Tag: Israel

Experiencing Israel with Amazing People – Sydney Epstein’s Birthright Experience

Or Ami college student Sydney Epstein writes:

On May 22, I jetted off for what turned out to be the most incredible experience. Birthright allows you to reconnect with your Jewish heritage in the Holy Land itself. After a long 12-hour plane ride along with 40 other peers, I finally landed in Israel. Immediately following, we began ascending the fortress of Masada and floating in the Dead Sea! Not a bad start!

Throughout the trip, we explored every inch of the country. We traveled all through the desert and northern Israel. For me, the trip was not only about the sights we saw and the places we visited. It was about making new Jewish friends and connecting with my peers on a new level. They truly made this trip an unforgettable experience. When people would ask me, “What has been your favorite part of Birthright,” I would give the same answer: the people I got to experience Israel with.

Throughout the trip, I realized that 10 days was way too short! In the end, I extended my stay in Tel Aviv. I could not bear the thought of leaving Israel so soon! Although this was my second time in Israel, Birthright gave me a whole new perspective about the country. These past 10 days really opened my eyes up to the beauty and history Israel has to offer. I highly encourage anyone to take advantage of this incredible opportunity!!

Thank you Rabbi Paul Kipnes for helping me get on the trip of my choice!

Did your Or Ami child go on a birthright trip? We’d love to feature his/her experience here. Send me an email and we will reach out to him/her.

Turning to the Israeli Supreme Court

By Anat Hoffman, Executive Director, Israel Religious Action Center
Cross posted at IRAC.org

Education is fundamental to the Jewish soul. As a people we have fought to be able to continue learning even in the most difficult circumstances. In Israel, we are fortunate to have top-quality Jewish and secular education. Learning into adulthood is not feasible for most Israelis, but tens of thousands of men in the ultra-Orthodox community receive state support to continue their studies for their entire lives. This privilege is not available to all Israelis.

When I was a member of the Jerusalem City Council back in the 90s, I met a young woman who changed the way Israelis think about education. Jenny Baruchi was a student at the Hebrew University and, as a result of her mother being employed there as a cleaner, she was able to attend without paying tuition. In spite of this advantage, she was unable to finish in the usual period of three years; as a single mother, Jenny had to work at the same time to support herself and her family. Jenny turned Jerusalem on its head when she decided to sue for the right to receive the same living stipend that haredi men receive for studying in kollel (a religious school for married men).

She brought to the attention of many Israelis for the first time that thousands of married haredi men were able to study for a lifetime with state support, while students in universities who come from economically challenged backgrounds had almost no options for support. Many yeshiva students receive stipends for on-going study, and these stipends are not based on merit.

These stipends are a major contributor to haredi men not joining the job market in Israel. Allowing tens of thousands of haredi men to continue religious studies for a lifetime without developing any “real world” skills keeps them from ever breaking the cycle of poverty, and it robs the Israeli society of their contribution. In fact, the national budget for yeshiva students is more than twice the amount available for university students in financial need.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been at the forefront of trying to stop this preferential treatment, and our recent petition in Israel’s Supreme Court is beginning to crack this long-established system. IRAC’s legal team argued that special scholarships for yeshiva students need to stop. We feel they are harming both the state and the haredi men who take advantage of them.

We were very encouraged by the questions and the general mood of the seven-judge panel. It is actually very rare to have so many judges hearing one case, and it is an indication of how serious they find this issue. We are now waiting to hear their verdict and we hope it will come in the next few weeks, although the wait could drag on for months. If we succeed, it will not end all abuses of the state education budget, but it will close one huge loophole keeping haredi men out of the workforce and stopping poor secular Israelis from being able to study in university.

Jenny Baruchi is a success story. After seven years, taking on debt, and working long hours, she got her degree and is now a motivational speaker in Israel. She helps women from disadvantaged backgrounds understand that education is the key to breaking out of poverty. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the Supreme Court Judges will agree with us that equal access to education is a Jewish value that should be shared with all Israelis.

