I recently enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a two-day conference of Jerusalem activists and found a lot to be hopeful about, and some points of concern.
Jerusalem’s population can be divided and classified along many different axes. A conventional approach of late views the most meaningful socio-political breakdown of Jerusalem’s population as follows: about 1/3, clustered in East Jerusalem, is Arab; about 1/3, clustered mostly in the north (but expanding), is ultra-Orthodox; and about 1/3, mostly clustered in the south and central parts of the city and some northwestern hubs, is everyone else. Over the last 5-7 years or so, this “everyone else” population has seen an interesting process of organization, collaboration, and, in some places, re-jiggering of traditional demarcations of affiliation; for many, secular/religious, for example, has been replaced by pluralist/non-pluralist or other imperfect ways of capturing the shared interests of this population. Dozens of new projects, organizations, and social movements have sprouted, changing the cultural and physical landscape of Jerusalem, and altering the political map, particularly 36-year old, religious feminist, Vice-Mayor Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim party and 30-year old, secular, Vice-Mayor Ofer Berkowitz’s Hitorerut party, both of which grew out of social change organizations that still thrive.
Against this backdrop, and with intent to harness and organize this energy for maximal effectiveness toward in an inclusive and attractive future of the city, some local organizers brought together about 70 local activists for the Mata-Maala conference, with the support of the Schusterman Foundation-ROI Community. I was there representing Yeshivat Talpiot, a nascent, Jerusalem egalitarian yeshiva (sort of like a younger cousin of Mechon Hadar), and its affiliate Takum social justice beit midrash. More »
Last year a friend who had just finished participating in a Birthright program was telling me of his harrowing journey and mentioned that they had gone to the City of David. I said something along the lines of, “Right, Silwan. The tour through people’s backyards” in a tone that implied that I thought my friend, a fellow politically active organizer, would know what I was talking about. But, instead, he said something like, “Wait, that was Silwan?”
It became clear at that moment that the JNF’s aim via subsidiary support for ELAD to dispossess Palestinians of their homes in Silwan and replace them with settlers and a tourist site at the City of David was working. The process is barely noticeable to those who don’t know to look, which is most people. More »
What do you buy the children of the terrorist who tried to kill your wife?
This is not a question that many of us have ever asked, or even thought about thinking about figuring out how to ask. Or why, or whether, or how such a question could even exist. But this is what David Harris-Gershon found himself asking in a Toys-R-Us in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon, as it was preparing to close. This is the question that encapsulates the absurdity, desperation, and emotional daring in his mission to meet the jailed terrorist who planted the bomb at Hebrew University that killed nine people, including his friends Marla and Ben, and injured 100, including his wife, Jamie, who was eating lunch with them when the bomb detonated.
Harris-Gershon, a schoolteacher, dad, columnist for Tikkun and the Daily Kos, Moth Grandslam Storytelling champion, first-time author, and lover of words and dictionaries, learns a few things along the way, starting with language: More »
For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.
It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.
Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.
In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.
I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone.”
This weekend, a poster appeared all over ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem against Women of the Wall‘s fight for gender equality at holy sites in Israel. The poster calls for ultra-Orthodox opposition to rally at the Western Wall tomorrow Monday, March 11 at 7 am.
And in Jerusalem and cities across America, Jews are rallying to support WoW:
Monday, March 11
Washington DC Friends of Women of the Wall’s solidarity service and program will be across from the Embassy of Israel on Monday, March 11. Sponsors include Am Kolel, Ameinu, New Israel Fund, Eizor Moshava-Habonim Dror, Temple Shalom Chevy Chase, Temple Micah, and Washington Friends of Women of the Wall.
Seal Beach, California: Rabbi Galit Levy-Slater is holding a congregational solidarity event.
New York’s Wake up for Religious Tolerance! solidarity minyan at 9 am on the north side of Union Square Park. Sponsors include Mechon Hadar, Romemu, Kolot Chayeinu, New Israel Fund, Bnai Jeshurun, Lillith Magazine, Town & Village Synagogue, Ansche Chesed, Society for the Advancement of Judaism, East End Temple, Jewish Theological Seminary, the National Council of Jewish Women, and many more. (See flyer here.)
