Out Loud

  • Victory of ultra-nationalists in Israel may estrange U.S. Jews

    07 September 2012

    More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. U.S. Jews must find ways to support progressive voices in Israel whose values we share as they fight to take back their country.

    By Daniel Sokatch | Jan.14, 2013

    For most of the past 64 years, Israeli and American Jewry enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. Both sides gained a great deal from the arrangement. Israelis got a fierce and loyal funder and defender - one that happened to be an important constituency in the most powerful country in the world. American Jews got a sense of mission and purpose, and, through advocacy and philanthropy, got to participate in the epic Jewish national project. Even if we didn't really understand each other quite as well as we thought we did, the relationship between our two communities was predicated on shared values, a bedrock commitment to an unshakable American-Israeli alliance, and a vision of Israel that was both a Jewish homeland and a liberal democracy.

    But this relationship is changing. More and more, it seems as if the world's two largest Jewish communities are watching each other through the rear-view mirror as they move further apart. On some of the biggest issues, it is not clear how much we still have in common. The recent election in the United States and the coming election in Israel are a case in point.

    Two months ago, about 70% of the American Jewish community voted to reelect Barack Obama. This, despite an unprecedented multi-million dollar campaign by the Sheldon Adelson-funded Republican Jewish Coalition, Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and other groups attempting to peel away Jewish votes from the president and the Democrats by arguing that Mr. Obama was bad for Israel. The attempt to present the election as a referendum on the president's pro-Israel bona fides flopped, but not before it furthered the perception that supporters and surrogates of the Israeli government were choosing sides and trying to influence an American election. This didn't go over so well with American Jews.

    That this effort failed so miserably came as a surprise to nobody, other than Mr. Adelson and the neo-cons. American Jews are liberal, and have been for a very long time. In fact, you have to go back to 1920 to find an election in which more Jews voted for the Republican candidate for president than the Democratic one, and then only because the Jewish vote split between the Democrat (19%) and the Socialist (38%). What's more, most American Jews don't disapprove of President Obama's position on Israel. In fact, a majority supports the president's handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and strongly supports a two-state solution.

    But while most American Jews report that they feel close to Israel, only a tiny percentage of them actually base their vote on it. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish voters cite the same priorities as other Democrats: the economy, health care, education. These American Jews care about Israel, but it is only one of many things they care about. And when they - the vast majority of the Jewish American community - perceive that Israel is acting in ways antithetical to what they assumed were shared values, the danger is that they will walk away.

    Which brings us to the Israeli elections. If the polls are correct, on January 22, Israelis will elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It is likely to be even more hardline than the current coalition, on whose watch Israel's relations with the Obama administration soured over disagreements over Iran, Israel's expanding settlement enterprise, and the moribund peace process. This coalition presided over an Israel in which Knesset members from the ruling parties pushed forward a raft of patently anti-democratic legislation, women fought attempts by some in the ultra-Orthodox community to exclude them from the public sphere, and government ministers vowed to make the lives of African refugees in Israel miserable and expel them. Criticism of these policies from Israelis was all too often characterized as treason. Criticism from abroad was merely proof that -the world is against us." None of this was lost on worried American Jews.

    The coming coalition is likely to redefine -right wing" in Israel. The authors of the most anti-democratic legislation in Israeli history are now positioned high on the Likud-Beitenu list, and we are sure to see a renewed attempt to restrict judicial independence, the media and civil society, especially the human rights community. The passage of the Boycott Law in the last Knesset is a worrisome harbinger of more attempts to limit freedom of speech and conscience. The Likudniks who guarded the flame of their party's traditional commitment to individual rights and democracy have been tossed off the party list, replaced by extremists and champions of the settlement movement. New parties, like Habayit Hayehudi, headed by opponents of the two-state solution who openly advocate annexation of the occupied territories, are gathering strength and will likely exert strong influence on the new government's agenda.

    I don't think that many Israelis understand just how badly all of this damages Israel's international standing, particularly its relationship with the overwhelming liberal Jewish community of a country that venerates its Bill of Rights. I'm sure many of the talkbacks to this article will say that they could not care less. But righteous indignation and name-calling are not substitutes for the advantages that come with a strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And that relationship is at risk. Luckily, there are reasons for hope. Millions of Israelis are deeply committed to Israel's founding democratic and Jewish values, and are concerned about the direction in which their country is headed. The same polls that predict a victory for the hard right also show significant, albeit divided, strength for a center-left bloc, and many still-undecided voters. An invigorated opposition championing democracy, peace, human rights and social justice could provide a critical check and an alternative direction for Israel.

