 April 2013

    April 11, 2013

    American and other overseas NIF supporters and Israeli NIF supporters share a set of values and a vision for Israel, but we don't always see all of our issues in exactly the same way. Pluralism and freedom of (and from) religion is a case in point. Some Israelis are bemused and a bit taken aback by how painful attempts by the state-sponsored rabbinical establishment to narrowly define "who is a Jew," and to enforce sexist rules about who can pray and how at the Kotel, the Western Wall, are to their American friends. Some Americans, on the other hand, do not fully appreciate how restrictive and offensive the almost total control of the same rabbinic establishment over life-cycle events -- from birth to marriage to burial -- is to their Israeli cousins.

    And sometimes something happens to remind us all that we are fighting the same fight. Last week police warned our partners at Women of the Wall that they were prepared to file charges against women for praying at the wall, including saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead, aloud.

    This is too much. It is time for all of us who care about justice in Jerusalem, wherever we live, to stand up with and for the Women of the Wall and the values of pluralism and equality that they stand for every month at the Kotel. I ask each of you to join me in signing a statement of support for these brave women, and to learn more about their struggle. Let them know that they are not alone.

    Even as I write this, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky is submitting recommendations to the prime minister on how to accommodate the rights of women – and really, all non-Orthodox Jews -- at the Wall. Now is the time to make sure our voiced are heard, in Israel, Europe, North America and Australia. Our sisters in Jerusalem need us.

    Daniel Sokatch
    CEO

  • An Eye Opening Shabbat

    11 October 2013

    By Amiee C. Kushner, October 2013

    As a young woman who grew up in the ’80s with a feminist mother in the Bay Area, discrimination was always something that was to be strived against, but rarely did I actually experience it. As an adult there was always an orange on my Seder plate, women on the bimas in my spiritual homes and a mechitza was something from old dusty books about sheltl life.

    This past July I embarked on my long delayed first trip to Israel. Through my involvement in NIF I knew of the institutionalized gender discrimination that occurred in Israel, but I was thoroughly unprepared for the pain of experiencing it first-hand.

    People talk of their “ah-ha” Israel moments and mine began the minute I stepped up to the entrance of the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat and saw the signs indicating separate entrances for women and men. The bold, black lettering over the gates began a profound, almost physical, shock at the realization that a significant portion of the Jewish men I was surrounded by saw me as lesser and unworthy of same level of spirituality connectedness to my faith as they.

    Oddly our group was granted entrance through a third gate, not segregated by gender, or I doubt I would have been able to enter. I made it a few feet past the mechitza into the tiny women's’ section shrouded under a scaffold, before turning back and awaiting the rest of my group to finish their prayers, desperately wanting to flee. I was told by our tour Rabbi prior to walking to the Kotel that I would experience a deep spiritual connection to Judaism and my ancestors, but all I could feel was spiritual deflation.

    Upon returning home my first act was a donation to Women of the Wall. I then reveled in rediscovering the joy of my home community where girls are called to the Torah alongside the boys, where women are rabbis and leaders, and the Sabbath bride is greeted is among equals.

    Amiee C. Kushner is an active leader in San Francisco's Young Adult Jewish community, including as a New Gen Leadership Council Member for the New Israel Fund.

     

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