How You Can Help

  1. Learn more about our Israel Religious Action Center
  2. IRAC’s Mission
  3. Sign up for the IRAC’s Pluralist eNewsletter

Speaking out on behalf of Bedouins in the south of Israel

Today I wrote the leadership of the Israeli government on behalf of Bedouins in Southern Israel. Along with so many American Jews, including Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I reminded these leaders that Israel is poised to use the full might of state power against a hapless minority. The Praver/Begin bill that the government has sent to the Knesset will demolish tens of villages, transfer some 40,000 citizens from their homes to townships that are statistically proven to have four times more poverty and unemployment than recognized villages, and dispossess them of most of their lands without fair due process. 

If this issue feels important to you too, you may sign onto the letter.

Benyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel
Tzipi Livni, Justice Minister
Yair Lapid, Finance Minister
Meir Cohen, Welfare Minister
Amir Peretz, Environmental Minister

Please use your authority to reverse the Israeli government’s decision to send the Praver/Begin bill to the Knesset, where it is scheduled for a first reading on Monday.

Israel is poised to use the full might of state power against a hapless minority. The Praver/Begin bill that the government has sent to the Knesset will demolish tens of villages, transfer some 40,000 citizens from their homes to townships that are statistically proven to have four times more poverty and unemployment than recognized villages, and dispossess them of most of their lands without fair due process. You will create a new “Bedouin Pale of Settlement” similar to the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the late 19th century.

You have a coalition agreement to support legislation to resolve the issue of the Negev Bedouin, but you are not bound to this particular bill. And, no coalition agreement can override your obligation to carry out the Torah’s command, “When a non-Jew resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him or her. The non-Jew shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love him/her as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Seen as strangers, the Bedouin are victims of prejudice and stereotypes. They are seen as criminals and illegal squatters who will take over the Negev. Yet, if all of their land claims were to be proven and honored, they are only asking for 5.4% of the Negev. The Bedouin are not inherently criminal or violent. However, uprooted from their lands and their culture, crime abounds in the artificially created townships. “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” (Pirke Avot)

The Praver/Begin bill stipulates complicated formulas, where the best that a Bedouin landowner can hope for is to hold on to 50% of their land. This is using state power to dispossess and uproot. Are these the prophetic values of “Freedom, Justice and Peace” espoused in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? Is this “Full and equal social and political rights for all, regardless of religion, race or gender?”

As Israel is faced with tough economic choices and serious socioeconomic problems, it is terribly unwise to use NIS 6- 8 billion to create additional problems. The rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and drugs are much higher in the artificially created townships than in the villages. Cutting off people from their sources of income and destroying their social fabric and way of life will only increase these problems, and the funds needed to deal with them. At the same time, the increasing tension created will discourage investment, and make matters worse for both the Jewish and Bedouin residents of the Negev.

The time has come for an equitable resolution of Bedouin rights in the Negev. Any worthy resolution must preserve the following principles:
A. It will be arrived at only with real involvement from the Bedouin community institutions.
B. Full recognition for the 35 “Unrecognized villages, even if that means altering the national zoning plan.
C. Acceptance of the ownership claims made in the 1970’s.
D. Diversity of settlement types, not just towns or large villages.
E. Integration of the community in planning and finding solutions.
F. Developing the Negev equally – for all its residents. 

The first step is that the government withdraw its support for the Praver/Begin Bill, and that there be no first reading this Monday. 

Sincerely, Rabbi Paul Kipnes

If this issue feels important to you too, you may sign onto the letter.

When AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler Took a Collect Call from This College Student

Michelle and I joined Patti Jo Wolfson and Dennis Bernstein, Rabbi Julia and David Weisz, President Helayne and Randy Sharon and at least 15 other Or Ami congregants** at the annual AIPAC Valley Dinner. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying organization dedicated to the American-Israel relationship. Around 1,000 Israel activists gathered at the dinner to discuss and strategize how to support and continually strengthen the American-Israel relationship.

