Who is Behind Israeli Apartheid Week?

Who is Behind Israeli Apartheid Week?

Every year around this time, college students are berated with Anti-Israel rhetoric, lies and propaganda from the event “Israeli Apartheid Week”. Israeli Apartheid Week is held on over 65 campuses across the world.

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An introduction to international affairs

An introduction to international affairs

One of my favorite morning rituals is waking up, sipping at a cup of tea and reading what’s going on in the world. This is experience is only made better by one potential piece of news: no news, regarding Israel, is good news.

Of course this depends on the news source you choose. Stumbling across the Canadian National Post or Globe and Mail, the NYtimes, or maybe even skimming the Jerusalem Post or Al Jazeera, I find myself relieved by the lack of information available on Israel’s contribution to civilian and military unrest. The escalating violence and ever-growing death tolls in the Middle East, the nuclear issues in North Korea or the melting of the glaciers and icecaps is finally no longer recognized as Israel’s fault, for the most part. Yes, for those of you who may be wondering, I have read articles claiming the above blood libels are true.

This morning I came across a different kind of article discussing the new educational and gender segregation reforms that Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that rules over the Gaza strip, has recently passed.

Aside from the outright Islamic slant of these new laws, and regardless of the religion you happen to practice while living in Gaza, segregation of the sexes is supposed to help build the national character. I’m not sure what loving where you’re from has anything to do with gender segregation, but hey, if you think it might, why not give it a try? Oh right, because after you’ve lifted the quota of women who have the right to vote about six years ago, it would be awkward to sit next to one of “them” in a class room full of 9 year old children. Is segregation of Mosque and State still really at question?

Just as discouraging to personal freedoms, however, is the new decree that any educational institution receiving aid meant to encourage normalization of ties with Israel will face a fine of a approximately $28,200, or if you happen to be an individual perpetrator, a 10-year prison term.

I was under the impression that governments were supposed to try and promote tolerance between its people and their neighbours, not to mention representing the needs of its citizens. I must be thinking of a flawed democracy as apposed to an authoritarian regime, my mistake. Please take note of the point here, sarcasm aside: this new law is completely perpendicular to any peace process that may arise as part of Obama’s latest attempts to foster discussions between Israel and her many potential but unlikely Arab partners, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, included. So what is to be done? I say we all sit back and watch this one play out like we’ve done in the past…or the passion of a few can become the pull of the many. It’s up to you I guess.

Image by by danchitnis / flickr

The Social Protest Risks Self-Destruction

The social protest movement has been making a come-back over the past few weeks, after capturing the imagination of the citizens of Israel during their summer demonstrations in 2011.  Having decided that the progress made by the government over the past 12 months has not been sufficient to satisfy the demands made a year ago, the protest movement has taken to the streets once again.  But things are very different now than they were a year ago, and this summer’s protest can never be the same as the one that was held last year.  This creates a risk for the protestors that they will not be able to continue to carry the support of the general public with them.

The biggest difference this year when compared to last year, is that the government and the authorities are ready for the protest.  This means that they will not allow the establishment of the tent cities that sprang up in towns and cities across Israel in the summer of 2011.  These served as constant reminders to the general public of the ongoing protest.  This act, more than anything else, captured the hearts and minds of Israelis and succeeded in gaining the vital support of the press pack.  In order to keep the protest in the public eye this year, more ingenuity will be required to replace the constant reminder that the tent cities represented.  The protestors will also have to continuously outfox the authorities, who are determined to avoid having the constant irritation that the government was forced to endure last year.

The first clashes have already taken place, and have not necessarily helped the protest movement in the eye of the general public.  A small group of protestors took to the streets of Tel Aviv on a busy Friday morning.  Police were quickly on the scene to force the demonstrators off the streets.  Some protestors who refused to cooperate were arrested, and the press was filled with pictures depicting aggressive police arresting peaceful demonstrators.   These scenes mobilised other protestors to take to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday evening.  This time, the demonstrations were not only focused against the government’s economic policies, they also vented anger against treatment received by the protestors at the hands of police and officials of the city of Tel Aviv.  Illegal demonstrations turned into sit-down protests in various locations in Tel Aviv, disrupting traffic and causing general chaos.  Once again, police and city officials removed protestors by force.  Some protestors also vented their rage at banks in the street near to the protest location, and rocks were hurled into bank windows causing damage to property.  The stand-off between the parties escalated further when sympathisers of the protest movement decided to disrupt activities in Tel Aviv’s “White Night” annual street party.  These attempts were only partially successful, with “White Night” proving to be a success albeit with a few less activities than were originally planned.  By this stage, however, the press started losing their positive spin on this story and the general public were displaying less sympathy for the cause.  It seems as though the protestors may have scored an own-goal through their actions, by losing the support of their greatest group of supporters.