Sunday, March 19
San Francisco Friends of WOW will meet for a sing-in outside of their Israeli consulate at 11 am. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This morning in Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall brought heavy Israeli symbolism along with 150 participants to their monthly peaceful protest — three of the IDF veterans who captured the wall in the 1967 war. All went uninterrupted for the first time in 22 months until they departed through security, where nine women were separated and detained. Those included Anat Hoffman, Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of comedian Sarah Silverman), and Rabbi Silverman’s daughter Hallel, and eight-month pregnant rabbinical student Lior Nevo.
Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, Ilon Bar-Tov, a paratrooper who fought in the Old City battles, “It’s unacceptable that the police are stopping women from wearing tallitot, it’s like Iran. I can’t believe they are stopping people from praying one way or another.”
Although the term “liberating” the Western Wall is hard to borrow, the symbolism is obviously aimed at Israeli mainstream ears. The iconic faces of these paratroopers grace every postcard stand and Jerusalem Day poster since the event itself. Their names are nearly household. Petitions submitted to the Supreme Court are challenging the all-haredi representation on the board of the plaza’s governing body, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. All denominations and the secular public should be able to participate in the decisions affecting the plaza, they argue.
And it’s working to force the Israeli government to pay attention. In late December, Prime Minister Netanyahu for the first time acknowledged the unsustainable status quo at the plaza. The American Reform and Conservative movements, along other diaspora women’s groups, have stood solidly behind Women of the Wall. The most previous arrests of Anat Hoffman pushed even the Jewish Agency board to demand a change. The Prime Minister asked Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky to “look into the matter” and report back after the elections. Hearing that, ultra-orthodox extremist groups deplored the presence of “Zionist occupation” and “whores” at the Wall.
Do the government utterances of “unsustainable status quo” and “look into the matter” strike you as similar to another conflict in the region?
Nobody attends a Women of the Wall service without knowing that being arrested for wearing a tallit or praying aloud is a distinct possibility. At the group’s monthly Rosh Chodesh services, some women choose to save their voices and their prayer shawls for the Torah service that takes place at a nearby location. Others take the risk. Regular participants advise first-timers regarding how to avoid arrest.
It stands to reason, then, that the Hadassah leaders who were building up anticipation for the joint Women of the Wall/Hadassah prayer service on Tuesday evening were prepared for possible police action against the group of 200 women. One might also imagine that they were set to offer a statement in the event that such action occurred. As of now, however, Hadassah has declined to take a public stand on this issue. Their website and Twitter feed (@Haddashorg) refer the public to JTA articles and Women of the Kotel statements. Hadassah leaders remain silent on the violent detainment of Nashot Hakotel leader Anat Hoffman, or the general mistreatment of women who pray at the Kotel.***
Meanwhile, Hadassah plans to present PM Netanyahu with an award named for Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
What would Henrietta Szold do in such a case?
Given that she struggled to be admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was finally allowed to matriculate together with rabbinical students under the condition that she never ask to be ordained, in all likelihood she would have been at the Kotel, determined to find a way for women to pray there.
At the very least, no doubt Anat Hoffman is correct when she says that the Women of the Wall organization is more deserving of the prize than Bibi is. The vision of Henrietta Szold, whose unique brand of leadership encompassosed the social feminist movement of her day as well as an inclusive, diverse vision of Jewish peoplehood, was much more akin to the work of Women of the Wall than to any aspect of the current Israeli government’s leadership. In any case, the women’s Zionist organization should not be silent now regarding this violation of the rights of women in Zion.
*** Update: Hadassah has published a one-sentence resolution regarding this:
In Jerusalem, at the National Business Meeting of the Centennial Convention of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, delegates unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to and support for freedom of worship for women at the Western Wall.