Prior to the dinner, AIPAC’s media crew sat me down to film my AIPAC story (Patti Jo was also interviewed). They asked about my earliest memory of AIPAC. So I told them:

Meeting AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler
Between high school and college, I spent a gap year in Israel on the Reform Movement Leadership Machon. While in Israel, we met with a young Jonathan Kessler, then a 20-something year old Israel activist, who taught us about the history of the American-Israel relationship. I remember being inspired by his passion and convinced by his teaching. To this day, I recall with clarity his offer to us: that if and when any of us needed help in our pro-Israel activism, we could call Jonathan, collect, and he would respond. I wrote down his phone number (being before cell phones, it was the main AIPAC number), and filed it away.

Calling Collect
Six months later, a freshman on an East Coast liberal arts college, I found myself standing before a banner calling people to gather for a rally against the “Illegal Israeli and American Occupation of Palestine.” Simultaneously I was incensed that such a mean-spirited, exceedingly biased event could happen on our campus and energized by the possibility that I could now make a difference as a pro-Israel activist. And then I realized I had no idea where to start… until I remembered Jonathan Kessler’s offer.

Back in the dorm, I stood in line for an hour awaiting my chance to use the hall pay phone. Unbelievably, AIPAC took a collect call from me, then a young college kid. When Jonathan and I talked, he walked me through some steps I should take: finding out who would be speaking, making contact with the local head of the Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, and speaking to the small Hillel group. With Jonathan’s help, I researched through the background of the main speaker. He taught me how to partner with the directors of the Federation and JCRC to coordinate our responses during the session. Jonathan then provided me with the encouragement to ask questions – respectfully but with confidence – to illuminate the biases and prejudice of the speakers.

31 Years Later
I am now the parent of two college students (and one high school student) and rabbi to many dozens of other college kids. (Jonathan is Leadership Development Director of AIPAC.) I want to ensure that when anti-Israel activists (especially of the BDS movement) speak on their campuses, and they need to reach out for guidance on how to respond, there will always be someone on the other end of the phone to answer the call.

Yes, 31 years have passed since I made that collect call to Jonathan. I may not remember who spoke at that rally, or what happened during or after that terrible gathering. But I will never forget this: that in in the person of Jonathan Kessler (then a young activist; now unbelievably even more effective), AIPAC helped a young Jewish college student respond to anti-Israel lies and delegitimization.

That, among other reasons, is why I am a proud member of AIPAC.

Thank you AIPAC, and thank you Jonathan Kessler.

** Filling out the Or Ami delegation were Board Member Jon and Stephanie Wolfson and their (law school student) daughter Sarah Wolfson, Shirley Wolfson, Mark and Linda Wolfson, Jeff and Julie Glaser, David and Teresa Litt, Steve and Alison Martini, Faculty member Jodi Wilson, Andrea Jacobs and Richard Slavett, and Steve and Laura Gubner.