Around the time that these events were taking place, the Minister of Finance announced that the government decided to increase the budget deficit in 2013 from the previous target of 1.5% of GDP to 3%.  This is in addition to tax increases that are anticipated next year.  The extra money is required to fund some of the concessions that have been granted in response to the social protests.  Bank of Israel Governor, Stanley Fisher, came out immediately in opposition to these steps.  It is predicted that the increase in the budget deficit will cause interest rates to rise and will weaken the Shekel even further.  The general public is not enthusiastic at all about these measures, and has realised that the social concessions do not come without cost.  These measures will hit the average person in the pocket in no uncertain terms.  Suddenly the social protest movement is having to bear responsibility for this cost, causing it to look increasingly isolated.

One of the greatest successes of the social protests in the summer of 2012, was the extent to which the general public supported their action.  Demands for cheaper housing, tax and welfare improvements and cheaper prices for consumer goods seemed to strike a chord with all members of the public.  This was true as long as the price of these concessions was not yet been factored into the public’s considerations.  Now that there is a realisation that there is a price to pay, the public is regarding the concessions with much less enthusiasm and the social protestors are carrying the responsibility for the costs involved.

The combination of the violent protests and the economic measures introduced by the government has certainly caused damage to the protest movement.  The press is not nearly as supportive of their efforts as they were last year, and the general public is scrutinising the protests with a much keener eye.  Further damage to the protest movement’s cause was done when it became obvious that many of the demonstrators were not quite sure what they were protesting against.  When asked for details of the cause and its objectives, some of the demonstrators seemed to be participating for reasons not remotely linked to the main social cause.  They were made to look more like rent-a-crowd than a unified group of people with a common objective.

Israel’s economy is sending out mixed messages.  Things seem to be very stable at a macro-economic level.  The banking system has held up well while the banks in countries all around have collapsed or required public funding to stay afloat.  Israel is the only country to have its credit rating raised (to A+) by S&P in the past year.  Germany is the only western country which has a lower budget deficit than Israel.  For individuals within the economy, however, things don’t look so rosy.  Approximately half of the citizens of Israel live on or below the bread line.  Despite the fact that employment is currently at one of its highest levels in recent years (meaning that whoever wishes to work has a job), families are still not managing to cover their ever-increasing costs.  This is almost worse than people not being able to make a living because they are out of work.  It is clear that attention is required to correct this situation.

The social protest movement has done a good job of bringing the issue of social justice to the top of the public agenda.  Now, the protest leaders will have a tough path to navigate in encouraging the government to implement the changes without losing the public’s support.  In addition, the protest movement will need to continue to take the moral high ground, and not allow its organisation to be hijacked by those with unrelated causes, and those intent on causing chaos, disruption and damage.  Indications are that they are not succeeding.

Image by Sasha Y. Kimel

A Worthwhile Strike

Israel is back on strike after an announcement last week by the main workers’ union, the Histadrut, that it has ordered its workers to stay home.  The Histadrut is an umbrella organisation for hundreds of thousands of workers across Israel, and a strike by its members has the ability to paralyse the Israeli economy.  It is estimated that this strike is costing the economy more than NIS 300 million a day, the equivalent of almost US$100m.

For the average Israeli who is not a member of the Histadrut and is trying to get on with his daily life, the strike is a gross inconvenience.  Banks, public transport, government ministries, municipal services and Ben Gurion airport are all suffering closures, disruptions and delays arising from this strike.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has called upon the Histadrut to cancel the strike, and has said that he believes that it is possible to find a responsible and just solution to the problem.  I believe that he is right that a solution is within the hands of the relevant authorities.  But who has the responsibility to take the first steps in finding the solution?  Despite the fact that many people on the streets of Israel blame the strikers for inconveniencing their lives, are the strikers the ones at fault in this case?