    On the issues, recent polls show that Israel, much like America, is closely divided, with the values and policies of the left at least as popular as those of the right. Progressive political parties may be less popular in today's post-Oslo Israel; progressive ideas are not.

    This Israel still shares enormous common ground with the American Jewish community. Without engaging in the blatant electioneering shenanigans that damaged Israel's image during the American election, we must find ways to support those whose values we share as they fight to take back their country. And it is up to the leaders of the American Jewish community to speak truth to the new ultra-nationalist extremists of Israel, to tell them that the path they are on is damaging Israel and endangering its relationship with the American Jewish community that has always stood with it. It will be a difficult task. But that is what true friends are for.

    Daniel Sokatch is CEO of the New Israel Fund.

    This article was originally published by Haaretz.com.

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  • Sermon for Shavuot Day Two 5772 - 5/28/12

    06 August 2012

    by Rabbi Gordon Tucker

    Several months ago, in another context, I told you the following story, which I heard from Leonard Fein. I tell it again now, for a different, and very specific, reason:

    Ahmad Babikar Abdel Aziz, who is now 30 years old, is originally from a small town in north Darfur, a town lacking in education, health care and security. When he finished high school in Kinanah, a week-long journey from his home, he was admitted to Alzaeim University, in Khartoum, as a student of urban planning. But the war in Darfur broke out during his second year of study, in 2003, and he set out to return to his family’s home.

    While making his way home, he was arrested and then imprisoned – and tortured – for four months. When he was at last released, he tried to contact his family. He learned that his mother and brother were in a refugee camp in Darfur and that his father had most likely made it to Chad.

    Mr. Abdel Aziz has been in Israel for three years now. He lectures on refugee rights, and helps new arrivals from Darfur become familiar with the availability of health services (not from public agencies but from volunteer doctors), with banking practices, and with prospects of their return to Sudan. He is also a volunteer translator, assisting patients at a refugee clinic at Tel Aviv’s Central bus station by translating their stories into Hebrew so that the doctors will understand them. (He is fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic.) To make ends meet, more or less, he works when he can as a hotel cleaner, as a dishwasher in restaurants, as a welder for a construction company.

    How did this young man end up in Israel? The time had come for him to flee Sudan. It was far too expensive to be smuggled into Europe. With the $600 he’d saved up, he chose to get to Israel.

    He went by boat to Aswan and found a Bedouin smuggler who connected him to a group traveling to Israel via the Sinai desert. After crossing the desert surreptitiously, they raced for the fence separating Egypt and Israel. Egyptian soldiers tried to gun them down. Ahmad and his comrades crossed the fence and found the nearby Israeli military camp, thence to a nearby prison facility where they were held for 54 days, and finally released to Beersheba, from which Ahmad made his way to Tel Aviv.

    I also want to add to this very contemporary story another tale from a long time ago. We will read it later this morning when we turn, as we do each year on the second day of Shavuot, to the Scroll of Ruth. The end of chapter 1 of this scroll tells us that Ruth – a foreigner, and from the reviled nation of Moab – arrived in Judea, with no assets and almost without family, at the beginning of the spring harvest. And then immediately, at the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth announces to her mother-in-law Naomi her plan to alleviate their poverty and hunger by going to glean behind the harvesters in a field belonging to some Judean stranger. What this means is clear and very striking: it is that one of the very first things that Ruth learned about the culture of Judea was that this was a place where even a foreigner would be cared for if she was destitute and without hope. She would have the rights that any Judean pauper would have. And that right was the key to Ruth’s integration into a Judea that became stronger because of the family that she created, a family that produced David, the most successful Israelite king of all time.

    The importance of these current and ancient narratives is what they tell us about how to view what happened in the Hatikvah and Shapira neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv this past Wednesday:

    Some background, for those who have not been following the events: There are now about 60,000 African refugees living in Israel, the great majority of them in the impoverished neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv. Most of them come from Eritrea, with a significant minority from Sudan and South Sudan. These are almost all people who are unable to go home, because of unspeakable horrors that they have witnessed and continue to fear in their countries of birth. They have not only paid nearly their last pennies to Bedouin smugglers to arrive in Israel, but many of them have also endured abuse, torture, and rape along the way. And now they are in the Jewish state. Without official refugee status, without legal work opportunities, many without any work at all. Without much hope, other than that they are in a country that they know is the state of a people that has known what it is to be a refugee, what it is to be pursued, what it is to be abused and tortured and to fear for one’s life.