It is worth following the replies to this by Hadassah members, which have a little more bite:
By now I’m sure many of you have heard about today’s monthly Women of the Wall gathering. The short version is that the police, allegedly present to protect the women from those who do not believe they have a right to daven at the Kotel, approached many of the women, said they weren’t permitted to wear talleisim, and took the names and id of three women who’ll be “further investigated.” You can read more about it in the JTA and Jerusalem Post, or check out a blog post by one of the three women (who happen to all be rabbinical students). You can also watch their reaction in this interview on YouTube.
Police, defying the mechitzah, to teach Deb how a woman ought to wear her tallis.
It wasn’t long before I spotted the photos on Facebook, counting several friends among them. Based on the two photos included in this post, I decided to talk to Deb (pictured) about her experience today and each month she joins Women of the Wall for their Rosh Chodesh davening.
Right off the bat, Deb made clear that she hasn’t historically connected to the kotel as a place where she’s wanted to daven. However, she finds that the more she goes with Women of the Wall, the more she wants to go. It’s the community Women of the Wall is fighting to create that speaks to her more than the wall itself.
She told me, the group is “called ‘women’ but it’s actually creating a space for all who want to daven there, who have the right to access this public, Jewish space.” The group’s mission states they “seek the right for Jewish women from Israel and around the world to conduct prayer services, read from a Torah scroll while wearing prayer shawls, and sing out loud at the Western Wall – Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people hood and sovereignty.” Deb appreciates that they’ve also created a “queer-friendly space,” and that they “call attention to the need for spaces that are friendly and welcoming to all. There are folks who identify as genderqueer and trans who are invited to lead services, read from the Torah, and take on other roles. Likewise, Women of the Wall creates a welcome space for all genders, including male-identifed folks, to participate in the Torah services” that they hold at Robinson’s Arch after they move from the Western Wall.
Wearing a tallis in a hijab-like manner is apparently permitted.
When I showed Deb the two photos from Facebook, she said that she feels like she’s being “singled out each month” by the police, because she wears a tallis that is more traditionally considered a man’s, and not a colourful tallis that might be more “feminine.” Today, a policeman asked permission of Anat (co-founder of Women of the Wall) to demonstrate, using Deb and her tallis, how women should properly wear a tallis like a shawl. The idea being that this would avoid the 2001 law that makes it illegal for women to perform those religious practices “traditionally done by men” at holy sites, like reading from the Torah, wearing tefillin or a tallis, or blowing the shofar.
“He folded it up, and put it around me like a fake scarf… Of course I unfolded it and ended up wearing almost like a hijab instead!”
Her other response to the police? She davens extra loud when she’s with Women of the Wall. I asked if that was a way of protesting the police interference, but she corrected me. “The truth is that I’m extra loud so that the women feel a presence. And it’s for the policemen, so they hear the truth of the davening, rather than the protest of the women. Because that’s really why I am there: so that I can pray and sing and so can any other person. I guess I like to think I bring some davening confidence…”
Her confidence, and the monthly return of so many woman (and folks of all genders) reminds us that they’re fighting over a public space. A Jewish space. And women (and those who identify outside the gender binary) have just as much right to pray in public as men.
On your last trip to Israel, how did you get around primarily? If you came with a group, you were probably on a chartered bus. If you were on your own, you probably relied on Egged and Israel Railways, or if you were a bit more adventurous and willing to discover your inner Israeli driver, you took to the roads in a rental car (let’s admit it, we’ve all wanted to drive in a country where we can honk and flash our high beams at other cars as much as we want while never signaling or following the speed limit). And regardless of whether you were with a group or not, you probably walked extensively in cities such as Jerusalem, Tzfat, and Tel Aviv. But on your next trip (or first trip, if you have yet to come here), consider using a different form of transportation for some of the time, because it might allow you to see Israel from a totally different perspective.
