(JTA) — It was, perhaps, not the most auspicious setting for Ronit Peskin’s first-ever public speech.
The 25-year-old self-described housewife stood in front of a crowded room at the biggest Jewish conference of the year, the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem. She was about to verbally assail Women of the Wall — a group most in the audience supported. On the stage with her were Yesh Atid Knesset member Aliza Lavie, representing a party that championed religious pluralism; Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who’s spearheading a compromise on the Kotel; and Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, a confident public speaker with decades of experience.
By the end of the event, Lavie was telling Peskin she should run for Knesset.
A Cleveland native and mother of three who moved to Israel at age 18, Peskin says she generally tries to avoid the spotlight. Most of her frequent Facebook posts are about cooking and household economy — publicity for her blog, Penniless Parenting.
But since April, Peskin has also served as co-founder of Women for the Wall, a traditionalist group that aims to maintain the status quo at the Kotel and that opposes Women of the Wall — helping to draw thousands of girls to the women’s section to counter WOW’s monthly services.
In her GA speech last week, she didn’t hold back.
“When Anat Hoffman and other WOW board members mistakenly compare Israel to Saudi Arabia, claim that women here are oppressed and have no rights, and that Conservative and Reform Jews get arrested for praying in their way, it’s doing irreparable harm to our nation,” she said. “The answer is not to let a tiny but vocal minority ruin the experience for everyone else.”
During a recent visit to the Forward’s newsroom, Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, was brimming with enthusiasm for the upcoming annual gathering of local Jewish charity federations nationwide, known as the General Assembly, which will take place this year not in the United States, but in Jerusalem.
The GA’s 2013 program, he stressed, will emphasize the group’s openness to “dialogue” and “questions,” particularly from young Jews, with no holds barred.
“We need new thinking, new minds around the table,” emphasized Silverman, a former senior executive with the Stride Rite Corp. and Levi Strauss & Co.
But asked if the confab — one of the most important on the Jewish calendar — would include any discussion of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Silverman vigorously shook his head. His body language told a story of its own as he held his hands out in front of him as if pushing something away.
“I don’t use the word ‘occupation,’” he said. “We as an organization don’t get into the political arena.”
Yet on its website devoted exclusively to the GA, JFNA boasts that the gathering “tackles the most critical issues of the day” and brings together Jews “from North America and Israelis from across the political spectrum to discuss issues facing Israel.”
One such session advertised on the GA website promises to address one of Israel’s most sensitive political issues: the question, as JFNA puts it, of the Israeli rabbinate’s “absolute control over marriage and divorce in Israel.”
The JFNA summary of the session asks: “Should the Orthodox establishment continue to have exclusive authority over marriage and divorce in the Jewish State?” and details a panel consisting of feminists, civil libertarians, business people and a representative of the Reform Judaism movement — but no representative of Israel’s Orthodox establishment.
Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”
He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.
“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.
While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.
It was hardly surprising that Israeli diplomat Barukh Binah refused several times to discuss the nitty-gritty of plans to confront Iran over its nuclear program at a public forum at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
Neither was the lack of optimism voiced by any of the three panelists that increased sanctions against and diplomatic efforts toward Iran will cause a change of heart on the part of Tehran.
Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, who served in three U.S. administrations, was the most hopeful of the speakers about the chances for diplomacy and sanctions. He believes Iran will stop short of making a nuclear bomb, but will be nuclear capable and will thereafter be able to put together a bomb within three months. Eizenstat laid out the possibilities for what will happen following the upcoming six months, which he said “will be one of intensive diplomacy and sanctions that are the most severe ever enacted against a country during peace time.”
“2013 is truly the decisive year,” he told the audience. “You and I will know before the next GA (what) will happen.”
With President Barack Obama’s reelection only a few days in the rear view mirror, the topic of the Jewish role in American politics is still brewing — and we learned some tantalizing details about Mitt Romney’s summer trip to Israel.
Democratic and Republican operatives sparred over the importance of the Jewish vote in the just-completed election at the only session devoted to discussing the results at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly.
Tevi Troy, a former George W. Bush adviser who consulted the Romney campaign on Jewish issues, said the big headline coming out of the election had nothing to do with Jews.
Insteaed, it concerned the fast-growing Latino vote, which went strongly for Obama, prompting much hand-wringing about the future of the GOP.
“People are going to wonder going forward,” Troy said, “how much the Jewish vote really matters.”
Reminiscing on the golden days of Jewish American activism, two heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement took to the stage at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in its main plenary session on Monday.
Natan Sharansky, the former refusnik who is now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Nobel peace prize laureate Eli Wiesel, shared the stage as the Jewish community marked the 25th anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington, a seminal moment in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and a high point in Jewish mobilization for a national cause.
The idea for the march on Washington, planned to coincide with a meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, came from both sides of the Iron Curtain, with activists on both ends sharing the vision of a massive call for opening immigration doors to Soviet Jews. Sharansky was released from the Russian prison several months before the December 6 protest, which brought more than 250,000 Jewish activists to the nation’s capital.
“We showed how strong we are as a people,” Sharansky said. “When we feel this power, as one people and one family, we can change the world.”
Leaders of federated Jewish philanthropies agree almost unanimously that younger, under-50 Jewish donors—even those already committed to giving to Jewish causes—have little interested in giving to Israel, reports Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev in a blog post from the General Assembly of Jewish federations, now meeting in Denver.
There is a general unease about giving to Israel, because it’s hard to tell what its needs are these days, said one. The younger donors don’t understand why we need to be giving to Israel, which has its own rich people and which is described, after all, as having one of the healthiest economies in the world, said another. Political disagreements, said yet a third, are increasingly influencing people’s choices on where to direct their money.
The discussion took place during a Monday-morning round-table discussion of the so-called Global Planning Table, a proposed reform in the system by which the Jewish federations allocate donations to Israel and other overseas causes, described earlier today by the Forward’s Nathan Guttman in a blog post from Denver.
What Shalev turned up today is more than another round of bureaucratic in-fighting, though. It’s an important new clue in the still-raging battle that Peter Beinart touched off with his June 2010 article in the New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”
Like Vladimir Putin, who can just don a wetsuit and emerge from a deep sea dive holding two sixth-century artifacts, there is apparently nothing Benjamin Netanyahu can’t do. Just read the seventh paragraph of this New York Times story, about the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s new Islamic art galleries. It mentions a visit that the Israeli prime minister took to the museum last month while he was in town for the United Nations General Assembly.
Kudos to Netanyahu for being curious enough to go check out the collection, but he should probably withhold his opinions on, say, the dating of the objects. Please read, but don’t weep:
Last month, Haidar got a taste of public reaction when dignitaries in town for the U.N. General Assembly asked to see the new galleries. One of them was Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who was a model guest, admiring the art and chuckling at a wooden panel from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. But he stopped short when Haidar showed him a 10th-century Muslim prayer mat that was found on the shores of Lake Tiberias. The date suggested a very early Muslim presence in what is now Israel. Netanyahu asked if it was really that old, Haidar recalled, and she assured him that the carpet had been scientifically dated. But he kept staring at it quizzically. “ ‘I don’t know,’ he finally said, ‘it just doesn’t look that old to me.’ ”