Fighting for pluralism and equality in Israel

Fighting for pluralism and equality in Israel

Well-spoken and intelligent, Anat Hoffman, former city councilwoman in Jerusalem, is leading the effort against the assault on gender and belief by Israel’s fervently Orthodox, or haredim. Hoffman, a founder of the Women of the Wall and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is out on bail for having the audacity to carry a sefer Torah at a women’s service at the Western Wall.

One of Israel’s many ironies is that the Wall, which was captured during the Six-Day War in 1967, is controlled by the very group of Jews who took no part in the fighting. As one of them told me, “we did our service through learning and praying in the beit midrash,” (study hall). I remember thinking, “How many of your people fell while studying and praying?”

What began as an assault on female participation at the Kotel has extended to many other areas. Hoffman recently conducted a seminar for Knesset members in which she documented such separation in buses, health clinics in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, a post office branch in Jerusalem, government conferences, guided tours in Jerusalem tunnels, and other areas. When male and female are separated on buses or at conferences, men sit in the front, women in the back. Does this ring a bell with those of us who were around in the 1950s?

Several weeks ago, writing in NJJN, Gil Kahn identified a number of areas in which haredim have aggressively attempted — often with success — to take over various personal status issues in Israel, most notably conversion. There is much irony in this.

Haredim tend to separate themselves from the community in innumerable ways. Their young people, with the exception of several hundred volunteers, do not serve in the army.

They do not celebrate Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) with the rest of the country nor do they join in mourning on Remembrance Day (Yom Hazikaron) for those who fell in Israel’s wars or on Yom Hashoa, for Hitler’s victims. They have a separate school system which is now engaged in a battle with the Ministry of Education over its refusal to teach English or mathematics in their high schools.

These schools do not prepare their students to take the matriculation examinations which are necessary to enter university, leading most of the haredim to a life of poverty and making them very dependent on government support. Most recently, university students were taxed on their government grants while married yeshiva students were given additional funds. Whether intentional or by accident, the amount of the new taxes on the students equaled the amount given the yeshiva students, adding fuel to the fire and touching off demonstrations.

Why, in a democracy like Israel’s, should a minority at odds with the majority be able to make so many demands on society without giving much in return? Much has been said of Israel’s political system of proportional representation, which can give minority parties disproportional power. My former colleague, the philosopher Muki Tzur, said there is an understanding in which the Likud party supports haredi benefits in return for the haredi parties’ support on foreign policy issues. Others blame Ben-Gurion, who in his belief that the haredim would eventually assimilate into the general population, granted them special privileges, most notably exemption from military service.

The haredim have been stung by the criticism and have responded. Writing in the haredi weekly Mispacha,Yossi Elitzur listed four contributions by haredim to Israel. According to Elitzur, haredim immigrate to Israel in large numbers, do not move abroad once they do, attract foreign tourism, and boost the domestic travel industry by vacationing within Israel. These are all debatable points, although the fact that Mispacha puts them forth illustrates uneasiness and conflict within the haredi community.

The Kotel is administered by the semi-independent Western Wall Heritage Foundation, located in the Prime Minister’s Office. Its leader is Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, a government official. In creating the Foundation, no rules were established governing the Kotel’s administration and Rabinowitz has been given a mostly free hand. In 2005, the Knesset passed a law saying “anyone who offended the custom of the Kotel, including women who wrap themselves in prayer shawls, may be jailed for up to six months and fined up to 10,000 shekels” For the greater “crime” of carrying the Torah at a Rosh Hodesh service, Hoffman is eligible for a three-year sentence if convicted.

And there she sits in Jerusalem, fighting our fight for pluralism, gender equality, and the kind of state Israel will be. All power to her.

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