Cycling in Israel is becoming more popular, among both locals and tourists. Tel Aviv has over 100 kilometers of “bike lanes” and a municipal bikesharing program. Certain roads are so popular with riders on the weekend that there are large signs along these roads warning drivers to be alert and mindful that bicyclists are likely to be present. El Al even allows passengers to bring along their bike for free. However, this isn’t to say that biking in Israel is as easy as it would be in, say, the Netherlands. Israeli drivers must be contended with, there isn’t much bike infrastructure in urban areas other than Tel Aviv, and even the Tel Aviv bike infrastructure would be considered to be unimpressive compared to what exists in many American and European cities. But don’t let these sorts of issues deter you from having a bicycle adventure on your next trip here. Here are some of the advantages and incentives to biking instead of taking buses or driving: More »
As many readers know, the U.S. State Department’s longstanding official policy is to refer to Jerusalem (both East and West) as just “Jerusalem”, and not “Jerusalem, Israel” or “Jerusalem, Palestine” or anything else. Thus, for example, there is the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, in contrast to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, the U.S. Consulate in Toronto, Canada, etc. The idea here is to avoid taking a public stance on the status of Jerusalem before a final agreement is reached, and thereby to avoid inflaming either side.
But this situation may not last forever. Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Zivotofsky v. Clinton (aka M.B.Z. v. Clinton), a case that raises the Jerusalem issue as well as deeper constitutional issues about the separation of powers (and let’s face it, the Jerusalem issue isn’t important enough on its own to reach the Supreme Court). More »
This is a guest post by Oren Hirsch, an urban planner currently living and working in Jerusalem. He is the creator of the unofficial Jerusalem Bus Map.
Anyone who visited Jerusalem in the past few years probably has a vivid memory of Jaffa Road, the historic main thoroughfare through the center of Jerusalem, entirely torn up by construction equipment for the “soon to open” light rail. In addition, for eight months after the last construction barricades were removed from Jaffa Road, the trains ran without passengers while they were tested. People here would often say, somewhat seriously, that they never expected to ever be able to ride the train, and perhaps if their grandkids were lucky, they would get to ride the first train. Now that the Jerusalem Light Rail is actually open, they complain that the trains are too crowded and that too many people are riding it. More »
Anat Hoffman, head of the 22-year-old Women of the Wall, tells the Chatauqua Institute about the legal and political battles for equality of women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Find the intro by Daisy Kahn here, along with the other 6 parts of her speech.
This is a guest post by David Slusky, a graduate student in Princeton’s economics department.
“We, like every administration for decades, do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We believe their continued expansion is corrosive not only to peace efforts and a two-state solution, which we strongly support, but to Israel’s future itself.”
—White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, 2/17/2011
If the Obama administration wants to reduce settlement building in the West Bank, it should demand coordinated economic incentives, instead of blunt instruments like last year’s settlement building freeze. This would focus on the individuals instead of on the physical buildings of the settlements.
Many Israelis become settlers in the first place for economic, not ideological reasons. For example, they want to live near Jerusalem. With the current subsidies for settlers, living, say, a 30-minute commute, in the West Bank (which surrounds Jerusalem on three sides) costs the same as living a two hour-commute west of Jerusalem (within the Green Line). These Israelis are not fanatical; they simply want to live in houses large enough for their families, near observant synagogues and good public transportation to their work.
Current government subsidies create economic settlers, who then, through living with ideological settlers, become ideological settlers themselves. Reducing the number of economic settlers should therefore be a primary target for current American government policy.
Currently in Israel, settlers benefit from numerous financial subsidies (e.g. housing, transportation), all the result of government policy. I’d like to propose that, to non-coercively reduce settlement activity (as opposed to the forceful pullout from Gaza), the Israeli government should:
1) End all subsidies specific to settlers, including:
a. Financial assistance for purchasing or building
b. Education subsidies for students and teachers
c. Trade and industry grants and tax benefitsb
d. Benefits to social workers
e. Transportation subsidies1
2) Create subsidies for “long term” settlers who move back (to prevent individuals from moving and then moving back immediately)
3) Create subsidies for people who live outside of settlements
This will obviously be politically and logistically difficult for any Israeli government but a strong push from the United States government could have a significant impact on the size of the settler population, which is a necessary step toward a comprehensive peace plan.
1 For example, a single bus ride within Jerusalem is NIS 6.40, whereas from the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to the nearby settlements – including some trips over 30 minutes – is only NIS 4.10.