    Last Wednesday, there was a demonstration in South Tel Aviv, involving about 1000 members of the permanent population of those already poor and underprivileged communities. They were protesting the enormous presence in their neighborhoods of these Africans who now constitute competition for jobs and for customers of the small business shops. And they were expressing fear about what they saw as rising crime rates in their streets because of this African presence. Before too long, the demonstration turned ugly. Very ugly. Cars with Africans in them were surrounded and their windows smashed. Racist epithets were hurled. T-shirts with the inscription “Mavet La-Sudanim” (“Death to the Sudanese) were in evidence. Reporters covering the events were threatened and had to run for their safety. There was widespread looting of shops owned by Africans.

    One thing is very clear. While there is certainly anger and fear among the South Tel Aviv residents, one of the biggest factors that turned the demonstration into a race riot was the fact that certain Members of Knesset (MKs) came from Jerusalem to speak at this rally in ways that crossed many lines of civility and responsibility. MK Miri Regev told the crowd in a shrill tone that the African population in Israel is “a cancer in our body”. She exhorted the crowd to demand that they be “sent back to Sudan”. Other speakers incited the crowd of demonstrators by telling them that they will “have to decide whether you want to live in Israel or Sudan.”

    In other government offices, the rhetoric has not been any better. Eli Yishai, the head of the Shas Party and the government’s Minister of Internal Affairs, has said that if only he were given the authorization to do so, he would “lock up all 60,000 of them, and eventually send them all packing.” Even if this were a morally acceptable thing to do, where exactly would he lock up 60,000 “prisoners”? An example of pure, opportunistic political demagoguery. But it was hardly surprising, given the tenor in South Tel Aviv, that there were chants in the crowd of “Ten Le-Yishai Le-Natzeah” (“Let Yishai prevail”). It’s gotten bad enough that graffiti has shown up in Tel Aviv – including at the offices of a lawyer who represents refugees – saying “Kushim Ha-Hutzah” (“Kushim get out”). “Kushim” in classical Hebrew meant “Ethiopians”, but in modern Hebrew they are called “Etiopim”. “Kushim” now translates into an English word that, when uttered in the U.S. in the course of an assault, automatically makes it into a bias crime. I need not elaborate further, except to say this: it is always painful to hear prejudicial and racist language, but it is excruciating – or should be – to hear such ugly and violent words uttered in Hebrew.

    You usually have to go to certain elements of the foreign press, and especially the European press, to find the worst condemnations of events in Israel. But this time, you had to go no further than Israel Defense Forces Radio. For that Israeli army media outlet described what happened in South Tel Aviv on Wednesday as “a pogrom”.

    Now here are some of the things that I believe we should take away from this:

    (1) We should begin by taking pride in the fact that Israel is a place to which oppressed and desperate people want to go. Mr. Abdel Azziz, with whose story I began, said the following, when asked why he risked his life to get to Israel: “I knew that the Jewish people were also under extermination in Germany and so I thought that if the Israelis will not help me, then no one would help me.” But that pride has to be bolstered by a reality that delivers on some of the promise that draws people without hope to come to us.

    (2) Prime Minister Netanyahu did indeed make a statement that the actions of the mob on Wednesday were unacceptable. That is commendable. But given how the situation has been festering with no government action, it was too late, and it was without a doubt too little. The PM has gone on record as describing the African refugee presence as raising concerns about both security and “the Jewish character of Israel.” Jewish character??? How narrow a definition do we now have of “Jewish character”? Is it only a matter of what the percentage of Jews is in the population? Is it of a Jewish character to be sending refugees home? Here was one of the worst statements from an MK who whipped up the demonstration on Wednesday. Danny Danon, from the PM’s Likud Party, said that he had been in touch with the President of Sudan, who told him – “no problem, send them all back home to us. We’ll be glad to have them.” Imagine that. Imagine that Franklin Roosevelt had said of the tens of thousands of German Jews who came to the U.S. in the 1930s, “I’ve spoken to the Chancellor of Germany, and he said he’ll be glad to take them in, and we should just send them all home.” Jewish character of the state? Eikh Naf’lu Gibborim (How the Mighty have Fallen)!

