Out Loud

  • 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).

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  • One woman’s battle against extremism

    18 April 2012

    By Roni Hazon-Weiss

    RoniPosterI was delighted to take part in promoting public awareness for preventing the exclusion of women in public spaces in Jerusalem specifically and Israel in general. My name is Roni Hazon-Weiss, 28 years old, Jerusalemite, married to Nachi and mother to 9 month old Yuval, a teacher and educator at the Givat Ronen school in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, studying for my Master’s in Talmud and Halacha and Women’s Studies at the Schechter Institute.

    In addition, I am a social activist in the “Yerushalmim” (Jerusalemites) movement, and a board member of Ne’emanei Torah vaAvodah. I joined Ne’emanei Torah vaAvodah in order to take a part in changing the national religious community in Israel. The movement – which was established in the 70s – seeks to critique the Orthodox community and to present an alternative Jewish, religious, Halachic perspective on issues relating to religion and state, democracy, education, and the status of women. We work to prevent the growing extremism in the religious community. The movement is active in both spirit and deed.

    As part of my social activism, I participated in Yerushalmim’s campaign, “[Women] uncensored – men and women fighting against the exclusion of women in the public sphere”.

    The campaign began in Jerusalem, at the initiative of the Conservative rabbi, Uri Ayalon – the Director of Yerushalmim – in response to the absence of women in public space: on billboards, ads etc… The campaign, which started as a Jerusalem-based struggle, expanded into a nationwide struggle about the place of women in public spaces.

    When Rabbi Ayalon invited me to participate in the campaign, it was clear to me that I needed to take part in this initiative: as a woman, a mother, a teacher, a Jerusalemite, and an Orthodox person. Participation in the campaign was the beginning of the activities to return women to the public sphere, whether on billboards or as a part of ceremonies, cultural events, and the like.

    The sense that Jerusalem is slipping through our fingers prompted a personal and public realization that shaping Jerusalem’s character as a pluralistic capital is in the hands of the general public. It’s in the hands of the majority to which I belong as an Orthodox woman. We now know that we cannot continue to compromise on our values in the name of the “public sensitivities.” After all, we too have feelings. We must therefore stress to everyone the value system by which we live. As a religious woman it was important to me to take a part in the campaign in order to say that there is another Judaism, that this is not the Judaism I grew up on, and that I have a place in Judaism as a woman, both in the private and the public sphere.

    As a teacher, I was able to bring this value system to the classroom, to the boys and girls whom I teach. The poster campaign began while I was on maternity leave. When I returned to school, my students asked me about it.

    I could feel that my presence in this campaign increased the sense of belonging, and of pride, among my students. It triggered a deep discussion on values, on feminism, on activism, and on the difference between public and private spaces

    The campaign began by hanging huge posters from the balconies of private homes, coffee shops, and cultural institutions facing the street. The second stage was to place posters on billboards throughout Jerusalem. The advertising company we approached told us that we were crazy, that all our signs would be destroyed, that it would be a wasted effort. To my delight, they were wrong. Some posters were vandalized, but most were not.

    The campaign proved that we should not be afraid. In the wake of our efforts, advertising agencies and cultural institutions, such as the Jerusalem Theatre, found the courage to include women in different ads around the city.

    I choose to emphasize the fact that I am an Orthodox woman who is active in Ne’emanei Torah vaAvodah in order to convey that the censorship, the growing extremism, and the obliteration of women from public spaces is not the true face of Jewish Halacha, but the view of a radical minority which has taken hold in recent years and which has no basis in Jewish law. As part of my activism, it is important to me to show a different Halachic perspective, to work to advance gender equality, and to make women’s voices heard.

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  • Don’t Despair of Religious Zionism

    02 April 2012

    2 April 2012

    By Gadi Gvaryahu, Field Coordinator of Yudbet be-Heshvan

    During the waiting period before the Six-Day War, the most moderate ministers in Levi Eshkol’s government were those from the National Religious Party. Since then, Religious Zionism has undergone a revolution; the sector that forged a historic agreement with Mapai has become a right-wing nationalist group, including a significant National haredi segment.

