Are the days numbered for second-class citizenship for women in Israel?
Following two announcements in two days, it seems the exclusion of women from Israel’s public sphere may finally be nearing an end. The Attorney General Wednesday recommended criminalizing behavior that stops women from receiving “public services with equal conditions.” And today, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said that she is starting work on the legislation.
Israeli politicians should write Haredim who demand segregated buses a letter of thanks. They have provided them with the ultimate fits-every-occasion always-grabs-a-headline cause for whenever they need a bit of love from liberals or for when news is quiet. Women’s exclusion was never a popular story until it became about the ever catchy “back of the bus” and there is a seemingly endless supply of political points for anyone who condemns them.
But in the past we have seen the issue of gender exclusion disappear from the headlines as suddenly as they appeared. At the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 gender segregation and women’s exclusion topped Israel’s national agenda. “They will be huge issues in the next general election,” went the common prediction. Yet soon after the international community finished its New Year vacation and news picked up again, it became yesterday’s story.
Now, once again, the “back of the bus” story has been wheeled out. The changes being promised are important and welcome. The subject is better for the government than having people talking about Syria or Prisoner X.
But will it survive the next big new story or will it just fade away? Only time will tell.
The Forward looks today at some of the winners in Israel’s new coalition deal, but who are the losers?
Apart from the obvious answer which is the Haredi parties, who were left out in the cold, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz is one of the biggest losers. His party has just two seats in the new Knesset, and it is difficult bit to conclude that it will disappear in the next elections — if it survives that long.
Mofaz could have negotiated a coalition spot with a half-decent ministry to salvage at least his own political prospects if not those of his party. But instead of cutting a deal with Prime Minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu he tried to align himself with Jewish Home and Yesh Atid when they were in their hard-bargaining phase. So he got snubbed by Bibi.
Also punished by Bibi was Reuven Rivlin, who has been critical of what he regards as his autocratic and pushy leadership style. Rivlin, who belongs to Likud, has questioned Bibi’s commitment to democratic principles. He has been replaced as Knesset speaker by Yuli Edelstein and left without a ministry — despite the fact that he won seventh spot in Likud’s primaries back in November.
A third loser is Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar, who had the humiliation of having his ministry, Education, given away to Yesh Atid. Though many educationalists regard him as a reactionary, he was keen to stay in the Education Ministry, where he claims he is making positive changes. He may become Interior Minister, though it is currently unclear if he will receive a ministerial appointment at all.
With Prime Minister Netanyahu just days away from his final deadline to install a new government or lose the option, observers on all sides have their own ways of explaining what’s holding things up. Most of them are correct, but there’s a larger truth that overshadow them all: The Likud hasn’t internalized the fact that it lost the last election, and can’t retain all the goodies in the next coalition that it enjoyed in the last one.
The other explanations are worth reviewing, as they provide the background for Bibi’s current dilemma. One theory is that Bibi stalled until the last minute—that is, until Friday, March 8—before beginning earnest negotiations, in hopes of breaking up the Yair Lapid-Naftali Bennett alliance, bypassing Lapid and bringing in his old ultra-Orthodox Shas allies into a coalition alongside Bennett and Tzipi Livni. Another theory is that Lapid and his chief negotiator, businessman and onetime Ariel Sharon aide Uri Shani, are dragging the current, bare-knuckled negotiations until a minute before midnight—that would be Thursday, March 14—in order to force Bibi to accept their demands.
The bottom line, though, is that the second-tier Likud leaders on Bibi’s bench haven’t yet internalized the fact that they lost the January 22 election and can’t keep what they had in the last election. Accordingly, they’re making it impossible for Bibi to give Lapid what he earned from the voters. Unfortunately for them, Lapid isn’t ready to fold. He’s already given up too much.
Lapid’s reasoning is that he effectively leads a bloc of 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, including his own Yesh Atid party (19 seats), Bennett’s Jewish Home (12) and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima (2). That makes his bloc larger than Bibi’s 31-seat Likud-Beiteinu bloc (which is not a party but rather an alliance of Likud, with 20, and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 11). Following that logic, Lapid spent days insisting on receiving two of the four senior ministries in the new government: foreign affairs for himself and finance for Bennett. Bibi would keep the prime ministry for himself and the defense ministry for his number 2 (more on that later).
Bibi couldn’t do that, ostensibly because he had promised to keep the foreign ministry open for Lieberman, who had to resign to face trial on corruption charges but is hoping to return after an acquittal or misdemeanor conviction. In fact, keeping promises has never been Netanyahu’s signature issue, but he had two other, more compelling considerations:
Jews are image conscious. A quick Google search of “embarrassed to be Jewish” will turn up two main hits—Jews ashamed of the state of Israel, and Jews ashamed of the behavior of certain “Hareidim” — tremblers, the Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox — in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. I should amend that statement: this Google search will turn up results for Jews with access to the media who have image consciousness about these two issues. As we all know, these are not the only kind of Jews. But let me first address these.
