Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Ultra-Orthodox bride Rivka Hannah (Hofman) at her Jerusalem wedding in 2014. / Getty Images
About 20 years ago, when I was a staff writer for JTA, the editor and I were called into Agudath Israel of America for a meeting on the “ultra-Orthodox” issue. Rabbi Avi Shafran and other Agudah representatives were unhappy even then with the term, explaining as Shafran did recently in this forum that they viewed it as a pejorative term. We explained why journalists use the term and discussed using the term Haredi, which is more commonplace today than it was at that time, instead. We concluded by asking them to recommend alternatives with which they might be more comfortable.
It would be nice to have a viable non-Hebrew alternative, though we do not use “ultra-Orthodox” as a reflection of bias or desire to disparage, no matter how subtly. Instead, it is shorthand to distinguish between this part of the Orthodox community and the more modern segment from which Haredi Judaism is, as Shafran is well aware, quite distinct. When a premium is put on economy of language, as it is in journalism, ultra-Orthodox fits the bill.
We all like to think we are centrist and that everyone else is extreme in comparison. But it is disingenuous at best for Shafran to say that there is nothing “ultra” about the way his community elects to live. He protests the notion that his community merits being described as “extreme.” Really? It brings to mind the Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” bit with Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler. Does Shafran really believe that it will ever suffice simply to describe his community as “Orthodox?” Really?
Racheli Ibenboim chats with writer Tuvia Tenenbom./Photo by Isi Tenenbaum
I may not be a dyed-in-the-wool feminist by any stretch of the imagination. But I have a strong sense of the rights of women to take agency in their own lives and a repulsion for the oppressive nature of men who harass women for their own reasons. That is why I was completely taken aback by Tuvia Tenenbom’s latest article “Everything He Wanted To Know About Sex Among the Orthodox.”
How this tabloid-worthy work of voyeurism could ever be considered a legitimate work of journalistic inquiry is beyond me. Which is a shame, because there is a so much to explore here.
Racheli Ibenboim’s story is fascinating. Here is a women, seemingly pious and observant, in love with her Hasidic lifestyle, but dedicated to being a change-agent in her community. She may have taken a step back due to internal pressures, but it seems that she has not stopped in her mission.
Yet instead of focusing on her deeds and actions, we’re given what amounts to some sort of voyeuristic look at a man who must fetishize women in thick stockings and wigs. The reader sits and reads with increasing shock as we witness the literal recreation of catcalls on the street. Tenenbom pushes her to a place no man that respects women ever should.
Aerial photo of York University, Toronto, in 2010. / City of Toronto
The ongoing dilemma of accommodating religious beliefs in a liberal and multicultural society is again glaringly apparent. News reports reveal that at York University, a large, publicly-funded post-secondary institution in Toronto, a student in a sociology course requested that he be exempt from required group work. His religion forbids him from “mingling with women,” he explained.
Over the ensuing days, the dean granted the request, the professor flouted the decision (insisting that doing otherwise would make him an “accessory to sexism”), the student complied with the professor’s ruling, and the dean’s decision has since been pilloried by politicians and public commentators. In a rare show of solidarity and non-partisanship, representatives of all three of Canada’s major political parties expressed dismay over the student’s request and the university’s decision to grant it, citing Canadian values of gender equality.
The media has not disclosed the student’s name or his religion. But as an observer and analyst of Jewish affairs both in North America and in Israel, I can’t help but reflect on current challenges in the ultra-Orthodox community in North America and especially in Israel. In that light, it soon becomes apparent that amid the debates over this particular Canadian case, at least one important point is being omitted.
One of the most bitterly fought cities in Israel’s local elections held on Tuesday was Beit Shemesh, the flashpoint town near Jerusalem. Now, the government is apparently mulling a plan to prevent passions getting so high in the future.
Beit Shemesh is famous for its deep tensions between Haredi and non-Haredi residents. In fact, since the world’s media focused two years ago on an eight-year-old girl who was spat on by religious zealots on her way to school, the name has become synonymous with sectarian rivalry to most Israelis. And during the election campaign, they surged again.
Supporters of the incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul, who belongs to the Haredi Shas party, used Holocaust imagery to underscore the supposed dangers of challenger Eli Cohen, and presented him as an enemy of the Jewish religion. The campaign grated on the sensitivities of non-Haredi voters — who were left devastated when Abutbul won.