Israeli National Baseball Team Competes for 2012 World Baseball Classic

Jews and Baseball: This from Fox Sports:
The Israeli national baseball team is several months away from the most significant tournament in its history: the November qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., at which a bid to the 2013 World Baseball Classic will be at stake. And Israel stands an excellent chance of emerging from a four-team field that includes France, South Africa and Spain.
The biggest reason: Team Israel could include a number of established major leaguers.
Israeli baseball officials are in the midst of perhaps the most intriguing roster selection process of any WBC nation. Israeli citizens who played baseball while growing up in the country certainly will account for a substantial portion of the roster. But other players will be Americans who meet the qualifications for Israel’s Law of Return — that is, having at least one Jewish grandparent or being married to someone with at least one Jewish grandparent.
While the roster is in its formative stages, Team Israel is assured of having recognizable faces in the dugout: Former big leaguers Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler have agreed to serve on the field staff, sources told FOXSports.com, and already are assisting in the recruitment of players.
Ausmus will be named field manager of the team at a Wednesday press conference in Tel Aviv. Green and Kapler have expressed interest in serving as player/coaches. Green last appeared in the majors in 2007, Kapler in 2010. Mark Loretta, the two-time All-Star second baseman, and Andrew Lorraine may also serve on the coaching staff.
Ausmus, 43, was one of baseball’s brightest minds and top defensive catchers during an 18-year career that ended with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010. He’s currently a special assistant to San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes, specializing in player development with a focus on catching.
Baseball observers have said for years that Ausmus could make a great major-league manager. But Ausmus said in a telephone interview with FOXSports.com that he doesn’t view his role with Team Israel as a stepping stone to a managerial career — nor does he plan on returning to a big-league dugout in the near future.
Ausmus said he’s involved with Team Israel for two reasons: He believes he will enjoy the chance to compete again without spending too much time away from his family; and he wants to pay tribute to the role his Jewish heritage had in his baseball career.
Ausmus, who is half Jewish, credits his mother, Lin Ausmus, and grandfather, Jack Dronsick, with instilling his passion for the game. Ausmus was born and raised in Connecticut and has vivid memories of his mother taking him to Fenway Park for Red Sox games.
“My mother and grandfather really were the ones who got me into baseball,” Ausmus said last week. “There’s such a rich tradition of baseball in American city centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where Jewish families have passed on the love of baseball to generation after generation.
“In New York, for example, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there are literally millions of Yankees fans of Jewish upbringing.”
Israeli baseball officials have coordinated with players and player agents in the U.S., as they work to expand the list of those eligible for the team. American players don’t have to become Israeli citizens in order to qualify; they merely have to prove they are eligible to do so. (Team Italy, which included a number of American-born big leaguers in the last WBC, has similar criteria: One must be able to get a passport, rather than have one in hand.)
Ausmus, who did not play in the ’06 or ’09 WBC, said he would have had a difficult time deciding if he had been approached by both Team USA and Team Israel for those tournaments — as may be the case this time for Jewish stars such as Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler.
“I imagine this is going to be a tough decision for them,” Ausmus said. “If you’re born in the U.S., it would be an honor to play for your country. We’re certainly going to respect what each player decides.”
Ausmus acknowledged the timing of the tournament may be problematic for some players; it will likely require a two-week commitment in November, when many big leaguers are either resting from a postseason run or beginning their offseason workouts. But the possibility of big leaguers participating is sure to generate excitement for the team, both in Israel and the U.S.
On a larger scale, the expanded WBC should offer a gauge of how much the game has grown globally — not only in Israel, but countries like Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Thailand that also are trying to qualify for the first time.
“We’re going to find out a lot about where the sport is globally,” Ausmus said. “Baseball is in its infancy in a lot of these countries, but I think we should see how far it can go.”

What Does Being “Pro-Israel” Look Like: A Dozen or More Diverse Answers

Sometimes when we argue about heartfelt subjects, we discuss them with a sense of mutual respect and of eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim (both of these opinions are for the sake of Heaven). At other times, when the stakes seem so high, we become convinced that our way is the right way, the blessed way, the only way. The positions of others are deemed heretical, unpatriotic, blasphemous.  

Such is what has happened to the discourse about Israel in parts of the American Jewish community. Fly over to Israel (or read the editorials in Israeli papers Ma’ariv, Yedidot Achronot and Ha’aretz – as well as on a host of Israeli blogs) and you will discover passionate debate that far overshadows ours here in the United States. Not long ago, I wrote about this example of American Jewish hypocrisy in my post, Blasphemers No More.  [Truth be told, even in Israel some resort to name calling or worse: see Prime Minister Netanyahu’s calling Ha’aretz an “enemy of Israel.“] 
Now comes a breath of fresh air from Moment Magazine, offering a wide variety of opinions about what it means to be pro-Israel. We read perspectives from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and Secular leaders, from supporters of AIPAC, J-Street, WZO and others, from people all over the spectrum.  Left, right, center, up, down and more.
What’s beautiful about Moment’s symposium is that is represents what I believe is the mainstream Jewish perspective: that there is a spectrum of ways to be pro-Israel, far more than we often admit.  Read Morton Klein, Peter Beinart, Anat Hoffman, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Laura Novak Winer, Martin Peretz, Judea Pearl and others.  
Let this article be a reminder that Ohavei Yisrael, lovers of Israel, come in various sizes, shapes and a multiplicity of perspectives. We in the organized Jewish community need to be careful about slandering each other by calling one opinion “anti-Israel,” “self-hating Jew,” or the like. While some opinions fall outside acceptable boundaries – support for BDS for one – most of the rest should be part of robust discussion in our communities, on our pulpits and on our campuses.  
May robust discussions continue to flourish.