The strike revolves around the terms and conditions upon which temporary workers in the public sector are employed.  There are an estimated 250,000 temporary workers whose working conditions are under the spotlight in this strike, many of whom fulfil roles as cleaners and security guards at their places of employment.  It is common practise for these types of workers to be “temporary workers” on a permanent basis.  The employees are usually provided by agencies, which are hired by the government and other companies to provide appropriate staff.  Even though there is sometimes an attempt by the agencies to rotate staff between different locations, it is quite common for individuals to serve in the same job at the same location for many years – essentially acting in the capacity as a permanent member of staff.  The only difference between these individuals and permanent members of staff, is the fact that the agency staff continue to earn their money on an hourly basis for indefinite periods of time.  Not only does this affect their rights to take sick leave or to go on holiday without having go be concerned about paying their rent, it also has a substantial impact on their social benefits during the time that they are working and when they finally leave their positions.  The main beneficiary of this combination deal is the government, which saves substantial amounts of money as the largest employer of these temporary workers.

This is not the first time that the Histadrut has raised this issue.  A short-lived strike was already held during the middle of last year.  This strike was called off on the promise that the issue would be resolved.  Needless to say, no substantial progress has been made towards rectifying the status and the rights attached to these workers.  Although I am not a great supporter of all actions taken by the Histadrut in the past, it is my view that the union would not be fulfilling its obligation towards its members if it did not take a strong stand on this issue.  If the Histadrut does not act decisively where this is concerned, what is its main role in our society?

Naturally and unsurprisingly, there are ulterior motives at play which serve to partially cloud the matter.  The temporary workers are not actually members of the union.  This is one of the rights that is denied them in their capacity as temporary workers.  If the Histadrut is able to succeed in convincing the government to change the status of these employees to give them a permanent contract, the Histadrut stands to gain a substantial number of new members.  Additional members bring additional membership fees to the coffers of the union, and additional strength in the political arena.  Whereas the Histadrut is presenting its actions as entirely altruistic in the interests of the temporary workers, there is another side to their actions which needs to be considered.

Israel’s “summer of discontent” saw strikes and protests against increasing economic hardship for the average Israeli.  The cost of living continues to soar, while earnings levels fail to keep pace with these increases.  Ironically, the vast majority of protestors who camped for months in public areas across Israel came from the middle class.  The main population of lower paid workers were not well represented at all in these protests.  The reasons are clear.  Many of them are new immigrants, coming from countries where this type of social protest is unheard of, and they still feel some fear in raising their heads too far about the parapet.  More to the point, they are largely unable to take even one day off work to protest, for fear of not being able to feed their children at the end of the month.  The message from the social protest movement to the government is that Israelis of all levels are finding the already tough economic conditions increasingly unmanageable.  When unscrambling the myriad of messages that the government received from the social protests, the loudest message should relate to the weakest members of society, particularly those who could not even afford to be involved to express their hardship and suffering.  I see the latest strike as representing these people.

One of the messages of humility that I have learned since moving to Israel, has come from watching people strive to make ends meet.  Witnessing people who are accustomed to living in sprawling comfortable homes in their countries of origin choosing to adjust their lives to live in small apartments and work unbelievably long hours for little pay, shows an incredible level of commitment to this country.  Equally, seeing people who are highly educated unable to find jobs in their own professions and willing to take on menial low-paying tasks to feed children and assure their education, has been a humbling life-lesson for me.  These people, many of whom don’t even have a moment to raise their heads in order to protest for fear of foregoing an hour which can produce a little more family income, need every protection that our society can offer them.  While I support the right of everybody to have a roof over their head and food to eat, I feel the need to give greater support to those who are working two and three jobs to do this.  These are unsung heroes of modern Israel, and there numbers are greater than any of us wish to believe.  This is why I do support the strike that is currently causing enormous economic damage to our country.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should make his haughty statements about causing economic damage into a nearby mirror, for he is the one who should be taking further action to bring the strike to an end.  In so doing, he should be taking active steps to help and protect our society’s most vulnerable people who are working so hard to support themselves.  We all understand and appreciate the fact that the government is under immense pressure to reduce its spending, and that cuts need to be made across the board.  These cuts should also be felt by those interest groups who Netanyahu is trying to court in anticipation of a general election later in the year.  The message from the country is clear.  The correct solution is not to spend more, but to spend more responsibly.  Take money that is being diverted to secure victory in the next election, and help those who really need it.