    (3) Here was another placard seen at Wednesday’s rally. It said: “Bibi: It’s not the Iranians I fear.” This is a revealing protest line that expresses a suspicion about the government from its own citizens: that although the threat from Iran is not fabricated – it’s real of course – nevertheless, the exclusive and obsessive focus on it is a way for the government to avoid having to do anything for deteriorating social and economic conditions for the underprivileged. In particular, it may absolve the government from taking steps on behalf of the residents of Hatikvah and Shapira, or of the Africans, that will upset the coalition or require the kinds of steps that could endanger reelection.

    (4) This is, in other words, a classic pitting of one impoverished, underserved and underprivileged group against another. Despite what today’s rhetoric may suggest, Hatikvah was not a beautiful safe neighborhood before the Africans arrived. There was crime of all kinds. And it has been, besides, the center of a sex-slave industry about which way too little has been done over the years. But now there is a scapegoat that can divert attention away from the systemic problem. “It’s the Africans’ fault”. And now that there’s a scapegoat, the next thing you know, they’re being pursued and dehumanized, insulted and beaten, looted, with thoughts of sending them back to uncertain life, and in many cases, certain death.

    (5) Governments all over the globe indulge in denial and inaction by letting two desperate groups go at each other. But is this what one expects of a state with a “Jewish character”? Think of the symbolism: Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently sold his apartment in Akirov Towers for almost $8 million (not shekels). [Hint: he was not moving to a more modest place]. And yet nothing is done about the gnawing gap in wealth that turns people into pursuers.

    (6) The New Israel Fund is among the organizations actually trying to do something constructive and long-lasting to address this and other social justice problems. Not to treat an entire population like criminals (even though individuals in that population do commit criminal acts), but to recognize that something must de done before it is too late. And what does the NIF get for its efforts on behalf of the security and real Jewish character of the State? You may get the same e-mails I get from self-appointed zealots for “correct” Zionism in advance of next week’s Celebrate Israel Parade. The NIF and other groups are vilified as “enemies of Israel” unworthy of marching in support of Israel. They are the enemies of Israel, not the MKs who incite riots! As Rabbi Joshua’s son is reported in the Talmud to have said: “Olam Hafukh Ra’iti” (“I have seen a topsy-turvy world”).

    I want to share with you my translation of a declaration that was put out immediately after the riot, on Thursday morning, by the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorti Movement, our brothers and sisters, who are among those who worry deeply and with activism about the Jewish character of Israel. Here is the text as published in Israel:

    In only three instances does the Torah command us to love. Two out of those three are commands to love people. It is difficult to command a person to love; and it is more difficult still to bring yourself to love someone only because you were commanded to do so. All the more so if the subject is a stranger in the land, a foreigner with strange ways, distant and segregated from us. But it is precisely because the commandment to love the stranger is so difficult, that the Torah was constrained to mention it.

    Values are tested in tough conditions. It is easy to be tolerant in a utopian setting. It is far more difficult when reality is piercing, congested, and sweaty, and when it pounds you in the chest before it can be taken in by the mind.

    The challenge posed by illegal immigrants and migrant workers who have concentrated themselves in recent years in the south of Tel Aviv is one of the most complex problems that the government of Israel must struggle with. The problem was neglected, and as a result, the character of the neighborhoods in questions has changed to the point of being unrecognizable. But distress has no color. Crime and violence, which always increase when distress peaks, have made inroads into the streets, and have turned the lives of residents – veterans, migrants, and illegals alike – into lives devoid of hope, at the very foot of a volcano.

    The volcano has now erupted. Its boiling core pierced the streets of Tel Aviv on Wednesday with a dark rain of racism. When mobs range through the streets, rioting, smashing, looting, beating, and injuring – it is our obligation to stand beside the pursued. When leaders give fiery and incendiary speeches, we must remind everyone that we have been there ourselves. More than once. For endless generations we have been objects of incitement. We were the targets of the inciters and the rioters. Throughout history, when a person ran for his or her life from the mob, in the majority of cases that person was a Jew.