Andrew Adler Should be Arrested, Tried and Jailed

Late yesterday I came upon an article in Haaretz which described the controversy surrounding the editorial written by the owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler. As reported in Haaretz, Adler write vile words:

The owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler, has suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu consider ordering a Mossad hit team to assassinate U.S. President Barack Obama so that his successor will defend Israel against Iran. 

Adler, who has since apologized for his article, listed three options for Israel to counter Iran’s nuclear weapons in an article published in his newspaper last Friday. The first is to launch a pre-emptive strike against Hamas and Hezbollah, the second is to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and the third is to “give the go-ahead for U.S.-based Mossad agents to take out a president deemed unfriendly to Israel in order for the current vice president to take his place and forcefully dictate that the United States’ policy includes its helping the Jewish state obliterate its enemies.”

Haaretz blogger Chemi Shalev writes:

The three or four infantile paragraphs of vile text that Adler published in his obscure Atlanta newspaper last week, in which he suggested that Israel consider assassinating President Obama, almost slipped under the radar, but was picked up yesterday by Gawker.com, and is now going viral. “A fool may throw a stone into a well which even a hundred wise men cannot pull out”, the saying goes, and it will indeed take a long time and a great effort to undo the damage that Adler has wrought, in one fell swoop, in defaming Israel by implying that it might, in anyone’s wildest dreams, consider such a kooky conspiracy; in staining American Jews by appearing to supposedly represent their twisted way of thinking; and even by undermining the institution of Jewish journalism by exposing that it harbors such birdbrained bozos in its midst.

How do we, American Jews, respond to Adler’s article – even after he apologized?

My response is simple: Adler should be arrested for incitement and tried. His 3rd suggestion is far worse than “idiotic” as his multiple apologies noted. They were words that incite. They reduce arguments over the relationship between America and Israel – between Obama and Netanyahu – to sewer-talk, or worse, to incitements to violence.

We Jews know that America is our home, and that Barak Obama is our president. Adler’s words are wrong, dangerous, offensive to all Americans and all Jews. There is no apology that can remove the damage. There is no way to excuse these words.

I look forward to hearing that all the major organizations of American Jewish life have denounced Adler’s editorial.  Abraham Foxman of the ADL denounced it, saying:

There is absolutely no excuse, no justification, no rationalization for this kind of rhetoric. It doesn’t even belong in fiction. These are irresponsible and extremist words. It is outrageous and beyond the pale. An apology cannot possibly repair the damage.

Irresponsible rhetoric metastasizes into more dangerous rhetoric. The ideas expressed in Mr. Adler’s column reflect some of the extremist rhetoric that unfortunately exists — even in some segments of our community — that maliciously labels President Obama as an ‘enemy of the Jewish people.’

Mr. Adler’s lack of judgment as a publisher, editor and columnist raises serious questions as to whether he’s fit to run a newspaper.

 So again I say, Andrew Adler should be arrested and tried for incitement against the President. And the American Jewish community should support the arrest and call for his punishment and jailing.

Not because the words embarrass us. Not because they make us uncomfortable. But because they are wrong, dangerous, extremist, unAmerican, unJewish, and maliciously unrepresentative about how American Jews feel about America and about President Obama.

Israeli Breakthroughs in 2011: Prepare to be Impressed!