Today, June 1st, is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marking the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. This is both an Israeli state holiday and a rabbinically mandated minor religious holiday, which means it’s celebrated both with parades and liturgy.
I’ll admit that this mixing of politics and religion makes me deeply uncomfortable. Attributing military and political victories to God is a step further down the slippery slope of political demagoguery than I’d like to take. It makes it easy for politicians, generals, and their supporters to confuse luck, skill, and power for divine right. It’s not surprising that the term demagoguery originates in Ancient Greece — that’s also where the habit of proclaiming religious holidays for military victories started. Perhaps you’ve heard of Chanukah?
I’m not alone in my discomfort with this conflation. The sages of the Talmud were so uncomfortable with Chanukah as a military holiday, they wrote a new backstory for it… you know, the bit about the oil? The rabbis thought we’d be better off with a fairy tale invented 600 years after the events of the holiday instead of celebrating the military victory. One might wonder whether the hindsight knowledge that the victory came at the price of quite a bit of Jew-on-Jew violence and resulted in a corrupt Hasmoean dynasty that further consolodated the roles of high priest, king, and general into one person and eventually lost Israel to Rome.
My lovely friends are getting married in Jerusalem next week, and as their wedding gets closer, I’ve been thinking about them more and more-how they’ve been together for longer than most people I know, the unfathomable amount of patience required to hold a relationship in place during army service, college, and many, many miles. I hate that now they have to think about how today’s bombing is going to effect their wedding.
A few weeks ago, I read a piece in the New Yorker called “The Dissenters,” about the future of Ha’aretz (the newspaper). The author, David Remnick, interviewed the paper’s columnists, including Zeev Sternhell, one of the founders of Peace Now. The quote below is from him, and it’s been in my head since reading the peace. I think now is as a good time as any to post it.
“I still am a Zionist—a super Zionist…That has never changed for me, you know. If I didn’t want to keep Israel as a state of the Jews—a state in which the Jews are a majority and enjoy sovereignty—I would have lived elsewhere. I came here when I was sixteen because I wanted to participate in this story. This was a Jewish renaissance. And I wanted to be part of that. That was the meaning of Zionism for me. If the result is to be the end of the Jewish state, by the creation of an apartheid state or even of a binational state, both of these solutions are unacceptable. This would be the end of it.”
At 6:15am on Rosh Hodesh Adar Aleph, I stood at a bus stop on Derech Hevron by Tzomet Habankim. I watched Israelis get on and off the green public buses and waited until a blue and white mini bus pulled up. I boarded the Palestinian bus which runs from the entrance to Bethlehem to East Jerusalem, paying only 5 shekels instead of the regular 6.40 NIS.
It was a quick ride with almost no stops until I rang the bell for Jaffa Gate. I was the only passenger to descend from the bus.
In flowy green pants and a purple skirt, I made may way through the pouring rain toward the kotel. I was grateful to both fit into the hippy Jerusalem culture as well as the serious feminist activist group that was having their monthly meeting of worship, song, and taking a stand.
As I approached the plaza, I heard loud voices of men singing a Shlomo Carlebach niggun. Why were they singing so loud? Was it because of Rosh Hodesh? Was their joy pure? Or could it have been do drown out the women’s voices close by on the other side of the mechitza? Having been at the kotel the week before for Havdallah, straining to hear the words of the blessings, my instinct was that this loud singing was the latter. More »
The Masorti movement (the Israeli and generally non-North American arm of the Conservative movement) is bringing out the snark a bit with a new ad campaign to address the issue of government stipends for yeshiva students in Israel.
They’ve put up big ads all over Jerusalem (including on the back of buses) with the statement, “Torah that is not accompanied by a worldly trade will in the end amount to nothing and will lead one into sin” (Pirke Avot, chapter 2) and an index of the occupations of some of the tradition’s great sages–Maimonides was a physician, Rashi was a vintner, R. Yehoshua ben Hananiah made needles, and so forth.
I, for one, am amused, and glad they’re throwing down on this one.
You can see a close-up of the ad here.