    In the name of our fathers’ and mothers’ tradition, in the name of the strangers in the Land of Egypt and refugees in wastelands everywhere, in the name of those of our nation and those of other nations who have fled deep abysses and migrated or entered other places illegally out of a hope for a better future, in the name of the morality of the prophets of Israel and in the name of Jewish law – we will not let racism win out. Even as we struggle to maintain the Jewish and democratic character of our state, we are forbidden to lose either our conscience or our memory.

    “You know the feelings of the stranger; for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)

    Recall the words on the placard: “It’s not the Iranians I fear.” More precisely, it should have said “it’s not just the Iranians I fear.” Indeed, Israel does not have a special responsibility to absorb every refugee from Africa or from elsewhere in the world. Israel has a right to tighten its borders and to demand of the UN that more be done to reduce the number of refugees, and to distribute the burden of caring for those who must flee in a more equitable way. But we are talking now about those who have already reached Israeli soil, many of whom have small children and have had children born in Israel. Yes, the minority of the Africans who are criminals, and the criminals among the rioters, should be handled the way that all criminals are handled, without stigmatizing entire populations. But the majority on both sides, who all need economic and physical security, cannot be wished away. The Jews of South Tel Aviv cannot be wished away, because Israel is a Zionist state; and the refugees cannot be wished away because Israel is a Jewish state, and Jewish character means something more than what the population data reveal. But most of all, the government must do what governments are elected to do: face problems and use their resources to solve them, not find pretexts for sweeping them under the rug until the next election and the inevitable horse-trading to form a coalition. This government actually now has an unprecedented 94 votes in the Knesset. What will the government’s excuse be for inaction now?

    Ruth, the grandmother of David, was a desperate immigrant. We know from Boaz’s warning to his employees not to molest her, that she otherwise could have been expected to be subject to violence. But the laws and Jewish character of ancient Judea protected her, and guaranteed her basic human rights. It is true that she was one Moabite, not 60,000. But even 60,000 refugees, if they are not passively allowed to gravitate to the community least able to care for them, constitute barely one percent of the Jewish population of Israel. Can modern Israel truly not find ways to protect and absorb them (especially since most will want to go home when it is safe to do so), and thus display at least as much Jewish character as ancient Judea?

    Here are two things to do: (a) don’t let anyone in your presence define “true Zionist” or being “pro-Israel” in a way that focuses solely on physical survival, and doesn’t include living up to the values, promises, and commitments that have always constituted “the Jewish character”. Challenge them on this; and (b) don’t let any of the official representatives of the Israeli government – who appear so often in our communities – speak at any event without having to answer at least one question about what is going to be done the Israeli underprivileged and for refugees, who look to us for their hope in life. Israeli officials should not automatically be suspected of not caring, but they will care a great deal more if they know that we care and that we are watching.

    This is obviously not a typical “Yizkor sermon”. Except for this one central point: When, in a few moments, we ask God to remember our departed, our martyrs, and our misfortunes and tragedies, both personal and national, we should remember that whatever we ask of God we must be willing to do ourselves, to the best of our human ability. That is one of the things Judaism has tried to teach the world. And this becomes especially important when we are looked to as the one hope of those who, we should always remember, have their own martyrs, their own destructions, and their own people and loved ones whom they mourn and remember.

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  • From Hope to Fear

    07 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.

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  • Coalition Tag Meir

    20 June 2012

    June 18, 2012

    Tag Meir -- a coalition of Israeli organizations convened by NIF -- sent the following letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    The Prime Minister
    MK Benjamin Netanyahu

    Dear Mr. Netanyahu,

    Re: Price Tag – A Strategic Threat

    We -- the members of the Coalition Tag Meir (Bright Tag) comprising non-profit organizations from all sections of Israeli society working to counter Jewish terrorism and violence against Palestinians, Israelis working for human rights and even IDF officers -- turn to you concerning the Price Tag attacks that have, to our distress, been continuing for over two years.

    Following the decisions of the Government, the Knesset and the High Court concerning Givat Ha'Ulpana, we believe that there is a serious threat of Price Tag attacks erupting in the West Bank and within Israel itself. Warnings of such attacks have been received in the last few days in the Jewish-Arab settlement of Neve Shalom and in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem.

    During the past two years, a dozen mosques have been desecrated, hundreds of car tires have been punctured, olive trees uprooted, shops and bazaars vandalized, threatening graffiti daubed on the homes of high ranking IDF personnel and IDF bases have even been penetrated and attacked.