If the social protest movement really believes in the message that it has been sending to the government, most Israelis will support this strike.  Although there is always a political undercurrent to social actions, this strike could bring about substantial and sorely-needed changes to those who really need it.  It is for this reason that I am willing, albeit reluctantly, to suffer the consequences of the strike.  It is my hope that others will join in this view.

Postscript:  Not long after this blog was written, the strike was called off.  No details are yet available of the deal that was agreed upon.  Despite this fact, I feel that the statements made in the blog are still worthwhile publishing.

Image by Omer Simkha

Racism Has No Place in the State of Israel

Racism Has No Place in the State of Israel

Israel is frequently accused of racism, particularly by those who continue to undermine her right to exist.  Despite being forced to fight a war of survival against the Arab nations since independence in 1948, Israel continues to come under a microscope for the way in which she behaves towards Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and those who are not.  It is a complex analysis, and not simply an issue of racism.  Arab citizens have a completely different status in Israel.  Their allegiance to the Jewish state in which they live and which feeds their every need, continues to be under suspicion.  They have frequently been found to assist those who wish to destroy Israel.  They are not obliged to serve in the nation’s army in the same way as others citizens are required to do.  The relationship between Jew and Arab in Israel is not simply about race, but more about Jewish survival in the Jewish homeland.  There is, however, another sort of racism that has reared its ugly head in Israel in recent times, and which needs to be stamped out before it is becomes unmanageable.

It seems that the practice of attempting to elevate the status of one population group at the expense of others is almost part of human instinct.  Historically, Jews have been victims of those who have tried to increase their own social standing by putting down other weaker groups. The African nation has also suffered from this problem almost wherever their people have found themselves, both within Africa and elsewhere.  In modern America, the Mexicans play the role of the fall guys, in India the caste system defines those who are at the bottom of the ladder, Gypsies in Europe are frequently discriminated against and Philippino workers in the countries of the Gulf of Arabia take their place at the bottom of society.  This instinct has unfortunately not by-passed Israel.

In the early years of the State of Israel, the country was populated by two distinct groups of Jews.  The first group escaped many years of persecution in Europe, and arrived in Israel out of the ruins of the Holocaust that ravaged their population and people.  The second group had made their homes in Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and had been forced to endure discrimination for many years, especially during the period when the Holocaust was ravaging Europe.  This discrimination became even more acute after the birth of the State of Israel, and many were expelled from their homes.  Those in the European group were generally better educated and were well versed in European culture, while those in the Middle Eastern group were less exposed to western values, education and culture.  Many clashes took place between these groups, and the human instinct came out in their attempts to elevate themselves to make themselves better than the others.  The horrific discrimination that each group had been forced to endure in the years prior to their arrival in Israel had a significant influence on their attempts to better themselves, even at the expense of others.  After having been treated as the dregs of society for so long, each group was eager to elevate themselves to the top of society.  To be at the top, you need to have somebody who is below you.  Hence was born racism and discrimination in Israel, which manifested itself largely in the form of European Jews discriminating against Middle Eastern Jews.  The fact that the Middle Eastern Jews were also generally darker skinned than their European counterparts also somehow fitted the standard expectations of discrimination, even though the darker skin was not the source of the discrimination.  Despite the fact that these discriminatory views have presented their problems over the years, it is pleasing to note that the problem has been substantially diluted by inter-marriage and the blurring of edges between the two groups.  It is also notable that representatives from both groups have reached the upper echelons of business, politics and academia.  Nobody will ever forget where they and their families have come from, but the future in Israel looks less defined by these two groups than was previously the case.