    The political radicalization is expressed in Knesset votes, in the National Haredi outlook of educational institutions and yeshivot, in the religious radicalization of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, in halakhic responsa by National Religious rabbis on women’s issues (military conscription of women, public singing by women), in disobedience of orders to evacuate settlements, in attitudes towards non-Jews and Palestinians, etc.

    Note especially that despite the revolution, the vast majority of the rank and file of the National Religious sector remains loyal to the State of Israel, its laws, government, judges, and symbols. A small but by no means insignificant minority has been radicalized to the point that it does not accept the authority of the state and does not adhere to the rule of law. This refers to groups like the first Jewish underground, the Kahanist movements, Baruch Goldstein, the "Hilltop Youth," "Price Tag" perpetrators, and, obviously, Yigal Amir. Of course, one "successful" price tag attack would be enough to send the entire Middle East into hysterics.

    In tandem with the rightward shift, significant parts of the Religious Zionist movement are working on behalf of tolerance, openness, and pluralism. The Tzohar organization of rabbis was established in the wake of the Rabin assassination; the Beit Hillel group was established recently, after extremist remarks by National Religious rabbis against public singing by female soldiers; and dozens of integrated religious-secular schools have been established in mixed communities in recent years. A National Religious community that is willing to send its children to the same school as secular children is undoubtedly moderate, tolerant, and pluralistic.

    The moderate National Religious camp composed a special prayer service for the date on which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, which was distributed to dozens of schools throughout the country. In Jerusalem and outside the city, synagogues on the Shirah Hadashah model, which allow women to take part in the prayer service, have been established. Orthodox schools for boys and girls, which espouse tolerance, openness, and pluralism, have been established in Yeroham, Zichron Yaakov, Kiryat Ekron, and Jerusalem. These schools join the veteran tolerant schools of the Religious Kibbutz movement and in Jerusalem. The national Religious Scouts movement, which works together with the secular Scouts and Arab, Druze and Circassian Scouts, has established approximately 10 branches in the Galilee, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Rehovot. The Ahavat Shalom hesder yeshiva in Netivot educates for tolerance and social sensitivity; one of its students authored a book-length rebuttal to the racist halakhic tract Torat Hamelech. The hesder yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz movement and the movement’s Yaakov Herzog Center lead a moderate state-based line; an egalitarian yeshiva was founded several months ago in Jerusalem. National Religious girls are enlisting in the IDF in large numbers despite the Chief Rabbinate’s stringent ruling forbidding such action, and thousands of girls are studying in batei midrash and pre-military academies before and after their IDF service. Social justice organizations and overtly left-wing movements have been established by people from the National Religious camp; even Hagit Ofran of Peace Now grew up in the National Religious world.

    We cannot forget the feminist religious women’s movements that have spearheaded and continue to lead a revolution in everything related to the status of the religious woman in Israel. Today, they are working day and night to safeguard the rights of agunot and mesoravot get and are proposing laws to improve the status of these unfortunate women. Likewise, we cannot forget the religious organizations and the synagogue in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that were established in the wake of the Rabin assassination.

    Not only will the battle between the National Religious movement that supports the state as a matter of course and the radical religious right determine the image of National Religious Judaism. It may also determine who will have the authority to make decisions in Israel and whether decisions will be made on the basis of a democratic majority or in the "price tag" and Torat Hamelech style.

    The state-oriented National Religious movement, which lay dormant for many years and allowed extremists to take the lead, is beginning to awaken and fight back. Anyone who is interested in an enlightened Jewish democratic state must rally to and assist the state-oriented National Religious movement.

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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.

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  • The Sweet Taste of Justice

    29 March 2012

    I fell in love with Jerusalem when I came here last year as part of a year-long study for my rabbinical program in the US. Like many good love stories, it was unexpected and even fraught. After months of praying with Women of the Wall, visiting the West Bank, arguing in the supermarket, and feeling upset about how Israel didn’t match my vision of a Jewish State, I realized that it only hurt because I cared so much.

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Israel's dilemma: Who can be an Israeli?

By Daniel Sokatch and David N. Myers

13 January 2014