Want to be impressed by the achievements of a little country in the Mideast? Check out this review, by the Near East Report, on Israeli Breakthroughs in 2011. Prepare to be impressed:
Israel remains the world’s top investor in R&D as a proportion of its GDP. And, based on its achievements in the fields of medicine, clean energy, high tech and other cutting-edge industries, the investment is paying off.
This year, Prof. Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking discovery of “quasicrystals.” The Technion professor, who does double duty at Johns Hopkins University and Iowa State, becomes Israel’s 10th Nobel laureate. Kudos to Tel Aviv University Prof. Yosef Shiloh for winning the top cancer research prize from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).
Hebrew University Prof. Haim Sompolinsky took home the top prize at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in the United States. Meanwhile, two Israeli geneticists from the Hebrew University – Aharon Razin and Howard Cedar – were the first Israeli winners of the prestigious Canada Gairdner International Award, presented annually to researchers around the globe for outstanding contributions to medical science.
Howard wasn’t the only family member honored in 2011. His son, Israeli film director Yossi Cedar, won the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival for his picture “Footnote.” Born in New York, Cedar grew up in Jerusalem and has also directed “Beaufort,” which won the Silver Bear at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar.
More Hollywood news: The documentary film “Strangers No More,” about a Tel Aviv elementary school that boasts students from 48 countries, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject; the hit Israeli TV series, “Hatufim,” has been remade in America as “Homeland,” which U.S. critics are calling one of the best new shows on television; the Walt Disney Company is partnering with an Israeli cinema chain to build a $160 million amusement park in Haifa; Jewish-American filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen won the $1 million Dan David Prize, handed out at Tel Aviv University; and American movie icon Leonardo DiCaprio has invested in the Israeli start-up Mobli, whose product allows users to see real-time events that others are watching.
There were plenty of blockbuster deals in 2011 between the United States and Israel. Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa won a competition to launch a “super science school” on Roosevelt Island off Manhattan. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg expects the campus to generate as much as $6 billion in economic activity by creating up to 600 new companies and thousands of permanent jobs in its first 30 years of existence.
Apple is purchasing Israel’s Anobit – a global leader of flash storage solutions – for $500 million. Apple has also announced that the tech giant will be opening an R&D center in Israel – its first facility outside of the United States. Apple will join the ranks of companies with R&D centers already in Israel such as Google, IBM, Oracle, Motorola, Microsoft, Dell and Intel, whose new “Sandy Bridge” microprocessor chip – developed at its Haifa R&D facility – was all the rage at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. And it isn’t only high-tech companies that have decided to establish research facilities in the Jewish state. Barclays, one of the ten largest banking and financial services groups in the world, plans to open an R&D center in Tel Aviv.
Medical patients have new hope thanks to a series of Israeli breakthroughs in 2011. An Israeli drug company is testing a promising vaccine that can kill cancer cells. Another company’s device that combines MRI and ultrasound technologies was cited by TIME Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of the year. Technion researchers have found a way to reverse the aging process. The FDA has approved the “Rewalk,” a device that helps paralyzed people get back on their feet, featured last year on the TV show “Glee.” A new Tel Aviv University study claimscinnamon can prevent and fight Alzheimer’s. Good news, because the U.S. chain Cinnabon has opened for business in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s medical prowess came in handy this year in coping with humanitarian disasters. The Jewish state was the first foreign country to set up a field hospital in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami in March, and an Israeli humanitarian organization was recognized for its relief efforts in the wake of this disaster.
Finally, other stories that made headlines in 2011: Electric cars went on sale in Israel this summer; NASA’s final space shuttle mission included an Israeli bone cell experiment; Israel opened a 62-km “Gospel Trail” trail from Nazareth to Capernaum for Christian pilgrims to retrace the route of Jesus; the Israel Museum put the complete Dead Sea Scrolls on the Internetattracting millions of online visitors; two Israeli Arabs represented the country at the Special Olympics in Athens as part of the tennis delegation; the world’s oldest human remains have been found in a cave in Israel; and IDF soldiers delivered a Palestinian baby.
Dear 2012: Can’t wait.

He Raped, She Complained, Judges Spoke, and The President Goes to Jail

Alternative Title: Sex, Harassment, Jail and a President: You Gotta Love Israel

Score one for Women’s Rights!  Score another for Israel doing Justice and for Ethical Standards! 

It is bittersweet but ethics-affirming to read that Israel distinguishes itself again. Very soon, Israel’s eighth President Moshe Katsav will enter jail to serve a seven year sentence for the unanimous conviction of him in the Tel Aviv District Court a year ago of two counts of rape, two counts of sexual harassment, an indecent act using force, and obstruction of justice. 

In its judgement, the court said the testimony of the main complainant in the case, a woman known only as “Alef” from the Tourism Ministry, was credible.  Alef testified Katsav had raped her twice, first in his office and then two months later in the Sheraton Hotel in Jerusalem. 