Recently, however, racism has again become evident, this time against another weaker population group in Israel.  In operations starting in 1984, Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel in large numbers.  Operation Moses saw some 8,000 people brought to Israel and this was followed up with further operations which brought a total of about 80,000 people to Israel.  Today, the Ethiopian community in Israel numbers over 120,000.  The Ethiopians have become easy targets for discrimination for a number of reasons, and many have taken advantage of this situation

Upon their arrival in Israel, the Ethiopian community was forced to take on an entirely new environment.  Many of them had never seen a flush toilet in operation or slept in a bed that was not on the ground.  This learning process put them in a very weak position, and made it easy for others to take advantage of them.  The Ethiopians show a gentle and mild temperament, and are not outspoken or loud in their actions.  In the Israeli aggressive and rough-and-tumble environment, their gentleness is interpreted as weakness.  In the Israeli context of whoever screams loudest and shows most aggression will get what they want, the Ethiopian community has lost out significantly.  Even though the Ethiopian community has been forced to take on many of the ways of the modern Israeli environment, they have still done their best to maintain some of their traditions and practices from their days in the deserts of Africa.  Many of these practices are very different from those in use by other Israelis, and cause some level of friction in residential neighbourhoods.  This friction crossed the line last week when it was revealed that residents of some apartment buildings in Kiryat Malachi, had banded together in a pact not to sell apartments in their block to Ethiopian families.

What these people had not realised, is that there is a new type of person that has arisen within the Ethiopian community over the past ten years or so.  This is a group of teenagers and young adults who were born in Israel, and have grown up with Israeli style of doing business.  While these people are strongly influenced from the home by the traditional Ethiopian style of living, they also know the kind of action that is needed in Israel to be heard and to get what they want.  These young adults led other members of the Ethiopian community out onto the streets in protest against the racist practices that are making things difficult for their community.  This protest captured the attention of the media and of the nation.  It reached the highest levels of the political establishment, and President Shimon Peres responded by visiting a school in Jerusalem that caters to a large number of Ethiopian students.  He shared with them his experiences of coming to Israel from Poland at the age of 11, and the taunts that he was forced to endure as a result of his lack of Hebrew and different style of dress.  He reassured the children by saying that he found his way of fitting into Israeli society, and he is proof that they can achieve whatever they want – even becoming president of the state.

The Ethiopian community includes some of the most genuine people to be found in Israel today.  They gave up everything they knew and their style of living in Africa to come to the Jewish homeland.  Despite the fact that their lives and communities have literally been turned upside down by moving to Israel, they are delighted to be in Israel to be allowed to practice their Jewish faith and peace and without the fear of anti-Semitism.  They have suffered every sort of discrimination known to any group of people in Israel.  Even the Israeli government stands accused of discriminating against the Ethiopians in terms of the help and assistance provided to them.  Many were forced to convert as the Jewishness was not recognised at the same time as blood relatives had been accepted as Jewish.  The amount of money allocated to the process of acclimatising the Ethiopian community has been a fraction of that required.  And yet, they are simply delighted to be in the Land of Israel.  While it is understood that not everybody can feel comfortable with the style of living and practices of the Ethiopians, this cannot be the cause of racism.

No matter what the cause of racism, it needs to be stamped out.  This is particularly true in a country like Israel where racism has no place at all.  The weaker members of our society, usually those who are the victims of discrimination, require greater help and support rather than actions to increase their hardship.  This is particularly true of groups like the Ethiopians who have been forced to undergo dramatic changes to their way of life and to the environment in which they live.

It is only by banding together and strengthening the weaker parts of our society, that we will also have the strength to fight the war of survival.  The Ethiopians have more than demonstrated their allegiance to this cause, and their willingness to participate in the defence of the State of Israel.  The other citizens of Israel need to do all that they can to support and respect this.


Image by reutrcohen.com

Justice Prevails

Justice Prevails

The meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee on Friday turned out to be something of a pleasant anti-climax.  In a meeting that lasted only 90 minutes, four new justices were duly appointed to the bench of the Israeli Supreme Court.  The cordial nature of the meeting and the appointments seemed to conceal the less-than-cordial path that led to this moment.

Israel’s Supreme Court plays a very central role in Israeli society.  In addition to acting as an appellate court, it also acts as a High Court of Justice in which decisions by government and state authorities can be challenged and set aside.  The right of the Supreme Court to set aside government decisions creates a critical place for it in Israeli democracy.  It is little wonder that the appointment of new justices to the bench of this court is such an important and controversial exercise.  Once appointed to the Supreme Court, justices serve until they are seventy years of age and cannot be removed except under extreme circumstances.  The judges on the bench need to be act independently of government, and need to be seen to act independently of government to maintain their important role as defender of democracy.