    Mr. Prime Minister: Past experience has proven that Price Tag activists, bolstered by "Halachic" manuals and "learned" articles, will continue to attack innocent victims to revenge the withdrawal from settlements and homes. Warning of Price Tag attacks has been given: the writing is on the wall.

    Sir, we urge you now, not to surrender to these threats and to Jewish terror and vandalism. We are horrified at the ease at which these attacks have taken place in the past and we urge you to order increased security around the Palestinian settlements most at risk, to guard the mosques in these settlements, to increase the number of police and border police patrols in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the inter-denominational institutions. We ask you to increase the security surrounding officials of the Chief Public Prosecutor and high ranking IDF officers who will bear the responsibility for evacuating Givat Ha'Ulpana and the IDF bases in the vicinity.

    We believe that the actions of "Tag Machir" present a strategic threat to the moral fiber of the State of Israel to its Jewish character, to its security and its social complexity and it is your responsibility to act with determination to remove this threat from our midst.


    The Action Committee of the Kibbutz Movement, Bina – The Secular Yeshiva, Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, The Masorti Movement, Yeshivat Talpiot, Elijah Interfaith Institute, The Shittim Institute, Oz VeShalom Netivot Shalom, Realistic Zionist Movement, One Voice, Rabbis for Human Rights, Shatil, Combatants for Peace, Yod Bet B'Heshvan

    c.c.: Minster for Defense, MK Ehud Barak
    Minster for Internal Affairs, MK Yitzhak Aharonovitz
    Police Commissioner, Yohanan Danino
    Attorney General, Adv. Yehuda Weinstein
    State Attorney, Adv. Moshe Lador

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  • The women of the wail

    04 May 2012

    by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

    Just as the so-called “War on Women” has become a major issue in American politics, it appears likely that it will be prime subject in the upcoming Israeli campaign. Pundits and politicians from around the world, including Hilary Clinton, have joined Israelis in questioning continued segregation, discrimination and humiliation of women in the public sphere. The images of females being shunned on buses and spat at on their way to school have generated an outcry even among Israel’s most solid supporters, and they’ve found their way into the mainstream media, permeating the pages of The New York Times and the airwaves of CNN.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that the treatment of women is a ticking electoral time bomb. Although most of the coverage of his March speech at AIPAC dealt with his use of Holocaust imagery and the Iranian nuclear duck, something he said at the very end of the speech got one of the loudest ovations:

    And as prime minister of Israel, I will never allow anything to threaten Israel’s democratic way of life. And most especially, I will never tolerate any discrimination against women.

    While the prime target of feminist scorn is typically the haredim, there is more than enough blame to go around. Secular leaders and police have tacitly accepted the increased humiliation of women because of coalition politics and simple apathy, but also ostensibly out of respect to ancient traditions. Funny, I don’t recall where the Talmud states that women need to ride in the back of anything. And nowhere do Jewish sources suggest that there should be gender segregated HMO clinics, banks, elevators, grocery stores and pizza parlors, and a corner snack shop in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only” (as reported in ”Excluded, for God’s Sake: Gender Segregation in the Public Sphere in Israel”).

    That “respect for ancient traditions” is overrated.

    Maybe this tipping point of outrage will bring about a change in attitude that, for too long, has tolerated the intolerable.

    A new form of exile

    Since 1989, the Women of the Wall, a prayer group consisting of women from all Jewish streams, has been denied the basic right that every Jewish group should have: the opportunity to pray peacefully at Judaism’s holiest site. The Kotel should be for everyone. Sadly it is not. As one committed to egalitarianism and inclusiveness, I’ve long since stopped bringing my congregation groups to the Kotel Plaza to pray together. Too many scary experiences have led us to the Robinson’s Arch area, which is the Kotel’s equivalent of the back of the bus – though also a beautiful and peaceful spot.

    Who said the back of the bus can’t be comfortable?

    It’s the same Wall, but an area that can only be used by appointment, and it is clearly not the place that people think of when referring to the Kotel. For Jews from the liberal streams, to visit the Kotel these days is to experience a new form of exile at the very moment of supposed return. The Judaism that we grew up with is not accepted in the singular place that was intended to be for all of us, our courtyard of ingathering. Historically, the Kotel was never a synagogue, nor should it be one now, much less a place that excludes the majority of Jewish congregations from praying as they normally do. But even if it were a synagogue, what synagogue have you ever seen that sanctions people throwing everything from verbal abuse to chairs to excrement at women?