There are those who will be embarrassed by the whole situation, that Israel’s then president was convicted and is being jailed. What will “they” think?

Celebrate a Victory for Women’s Rights and Justice
I, for one, observe this as a moment to celebrate. We don’t celebrate the downfall of a once important political leader; rather we celebrate the victory of women’s rights and justice over machismo and sexism.

Israel exists in a macho neighborhood, awash with a culture of patriarchy and paternalism. Just this week, Israeli journalists caught on tape another shameful example, in the form of sexist comments – about female soldiers defending Israel no less – between the Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

But Katsav’s conviction and the impending incarceration are watershed moments. The message is clear: no more must women be subjected to, and silently endure, the sexist comments, groping or worse by men in power. If the President of the country can be tried, convicted, jailed (and forced to resign) over these heinous actions, then it can happen to YOU too. So clean up your language, your attitude and your behavior!

A Much Needed Win in the Struggle over the Role of Women in the Public Sphere
Israel is in the midst of a battle with fundamentalists Jews (yep, OUR fundamentalists) over the role of women in the public sphere. Groups are protesting recent decisions forbidding women for singing at public gatherings in Jerusalem, forbidding women’s pictures from appearing in ads on buses and billboards, and forbidding women’s active participation at relative’s funerals. This fight is part of an all-religion, global struggle between fundamentalism and liberalism. And we Jews must struggle to retain and expand hard-won women’s right.

Israel is a country that has made so many strides for the equality of women (think Golda Meir and the early inclusion women in the military).  Given the issues with ultra-orthodox fundamentalists, Israel still has a long way to go. But let’s pause in the fight for a moment to praise this little county for doing what so many other places couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t. Israel held responsible a man in the highest echelons of power who sexually harassed his female employees.

Israel Religious Action Center at the Center of the Struggle
A side note: yasher koach (May your strength be firm!) to our Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and its Executive Director Anat Hoffman, who have been – and are -at the forefront of many a fight for women’s equality in Israel. Read more here.

Strangers No More: Academy Award Winning Film about a Tel Aviv School on HBO

Strangers No More, the Academy Award winning documentary about Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin School, debuts on Monday, December 5th (6:45-7:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

According to the eJewish Philanthropy blog:

The school, serving one of the most economically challenged and socially diverse student populations in Israel, has morphed from a failing one to a highly successful and closely watched model for improving students’ lives and outlooks, strengthening and supporting families, advancing assimilation and socialization into Israeli society, and changing social and cultural attitudes toward respect of the other. Karen Tal, Bialik-Rogozin’s former principal, was recently awarded the 2011 Charles Bronfman Prize for her work with the school. [They] highly recommend tuning in if you haven’t yet seen the film. 

The film is poignant and highlights the creativity that is Israel:

In the heart of Tel Aviv, there is an exceptional school where children from forty-eight different countries and diverse backgrounds come together to learn. Many of the students arrive at Bialik-Rogozin School fleeing poverty, political adversity and even genocide. 

Here, no child is a stranger.

Strangers No More follows several students’ struggle to acclimate to life in a new land while slowly opening up to share their stories of hardship and tragedy.

With tremendous effort and dedication, the school provides the support these children need to recover from their past. Together, the bond between teacher and student, and amongst the students themselves, enables them to create new lives in this exceptional community.

Still Sitting in the Back of the Bus

From Anat Hoffman, the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC):

Agriculture is one of Israel’s greatest industries. It is innovative and creative. Israeli fields use the least amount of water. Israeli cows have the highest milk production in the world. Israelis have also innovated new fruits and vegetables over the years. Israelis have created the cherry tomato, new types of peppers, and over 400 new varieties of fruits and vegetables. Israel exports these all over the world.  

Recently however, Israel has begun exporting a diseased fruit; a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism.

According to this extremist view, men and women must be separated from each other in the public sphere; at the Western Wall, at the bank, on a public street, in a post office, on a bus, and in a cemetery. He who stays away from women is the most religious. So men who want to score high on religiosity won’t ride buses with women, won’t shop with women, and won’t hear them sing.

This sort of fundamentalist view of religiosity, fertilized by the government, has now been exported to New York as well.  