For some time now, certain ultra-Orthodox and right-wing citizens of Israel have protested that decisions by the Supreme Court have discriminated against their views and positions.  While many Israelis have regarded the court’s decisions as representing the voice of reason in situations which have seemed wholly unreasonable, some groups feel discriminated against by these decisions.  Surprisingly, it seems as if this view was not only shared by extremists.  In the lead-up to the meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee, the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister threatened to become caught up in a judicial appointments row.  Their actions pointed unashamedly to the fact that they also subscribe to the view that the bench of the Supreme Court has become too left-wing.  Certain actions and statements on their behalf attempted to influence the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee in the hope that this may influence the appointment of the Supreme Court judges towards their right-wing views.

The nine-man Judicial Appointments Committee includes two members who are appointed by the Israeli Bar Association.    The remaining seven members of the committee are made up of three sitting judges of the Supreme Court, two ministers and two members of Knesset.  The two Bar Association representatives are chosen in a vote that is conducted according to a simple majority.  The two representatives were chosen to the satisfaction of the Bar Association, and this revealed that one representative was somebody known to be politically left of centre.  Individuals close to the Minister of Justice embarked upon a campaign to retroactively change the rules by which the Bar Association candidates were selected, in order to replace the left-wing representative.  It was hoped that this would ensure that the right-wing candidates to the bench would be appointed.  This attempt to undermine the due process of appointment of justices is shameful, and can be seen as an attempt to meddle with an important arm of the democracy of our nation.  No person is larger than the system, and no individual should be allowed to undermine the operation of a process that is so fundamental to the democracy of the country.

Ultimately, the attempts to change the rules retroactively were unsuccessful, and the original vote of the Bar Association stood.  Their two representatives took their place on the Judicial Appointments Committee and four new judges were appointed.  Despite the controversy and shenanigans leading up to the vote, the four new candidates can be seen as typifying compromise and organisation.  Justice Noam Sohlberg lives in Alon Shvut on the West Bank, and was elected by eight of the nine committee members as a representative of the right.  Justice Zvi Zylbertal  was elected unanimously as a candidate from the left.  He is regarded as being very close to retiring Judge President Dorit Beinisch.  Justice Uri Shoham was also elected unanimously, and is seen to represent those of North African and Middle Easter (Mizrachi) origin.  Finally, Justice Daphne Barak-Erez received unanimous support as the only female new judge.

Whereas in the USA, the appointment of judges is a highly politicised process and is a good way for presidents to leave a legacy long after the end of their presidential term, in Israel this has not been the case until now.  It may, however be set to change in the future, even though it seems as though this would be an unfortunate development.  Due to the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court is frequently called upon to adjudicate matters which have strong political overtones, it is important that the bench should be as politically impartial as possible.   This is particularly true when living in a society with so many minority groupings.  Citizens should feel confident that the Supreme Court will judge fairly and independently on each case that is brought before the court.  On this occasion, democracy has ensured that even the Minister of Justice was unable to influence the process of justice.  This is real democracy in action.

Gender Segregation Pushed Too Far

Gender Segregation Pushed Too Far

Despite many indications that Israel is a country that appears to promote gender equality more than most other countries around the world, there have been worrying signs of greater gender segregation creeping into some aspects of Israeli society recently.  Israel’s Golda Meir was only the third female prime minister in the world, and Israeli women are required to serve in the Israeli army in the same way as their male counterparts.  Yet this is the same country which closes entire streets off to the use of women, and requires them to sit at the back of the bus while their male counterparts sit at the front.

Ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem and elsewhere around Israel, have been increasingly trying to enforce greater gender segregation.  There is also already fairly strict gender segregation enforced in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods such as Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim.  This is tolerable inasmuch as those who are subject to the segregation, are those who subscribe to it.  For the people living in Mea Shearim, gender segregation is part of their belief system and lifestyle.  Women are raised with this from birth, attend separate schools and are readied to take on separate traditional roles in the home and society.  Visitors to Mea Shearim know that this is the way in which things work in this neighbourhood, and are invited to stay away if this is objectionable to them.