    I recall my first visit to that holy spot, on Tisha B’Av when I was 16, on a summer teen tour. In ancient times, the Kotel was the Temple’s outer, retaining wall, the place where all the people could gather, from the largest to the small, sheep and pigeons in hand, before arriving at the inner courtyards where degrees of separation set in. The Kotel has always been a festival of earthy democracy for the plain folk: the sweaty Herodian-era laborers who moved enormous slabs of rock; the late-Roman period artisans who scribbled joyous graffiti from Isaiah; the dying whispers of medieval pilgrims, having reached their long-sought final destination; the teary paratroopers in ’67; and the final breath of my grandmother, who never got there. At the Wall, the Jewish body beat with one heart.

    When I first came to the Kotel that Tisha B’Av, I saw a white dove about halfway up, glowing in the light, perched on a nest of moss. I quivered with recognition of the Shechina, God’s most manifest and loving presence, sent to that very spot to weep with Her people among the ruins. For centuries, that legend and that weeping bound motionless stones to a yearning nation. Now the stones have lost their heart — and strangers beware.

    The courageous Women of the Wall continue to stand their ground. Each month on Rosh Hodesh, they pray in the women’s section of the main plaza, at least for a while. In order to read Torah, they then descend to Robinson’s Arch. And they do this in an atmosphere of intimidation and abuse, some of which is tolerated by the police, reminiscent of the anti-Semitism faced by Jews over the centuries as they sought only to pray in their little shtiebels in peace.

    ‘Why do they hate us?’

    A few days ago, I received an email from Allison Green, a congregant of mine, a proud and committed young woman who is on a fellowship in Jerusalem this year. She decided to attend the Women of the Wall’s service last week for the first time, on Rosh Hodesh Iyar. With her permission I’m posting her stunning, distressing email here with minimal editing, because it is a reminder to us all that the things we have come to accept – or overlook – can appear incredibly shocking when seen through fresh eyes:

    Hi Rabbi Hammerman,

    How are you? I’m so sorry that I have been so out of touch all year. I’ve been meaning to email you since the fall and suddenly now, it’s late April. However, I’ve also been meaning to attend Rosh Chodesh services with Women of the Wall since the fall, but that did not happen until last Monday.

    I have a friend on Otzma who just moved to Jerusalem and started interning for Women of the Wall; since she now lives across the hall from me, I had no excuse not to join the group the other morning for what would be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

    We arrived at the Kotel a bit early and found a few of the organization’s board and staff members at the back of the women’s prayer section; they welcomed us with open arms and were extremely excited to meet the organization’s new intern. As 7:00 am rolled around, more and more women showed up, and we were all handed the new (and almost finished) Women of the Wall siddur for Rosh Chodesh. Apparently, the women who brought these for the group had problems getting the books into the Kotel complex, as security guards argued that 7 siddurim was a large number and broke some rule instituted by the rabbi in charge of the Kotel. Still, they were somehow able to bring the books in and distribute them.

    Next, the policemen hired by the organization for our protection showed up. This was our cue: those of us who had them took out our talises and kippot. The first Orthodox woman to come up to us simply asked what blessing we say when we put on the talis; the second woman asked if our talises keep us warm; and, so, the heckling and harassment continued. Mind you, the policemen were there for our protection, but also to make sure that we did not break any laws; they filmed everything from the minute they arrived at the Kotel to the minute we left for Robinson’s Arch to read Torah. Still, before we even started praying, the Orthodox onlookers were not our only problem.

    The police told a young woman next to me that she was wearing her talis incorrectly, according to the rabbinical courts, because rather than wearing it like a scarf, as women are apparently supposed to do, she wore it as a prayer shawl. Some women thought they did this because she has led services before and would be doing so again that morning. Others thought it was because Orthodox women were saying things to us and the policemen felt the need to do something. Still others said that this particular young woman often gets a lot of grief because of her alternative haircut and piercings. I think that it may have been a combination of all these things. However, I also think that it was because those of us who were wearing talises were wearing very feminine ones, regardless of which style it was (simple shawl or the one you fold over the shoulders), but she was wearing a traditional white and navy talis which you fold over the shoulders.

