Jerusalem, Israel. With support from the New Israel Fund, thousands marched by daylight, and hundreds lit candles at dusk, in a spirited show of support for human rights and religious tolerance in Israel. In a two-day span, the events demonstrated that many Israelis are recommitting themselves to the Jewish and universal values of freedom, dissent and sustaining democracy.
Last Friday more than 100 Israeli social change organizations, many of them NIF grantees, and thousands of individuals, joined flagship NIF grantee Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) for the first-ever human rights march held in Israel. The marchers marked International Human Rights Day by parading through the streets of Tel Aviv from Yitzhak Rabin Square to the Tel Aviv Museum. The event was funded with a special grant from NIF and logistical assistance from Shatil, NIF’s Initiative for Social Change.
Marchers included human rights groups, students, Arab rights advocates, social justice organizations, gay and lesbian activists, migrant workers, environmentalists, feminists and ordinary Israelis who are concerned about the growing erosion of democracy in Israel.
ACRI Executive Director Hagai El-Ad addressed the crowd and reminded them of the recent attempt to compel loyalty oaths to the Israeli government:
“We are here to ask: loyal to what, exactly? Here, we are thousands together, not afraid to come out with our statement of loyalty. Here it is: We are loyal to equality, social justice, human rights and democracy. These are our values, this is the fabric of our common life and what makes us all responsible for one another. No one will take this from us, no matter how inciting, violent, or pessimistic are those who preordain us to a future whose brutality is carved with more suffering, discrimination, and injustice.”
Dr. Yifat Bitton, NIF board member and Project Director of NIF grantee Tmura: the Israel Anti-Discrimination Legal Center greeted the rally on behalf of NIF. She said, “Today is a holiday on which NIF celebrates the triumphs of 30 years work of social change organizations.”
In an event that dramatized the escalating battle for religious pluralism, several hundred social activists from the NIF family gathered at the Western Wall plaza on Sunday evening for a unique celebration of Chanukah. Recently, the ultra-Orthodox authorities have attempted to gender-segregate the public plaza in front of the Wall, forbidding youth and solider groups from singing Hatikvah because of the haredi prohibition on hearing women’s voices.
Rabbi Gil Nativ, the Conservative Rabbi of Omer near Beer Sheva lit the first of the three candles. Rabbi Nativ was a staff sergeant for paratroopers in the 1967 war and was one of the first soldiers to enter the Old City.
He said, “We got here to the Western Wall even before IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and all the generals. And we did not risk our lives so that the Wall would be the preserve of ultra-Orthodox men. The Western Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people – men and women, all streams, religious and secular.”
The candle-lighting ceremony was organized by the recently-organized activist group Yerushalmim, which seeks to strengthen social solidarity in the city, and who are working closely with NIF grantee Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum. On Sunday, Kolech launched a telephone hotline in Hebrew, Yiddish and English for Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women wishing to talk confidentially about the growing problem of gender segregation in public places, and report discrimination and abuse.
Jerusalem counselor Rachel Azariah explained that as a religious woman, while she accepted the status-quo that the area immediately in front of the Wall should be gender- segregated for prayer, she could not accept that plaza above the Wall should also be segregated.
She said, “The ultra-Orthodox are trying to impose gender segregation in all public places. It started on buses, now it is here at the Western Wall Plaza and soon it will be everywhere.”
Many of those present were American Jews who happened to be in Jerusalem for Chanukah. NIF International Council Member Louis Newman, who was leading a Carlton College study trip, said, “The issue of promoting religious pluralism here in Israel is very dear to us.”
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative Rabbi from St. Paul observed, “We feel we have been shunted aside and it was very important for us to come here today to say that the Wall belongs to all of us.”
The candle-lighting closed with the singing of Israel’s anthem Hatikvah and Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of NIF grantee Israel Religious Action Center of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel (Reform) and Chair of Women of the Wall urged all women to attend prayers for Rosh Chodesh on Friday. “I was there last month when a woman was arrested for the crime of wearing a talith. We must not let this happen again.”
Media Note: For photos of the Human Rights March and the Chanukah candle-lighting at the Wall, click here (link no longer active). For information about NIF’s “Back of the Bus” campaign, click here (link no longer active). For more information on the events in this release, contact Naomi Paiss at the numbers above or at [email protected].