Israeli television has today been buzzing with reports that following all of this the government wants to slice Beit Shemesh in two, making the newer Haredi-dominated neighborhoods into one city and the older neighborhoods, where there are fewer Haredim, a separate city. According to the plan, which is being pushed by non-Haredi Beit Shemesh residents, there would be two mayors and two city councils. So in short, come the next election in five years, there wouldn’t be a battle along religious lines, because the two camps would have largely been separated with a city border between them.
On one level, the initiative is understandable, as the division in the city runs so deep and the agendas of the different populations are so different. But on another level, isn’t the challenge of democracy to mediate this, and find a way of allocating resources and managing the public space that takes the needs of the different populations in to account?
Is there some unspoken rule that democracy can no longer be used to manage differences when Haredim are involved? Does this unspoken rule make gerrymandering, normally viewed with concern, desirable if it seeks to limit the power of Haredim?
And what is the slippery slope that this could lead to — cities where there are tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews splitting? Carving out Jews of Ethiopian origins from cities if they become powerful and want different things from the rest of the local population?
The smile — her smile — was remembered by scores of mourners.
It was reflected in the crackling flames shooting out of a backyard pit, and in the grief-stricken smiles of loved ones. In a circle around the makeshift campfire, on lawn chairs set on the damp autumn ground, sat a group of people intent on doing justice to the life of a young woman gone far too soon.
The memorial for Deb Tambor, a 33-year-old ex-Hasidic mother of three who died a little over a week ago, was held last Thursday evening. This was an invite-only event, hosted by OTD Meetup, a New York social group for those who have left Orthodox communities. Held in a modest backyard of a private home in Suffern, N.Y., the organizers at first considered capping the attendance at 30. Instead, at its peak, the group of mourners swelled to 85.
I arrived an hour late, in typical Hasidic fashion. I tried to quietly make my way to the circle, avoiding the gravel in the driveway. A dark, solemn silence greeted me. Backs hunched over, tears streamed down faces, and that fire spat flames into the night sky. There was a melancholy magnificence in the air.
“I never met a person who had so much love to give. It was never about her, but always about someone else,” said one of Tambor’s closest friends, amid sobs. “She went through so much pain in her life, but she always thought about others. She worried about others. It genuinely bothered her when someone was suffering.”
This sentiment was echoed throughout the night. Deb Tambor was remembered as a beautiful soul – a selfless woman who cared about fellow humanity more than she cared about herself – helping them with every fiber of her being, as if giving was the ultimate joy.
“She got light from helping others,” her grieving boyfriend, Abe Weiss, said to me the day before. He thought that her concern for other’s well-being is what prevented her from sharing her own pain. This, he said, is what ultimately killed her.
“She did not have a bad bone in her body,” Weiss said.
After years of debate, pressure and protest, on Sunday Israel’s cabinet approved legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox men for national service. The lobby that agitated for legislation has been quick to label it a sellout, counter-productive, and a passing of the buck.
Pro-draft activists say that they wanted a law that makes service for Haredim compulsory immediately, while the actual legislation defers compulsion to serve until 2017. And as they point out, this means leaving the big task of implementing the draft until after the next elections.
They are right to be disappointed, as the government did promise to deliver the draft, and all it looks set to do is deliver the blueprint for one which may or may not end up being implemented after the next national poll. But in their pessimistic forecast they overlook an important fact.
They successfully pushed the issue of the draft to center stage in the last election, and made it a key campaigning issue. They created the unexpected scenario where the distribution of power meant that a coalition could be built that excluded Haredi parties, and legislation proposing a Haredi draft could actually pass the cabinet. This is further than any government has got on the issue in 65 years.
The government’s dragging out of the issue doesn’t mean it will get lost — but that it will probably dominate another election.
The parties in this government can’t go to the public ahead of the next election with just a general pro-draft position. Implementation time for the draft plan will be approaching, and the public will want guarantees that they will see through implementation. The draft issue is too electorally lucrative for them to abandon it — and to allow the parties to benefit from it the public will want a promise of further progress.
It is, indeed, rather cynical that the government is putting off implementing the draft until the next elections, but this doesn’t mean it is shelving the plan — but rather that its parties want to squeeze the electoral benefit out of it for a second election. If the pro-draft lobby keeps the pressure on, then the next election could all be about the implementation of the Haredi draft. True it will have taken two elections not one, but they may well yet succeed in forcing a government to take the challenge of implementation seriously.
Was the weekend rally in New York against Israel’s plans to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews boosted by a prominent rabbi’s forged endorsement?