    Regardless of the reason for their singling her out, she told the policemen to stop looking at her. The rest of us gathered to surround her so she could lead the service. Meanwhile, the police talked to their superiors on their radios and cell phones. There seemed to be a very good chance that our chazanit would be arrested at any moment.

    At this point, I felt my muscles tense and my jaw lock; my eyes, open wide, darted from one policeman to another. I found myself hiding in the middle of the crowd of women, right next to our chazanit. I shrank into myself and my generally decent posture ceased to exist. My shoulders were closer to my ears than I thought was humanly possible and I slouched so much that my back hurt.

    The concern over our chazanit only intensified when she alone, or all of us together, sang and prayed out loud. However, my own fears and discomfort quickly dissipated. The louder we sang, the taller I stood; the further into shacharit we prayed, the bigger my smile (and everyone else’s) grew. The policemen tried telling us that we were forbidden to sing, but they soon seemed to gather that there was no stopping us.

    Throughout the service, more and more women and girls joined us; some came ready with their tallises, others had no idea what was going on, but felt inclined to become part of the group. Tourists, seminary girls, and pious Kotel regulars stared at us as they entered the female section and approached the holiest Jewish site of today’s world. A few young men stood on chairs to see us from their seemingly endless side of the mechitzah. We could hear husbands, brothers and friends behind us, standing in the main part of the plaza in order to show their support and pray with us.

    Upon finishing Hallel, the organizers told us we would grab our stuff quickly and then walk to Robinson’s Arch together for the Torah reading. But, before we moved, we said the Prayer for the Women of the Wall. As I read the English translation, all I could think was “this prayer belongs in every siddur, everywhere; in every Jewish day school and Hebrew school classroom.”

    Finally, we quickly grabbed our things and sang and clapped our way to Robinson’s Arch. Tourists waiting in security lines, who probably had no idea what we were doing or that we were breaking any laws, clapped along with us as we passed.

    Since we could not bring a Torah into the Kotel complex, it was waiting for us in the archaeological park. We set down a table cloth and talis over a stack of ancient Jerusalem stone bricks and laid the torah down. It was as if this pile of bricks was left just for us as a lectern for the Torah. The organizers asked that the men and boys who joined us to step to one side, so that the women could have the “front row seats.” The entire Torah service was conducted by women. It was followed by a quick Musaf and then an oneg and dvar Torah. As I was already late for work, I grabbed a few almonds and was on my way.

    As I made my way out of the Old City, to a bus stop, and to my office on the other side of Jerusalem in Talpiyot, I could not stop thinking about what I had just done. I felt so empowered and rebellious, part of something so important and special, I wanted the whole world to know. Instead, I just smiled to myself, knowing that my morning made a difference in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel, a cause that I continue to work so hard for as the Public and International Communications Fellow at Melchior Social Initiatives.

    When I settled in at work, I opened the internet to find the headline “The Real War Against Women” near the top of my homepage. I immediately clicked and was redirected to Why do they Hate Us? The Real War on Women is in the Middle East. As I read, I felt my feminist high of the morning come tumbling down. While the article concentrates on Israel’s neighbors, which is for another email and conversation entirely, there was one quote, attributed to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that struck me: ‘”Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me…. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.” This resonated so deeply with me because she’s right: whether we’re talking about the Taliban, the Christian right in the US, or the hareidim and Chief Rabbinate of Israel, they are all patriarchal social movements which seek to unjustifiably and irrationally control women with burkas, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, and a monopoly over religious expression in the Jewish State, which is supposed to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

    I could go on, but I need to get back to work and do not want to take another week to actually send you this email.

    I hope all is well and I look forward to seeing you when I come home this summer.


    I read Alli’s words and shuddered. Why are women treated so harshly, so many decades after they were supposedly liberated? What craziness guides the thinking of supposedly sane men, who blindly follow what they misconstrue to be God’s wishes? How long will the politicians endorse extremism and tolerate hate?

    I’ve always loved the Kotel. And yet, now, as the global War on Women plays itself out in Israel, the Wall has become a locus of strife rather than unity.

    How lonely sit the stones of the Kotel. The dove is gone.

    The Shechina has left the building.

    It is up to us all to welcome her back.

    This article was originally published in The Times of Israel and is reposted with the author's permission.

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