Last week, it was discovered that a publicly funded bus in Brooklyn, the B110, has been forcing women to sit in the back of the bus so men do not need to see them. Even though this fruit has a Jewish star on it and says imported from Israel, it is a fake Jewish product that is dangerous, illegal, and backwards. Throw it out. Judaism has never had monks and this radical view towards separation of women goes against 2000 years of history.  

At IRAC, we are promoting and fighting for pluralism every day. Extreme elements in the ultra-orthodox community are still trying to force women, both religious and secular, to sit in the back half of city buses. This is in direct violation of Israeli law and counter to a recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter. IRAC and its volunteer Freedom Riders have been monitoring the situation by constantly riding the bus lines the ultra-orthodox are trying to segregate. We have seen results but much more needs to be done so we are launching a Freedom Rider campaign for Americans.  

We invite all congregations coming to Israel, to join us for a two and half hour program, where you will ride a segregated bus and get an up close look at the situation on the ground. We have been doing this successfully with Israelis and it has made a difference, one bus at a time. Take part in the change IRAC is bringing to Israeli society. Anita Silver, who lives in New York, participated in many freedom rides with us during her visit to Israel and said “It was the highlight of my trip. I encourage everyone to take a ride to help Israel stay on the right route.” 

For more information see the IRAC’s Freedom Rider webpage.

Gilead Shalit’s Release – Reflections of an Israeli Rabbi

We celebrate the release of Gilead Shalit from more than 5 years of captivity. After observing the High Holy Days with his picture sharing our bimah, we take comfort that our prayers are answered.

It is difficult to gauge from the United States what Shalit’s coming home feels like to the citizens of Israeli Progressive Movement Rabbi Mickey Boyden, shared these reflections with rabbinic colleagues. With his permission, I invite you to read his stirring words:

Eyes were glued to the TV screens as we watched Gilead Shalit being transferred by the Hamas to the Egyptians. He looked pale and thin – so different from the condition of the Palestinian terrorists, who were released in the prisoner exchange. (Israel TV reported that Gilead felt nauseous while on board the IDF helicopter that took him to the Tel Nof base and that he had to be given oxygen. All those who accompanied him said that he was extremely weak.)

And then there were the two Palestinian female terrorists, who held up the transfer because of their desire to be released to Egypt rather than being sent to Gaza. One wonders why.

But most cruel was the interview that Egyptian TV forced on Gilead Shalit before he was finally handed over to Israel. Although Gilead was clearly under tremendous emotional strain and was being tortured with questions, his answers were nevertheless thoughtful and to the point. He hoped that the peace process could be advanced and believed that additional Palestinian prisoners could be released in the future provided that they refrained from further acts of terror.

In contrast to the Egyptian TV propaganda assault on Gilead, the manner he was treated by Israel was entirely different. Even those all Israel’s TV and radio stations devoted all of their programmes to Gilead’s release, there were nevertheless no interviews with him, the press was kept at a distance and the only film footage and photos to be released were those taken by the IDF. Apart from one photograph released by the IDF, the emotional reunion
between Gilead and his family took place behind closed doors.

While today is a day of celebration in Gaza and Ramallah, feelings in Israel are far more muted. There is joy at Gilead’s release after over five years of solitary confinement while in captivity, but there is also the recognition that many terrorists with blood on their hands were set free instead of spending the rest of their lives in prison. It was only last night that Israel’s Supreme Court ruled against the petition by families of terror victims, who tried to stop the exchange taking place.

However, against that, there was the memory of how there might have been a chance of rescuing Ron Arad, but that that opportunity had been missed. Gilead Shalit had to be brought home in one piece and almost at any price.

There are already calls for the reinstitution of the death penalty for terrorists found guilty of murdering Israeli civilians. There are those who believe that the Knesset should pass legislation against prisoner exchanges of this nature in the future. However, there are also the calls of those who believe that Gilead’s release should serve as a springboard for trying to reach some kind of an accommodation with the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular.

In spite of everything, today is nevertheless one of joy for us all as we see Gilead finally returned to his family.

Mo’adim l’simcha,

Micky Boyden
We Are For Israel