The problem arises when supporters of gender segregation allow this to creep out into the general public, thereby affecting those who do not subscribe to it.  This has already long been the case in Jerusalem, with advertisers refusing to show images of women on buses and billboards for fear of them being defaced by ultra-Orthodox protestors.  Despite a court order prohibiting gender segregation in specific streets, even in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, residents of Mea Shearim set up separation barriers on Mea Shearim Street and Shivtei Yisrael Street during the recent Succot holiday.  The hard-line Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect were holding events relating to the holiday on locations in these streets, and were prohibiting women from approaching even near to these locations.

Two recent events have brought the gender segregation to a head, and have forced politicians and religious leaders to speak out on the issue.  The first event was a walkout of a military ceremony by religious soldiers when women soldiers began to sing at the ceremony.  The protestors subscribe to the so-called “kol isha” prohibition, which forbids males from hearing women sing.  The IDF’s general staff has refused to back down on this issue.  The protesting soldiers were not given permission to leave the ceremony , and have been disciplined for their behaviour.  The military authorities have refused to heed calls to ban singing by women in future ceremonies.  This has brought the military into direct conflict with some ultra-Orthodox groups.

The second incident took place on a bus that was designated as a gender-separate service, something that has become more popular in Israel in recent years.  This means that women are required to sit at the back of the bus, while their male counterparts get to sit in the front.  Upon entering the bus, Tanya Rosenblit was requested by one of the religious males to sit in the ladies’ section at the bank.  In a protest which was reminiscent of the actions by Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, Tanya refused to relocate to the back of the bus.  This sparked a stand-off in which the bus was halted and the police called.  In a statement after the incident, Rosenblit said that she had shown respect by dressing modestly because she knew she was going into a religious area.  She refused, however, to be humiliated by being forced to sit at the back of the bus.  She has taken on a somewhat heroic status in the eyes of many, by being prepared to stand up to the religious coercion, something that few women have been prepared to do.

Israeli Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, came out recently saying that religious people are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, but they have no right to impose their views on the general public and in public areas.  Prime Minister Netanyahu announced at the Sunday morning cabinet meeting that Israel is a liberal democracy, and that public spaces are made available to men and women to use equally in a safe and open way.  The police will arrest those who spit, raise their hand or harass others.  These statements will sadly have no bearing at all on those who perpetrate gender segregation.  They do not respect these leaders, nor take note of anything they say.  They subscribe only to the leadership of the rabbinical leaders of their sects, and will only be guided by their statements.

It is ironic that these events take place at the same time that it is announced that no fewer than 5 female pilots and navigators, the most ever, will graduate from this year’s air force flight instruction course.  It is only 16 short years since Alice Miller succeeded in challenging the prohibition on women being admitted to the flight instruction course.  Since then, many women have graduated from this course to serve their country with great distinction.  This year, 5 more women will join their distinguished ranks.  This is closer to the Israel that most of us know, a country which does support the equality of women in our society and which does encourage women to play a full role.

Despite the insistence by religious groups to enforce greater gender segregation and become more extreme in their views and actions, it seems unlikely that the greater public and the politicians will tolerate this.  While this does not mean that religious groups will be forced to dilute their religious observance, it simply means that they will be forced to limit their extreme views to their own environments, while allowing others to live their lives without being dictated to.  Surely this is the correct answer.

Image by www.mizozo.com

A Spitting Shame

A Spitting Shame

I was horrified to read the details of the trial of Johannes Martarsian, which took place in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court last week.  Martarsian, an Armenian priesthood student, was charged with assault after he punched an ultra-orthodox Jew in the face and made him bleed.  The incident took place in Jerusalem’s old city after the ultra-Orthodox man spat at Martarsian.

Judge Dov Pollock annulled the indictment against Martarsian and wrote, “putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency.”  Fortunately, in this case, the judge had the good sense not to waste any more taxpayer money on proceeding to a trial.  Throwing the case out of court was exactly the right response to such a disgraceful situation.