According to a writer on the Hasidic Yiddish forum KaveShtiebel.com, a letter in support of the Satmar-led demonstration by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the foremost leaders of the Lithuanian Haredi sector, was forged.
The letter, which appeared to be a handwritten note by Kanievsky, was circulated Sunday morning by email and social media and posted to various websites. It reads: “It is an obligation upon all to heed the ruling of the Gedolei Yisroel to protest today against the draft decree.”
The KaveShtiebel writer, who goes by the name “Yeedel,” points to key idiosyncratic phrases in the letter that appear to be lifted from an earlier unrelated letter by the rabbi.
Before Sunday’s event, which was ultimately attended by up to 30,000 people from across the Haredi spectrum, were conflicting reports over Kanievsky’s endorsement, with various letters circulating in his name, some calling on his followers to increase Torah study instead of attending mass rallies. At stake here was whether the event would be seen as a mostly Satmar demonstration, or pull together a broad display of unified solidarity.
An article on the American Haredi website The Yeshiva World was quick to blame Satmar organizers. “The forged letter,” the article says, “speaks values of the organizers act to delude the purpose of the mass protest, especially the desecration of the name of a Godel HaDor, in attempt to deceive the general, non-affiliated and Yeshiva, public to attend the protest.”
According to the Yeshiva World article, Rabbi Kanievsky’s family confirmed that the letter was forged. It is unclear whether the identity of the forger has been identified. Kanievsky himself has apparently not commented on the dispute.
In an unusual show of unity, various streams of ultra-Orthodox Jews joined together June 9 in a massive rally in downtown Manhattan to protest the Israeli government’s recent efforts to draft yeshiva students into the military.
Even the dueling factions within the Satmar Hasidic movement put aside their differences to organize the protest, and the feuding brothers who claim to lead the Satmar, Aharon Teitelbaum and Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, both participated. Organizers said the rally drew 30,000 people, virtually all men, to Foley Square. Other reports put the number at 20,000. The New York City police did not offer their own estimate.
The organizers tried their best to hide any anti-Zionist sentiments and focus only on the anti-draft message during the two-hour rally. Speakers on the stage repeatedly asked the crowd to put away any signs with messages against the State of Israel, and there were at least three cases in which protesters physically took down anti-Zionist signs held up by other protestors.
Yaakov Shapiro, an appointed speaker for the Satmar community, said in an interview with the Forward that even though he himself is anti-Zionist, the goal of the protest was to prevent the universal draft and, in his words, save Israel’s yeshivas.
“The reason why we survived 2,000 years and more, is because of these yeshivas,” said Shapiro. “Nothing else maintains the continuity of the Jewish people. Nothing else maintains our survival. Without the yeshivas we are extinct as a people, and that’s what they are trying to do.”
But the anti-Zionist undercurrent bothered some of the protestors. An Orthodox man from the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn, who requested that his name not be published, said he came to the rally because he agreed with the general message, but he felt very uncomfortable with the anti-Zionist signs he saw.
A rare joint rally sponsored by both of the dueling factions within the Satmar Hasidic movement could bring upwards of 20,000 protesters to downtown Manhattan this Sunday, according to Satmar insiders.
The Satmar factions, led by two warring brothers who each claim the title of rebbe, rarely cooperate. Yet activist supporters of both sides are said to be in the final stages of negotiating a deal to both endorse the same massive protest against Israeli efforts to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli military.
A committee within the Israeli Knesset agreed on draft legislation early this week that sets quotas for the number of ultra-Orthodox men expected to join the military, and raises the possibility of criminal penalties for draft dodgers.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States and in Israel oppose the draft. While Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States are not Israeli citizens, and would not be subject to the draft, many have close family and communal ties in Israel. Young ultra-Orthodox men from the United States often study at yeshivas in Israel, institutions that they worry would be shuttered if their Israeli counterparts are drafted.
Followers of Aron Teitelbaum, the Kiryas Joel-based Satmar rebbe, first called the protest, which is permitted to begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Manhattan’s Foley Square. Followers of Zalman Teitelbaum, his Brooklyn-based brother, then offered to lend their support. Negotiations are reportedly ongoing.
Assuming the deal between the Satmar factions is finalized, and assuming other ultra-Orthodox groups join in as expected, attendance could surpass 20,000 people, according to one activist follower of Aron Teitelbaum. Without Zalman’s support, the follower estimated an attendance of 10,000 people.
Last May, the support of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including Zalman Teitelbaum but not Aron Teitelbaum, drew 40,000 Orthodox Jews to an anti-Internet rally at CitiField in Queens.
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.”