Jews on the left, politically and religiously, are often embarrassed by Israel’s behavior, especially when it fails to conform to a secular path. In 2011, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, enumerated the Gaza flotilla debacle, the chief Rabbanite, and its crackdown on non-governmental organizations as examples of “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment.”
Left-leaning Jews imagine that the outside world lumps them together with the values they see portrayed by the occupation, or perhaps by Israeli police brutality. Under the imagined gaze of the secular and gentile world, these Jews imagine that their own image will be tarnished by osmosis, by a proximity of blood, however diluted, to their Israeli brethren, especially those wielding guns or sitting in the Knesset. The burden of the imagined gaze of non-Jews rests heavily upon them.
But image-consciousness is not the sole property of Jews on the left. It is part of the tradition, any rabbi will tell you. Already in the Talmud, the term chillul hashem — profaning God’s name — begins to refer less to a verbal utterance and more to a public display, for example, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once, Rav said” (Yoma, 86a).
Today was supposed to be the start of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his “historic change” for Israel. But in reality, everything stayed the same.
At midnight, the law that exempted Haredi men from national service expired. Which means that over the coming weeks, legally speaking at least, Haredi 18-year-olds are liable to be drafted just like all other Jewish 18-year-olds.
Not only that, but all Haredi men who deferred service in previous years and who are still reliant on the Tal Law for their exemption — some 54,000 — are also liable for the draft.
This situation has arisen because government attempts to institute a new law have failed due to disagreements on its details inside the government. The process seemed to be going well a few weeks ago, after Kadima, the largest Knesset party, joined the coalition promising to find a creative solution with the ruling Likud party. But it then objected to Likud’s plans and walked out of the ruling coalition on July 17, just 70 days after agreeing to join, and with another coalition party, Yisrael Beiteinu, also sparring with Likud on the subject, the legislative process hit a dead end.
The government’s hope was that a new law in place by today would outline a plan for a gradual Haredi draft, with certain concessions to make it palatable to Haredim like an older draft age and exemptions for some talented yeshiva students. When it comes to the Haredi draft “we must enact it gradually and in a way that does not lead to a rift in the nation,” Netanyahu said.
A few months ago I sent an email to my editor, pitching a story on Yiddish Farm. (That piece is in this week’s paper, and online here.) I didn’t have to make a hard sell. An organic farm, run by 20-something-year-olds, where everyone speaks Yiddish? The piece practically writes itself.
Indeed, Yiddish Farm is one of the most interesting things happening in the Yiddish world and, I thought, an important story for us to cover. But as I reported the piece, visiting the farm and speaking to its participants, it became clear that the farm has significance well beyond its novelty value. Thanks to Yiddish fluency, and to a progressive cultural ethos, it has succeeded in bringing together the most diverse elements of the Jewish community, thus playing a role that few other organizations are equipped to play. In light of the recent Jewish population survey, which put into question long-held assumptions about the demographic makeup of the American Jewish community, it is a role that has never been more important.
During my visit to Yiddish farm, the participants I met spanned a wide range of Jewish practice. Some were culturally Jewish (they were speaking Yiddish, after all), but had no interest in religion. Some were Modern Orthodox, while others participated in Jewish activities affiliated with more liberal movements. The farm accommodated its religious members by keeping a kosher kitchen and observing Shabbos, but no one was compelled to perform any religious practice. When one participant was lightly chastened for lighting a cigarette on Shabbos, one of the farm’s leaders, Naftali Ejdelman (himself Shabbos observant), politely countered, “Let’s not make rules for other people.” In short, I found Yiddish Farm to be a model of Jewish pluralism.
The ongoing protests against the exclusion of women from the public sphere by some Haredim, and counter-protests by Haredi activists who say they are maligned by critics, have everyone in Israel talking. The subject was quite provocative enough.
And then came the Holocaust reference to make it even more so. On New Year’s Eve night, 1,500 Haredim protested in Jerusalem against what they termed “incitement” of secular Israelis against them. Some of them also donned mock outfits from Nazi death camps and yellow stars.
The Jerusalem Post publishes a picture of some protestors kitted out in stars.
It quotes one of the protesters saying: “What’s happening is exactly like what happened in Germany.” He elaborated: “It started with incitement and continued to different types of oppression. Is it insulting that we wear these stars? Absolutely, and it hurts people to see this, but this is how we feel at the moment, we feel we are being prevented from observing the Torah in the manner in which we wish.”
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