The trial has brought to the fore some of the bad behaviour which is prevalent amongst the ultra-Orthodox community.  It seems as though the spitting incident is not an isolated one.  Clergymen from the Armenian church who are based in Jerusalem report that they are frequently subject to being spat and cursed at by ultra-Orthodox Jews.  One Armenian priest said that he wonders to himself if he will be spat at each time he walks by an ultra-Orthodox Jew in the street.  For some priests, it is difficult to simply ignore the repeated incidents of bad behaviour that they are forced to endure.  Johannes Martarsian is an example of one who decided to respond rather than to simply turn the other cheek, despite the fact that Armenian priests are encouraged by their church not to respond to these incidents of gross provocation.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem has an unfortunate reputation for bad behaviour in many different situations.  Women who venture into ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem like Mea Shearim, and who are not dressed according to the ultra-Orthodox conservative dress code, will already know that they also become spitting targets.  Equally, cars driving through religious neighbourhoods on Shabbat have been subject to stoning attacks.  This has given rise to the famous T-shirt that has been sold in Jerusalem and purchased by thousands of tourists stating, “I got stoned in Mea Shearim”!  Although these types of attacks are unacceptable, there may be some part of a reasonable person that could condone such behaviour where people enter religious neighbourhoods without respecting the norms of the people that live there.

The attacks on the priests seem of a completely different nature.  There is no disrespect of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle involved, and no violation of the norms by which they live.  Jerusalem is a city which is open to all religions which wish to be present there.  Not only is this a policy which is rigorously adhered to by the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem, it is also the source of a great deal of tourist Dollars into the city.  At times, it seems as though the ultra-Orthodox community are completely divorced from the society in which they live, and their actions cannot be tolerated by other reasonable people.  The truth is, that some of their actions are so intolerable, that even those who have grown up within their sects and have become used to their social norms, cannot accept the way in which some situations are dealt with.

The types of insults that these young men give by spitting at others created in G-d’s image, have caused me to wonder how they can reconcile this behaviour with their religious beliefs.  The Jewish religion believes in 613 mitzvot (precepts) that observers are required to adhere to.  They are split into mitzvot concerning man’s relationship with his G-d, and mitzvot concerning man’s relationship with his fellow-man.  Neither group has precedence over the other – they are both equally important.  On many occasions such as stoning a car that is transgressing the Shabbat, the justification for the action taken by somebody against his fellow-man is to protect his relationship with his G-d.  In light of the fact that these mitzvot do not enjoy precedence, there is a view that says that the transgression against the fellow-man cannot be justified, even if it is an act to protect his relationship with his G-d.  The act of spitting at the priests, however, seems to serve no religious purpose at all and has no positive side to it.  Rather, it represents an act of unjustified discrimination.  So how much less can this be justified in religious terms?

What is even more unfortunate about this sad situation, is the fact that priests say that reports made about these incidents to the police fall on deaf ears.  Perhaps it is because the police feel that it is impossible to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice, that no action is taken.  It is also fair to say that Jerusalem’s police force has its hands full with high-level security threats which it is required to take care of on an ongoing basis.  Whatever the reason for the lack of action, it is sends an entirely wrong message about the acceptability of this behaviour.

The ultra-Orthodox community present themselves as representing all that is good when acting in strict observance of the Torah.  Too often, however, the pursuit of individual points of observance causes the individual to lose the wood for the trees.  There seems to be no broader perspective, or ability to see the bigger picture.  This is extremely damaging to the standing of the ultra-Orthodox community in the world in which they are forced to live.  The time has come for concerted action to be taken to change the bad behaviour.  The yeshivot (institutions of religious learning) need to be responsible for teaching their students about the unacceptability of spitting at others.  The police on the streets need to keep their eyes open for such incidents, and act upon them immediately.

Jerusalem is a city that is open to people of all religions to visit and to live in.  While it serves as the capital of the Jewish State of Israel, the government has undertaken that the city will be open to all religions for tourism, learning and worship.  This means that it is not the private domain of ultra-Orthodox Jews, even though it is their religion’s holiest city.  There should be no reason why priests who have come to Jerusalem for the purpose of furthering their religious studies and experiences, should be subject to any sort of bad behaviour by ultra-Orthodox Jews or anybody else.  The time has come to take action to stop this intolerance and insulting behaviour.