Sunday, April 19, 2009

Simulate a Checkpoint, Why Dontcha ?למה לא לשחזר מחסום

In his op-ed piece published on April 16, Gideon Levy bemoans the indifference to the occupation in the public at large, and the lack of a crusader for ending it in the Knesset in particular. Well, I’d like to reassure Levy that I’m reminded of the occupation every (work)day as I enter our (communal) dining room during floor-washing time.

Our dining room team has recently taken to pushing all the equipment (steam tables and warming ovens of various heights as well as other assorted institutional-size pieces) into the entrance, leaving a narrow passageway and reminding me of nothing if not a West Bank checkpoint in miniature. It has that feel too, of not being able to see out the other side. Then I came up with an idea (danger!): The youth movement activity of the 21st century.
Friends who were in Habonim tell me of all means of anti-capitalism indoctrination such as a crawling-on-hands-and-knees race for coins spilled at one end of a long gymnasium reminiscent of the famous digging-for-money scene in the film The Magic Christian; and being taken to a mall and given a few quarters per kid but admonished not to purchase from certain purveyors of enticing foods because said purveyors allegedly supported the grape growers, the leftist enemy of the day.

Why not, I thought, have youth movement members set up and operate a checkpoint? The activity might consist of building the checkpoint out of crates and other junk, an education in itself, as it has to be designed according to certain needs and parameters, with signs reading “Do not go beyond this point”; “Place belongings here”; “Men this way / Women this way”, etc.

Then each kid gets a card telling his or her “identity” and reason for needing to cross into Israel, for instance: Muhammad Abu-Kabir, age 78, suffering from heart disease, needs to get to Israeli hospital for treatment; accompanied by 20-year-old grandson”.

Meanwhile, the counselors have donned IDF uniforms and explain that they have received their daily directives from the intelligence services, and they know that one person in line is a suspected suicide bomber. Their object is to keep that person from crossing into Israel while not obstructing the innocent people who want to get across. The kids’ job is to convince the soldiers to let them cross in. Afterwards, of course, there is a sum-up session.

I challenge all youth movement members and counselors, and anyone involved in informal education to take this one on. I’ll be expecting the reports to roll in…including how many parents complain that the activity is “unpatriotic” and that the movement or school should be “apolitical”, as if anything nowadays can escape being political.

What more relevant activity could there be for a youth movement in 2009? If the Habonim members of the 1970s could crawl around trying to get their hands on a few coins, certainly our kids can spend an hour simulating a checkpoint, the tangible symbol of the occupation, no?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Natterings-on about church 'n' state הגיגים על דת + מדינה

My dad recommended I read this well-written editorial condemning ultra-Orthodox violence as engaged in by the modesty patrols. I eagerly went online, and as I read, my heart soared: Finally a public condemnation of ultra-Orthodox violence from a member of the ultra-Orthodox community. Then I reached the end and read the bio line; my heart sank: The literate, articulate author is dean of a yeshiva in…New York. But of course, I told myself after the initial disappointment. What did you expect?

Why “of course”? What did I know intuitively that I didn’t even know I knew? That despite their insularity, when all’s said and done, the ultra-Orthodox abroad are still better-educated, more worldly, and have more respect for democracy than their counterparts in Israel. My buddy Dena Shunra explains it thusly:

"The practice of Jewish religion, especially by the Orthodox, has taken a flying leap out of being observant and into actual insanity. Quite seriously, I believe that the trigger therefor is precisely living in Israel. Our entire religion used to have the constraining force of living under the legal systems of other people, which helped keep it down to human size. With the advent of the state of Israel, the constraints were removed, and each crazy idea is met with people saying 'Gee, yeah. Let's try that one!'. It is not, overall, a positive development for Judaism (see Shabtai Zvi and other false messiahs for the likely eventual outcome, I'm afraid)."

Therefore, in my book, Horowitz’s condemnation just isn’t the genuine article. Admirable as it is, I'm as yet waiting for any ultra-Orthodox within a 3,000-mile radius of Maalot Daphna to join his or voice to Horowitz’s. If any readers hear of such, do let the rest of us know.


In discussions of church and state here in Israel, the term “the state’s Jewish character” always comes up as a defense of all sorts of coercive, theocratic laws. I, who advocate complete separation of church and state, am confident that as long as lots of Jews live here, should Israel (please, God) go the civil route, we are in no danger of losing our Jewish character.

Case in point: Yesterday a friend told me that Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe despite its being the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes birth control. I looked it up in Wiki, and indeed only Germany’s birth rate is lower than Italy’s. It would appear, then, that while most Italians choose not to follow the teachings of the Church, amazingly, Italy manages to retain its Italian (and even Catholic) character.

To paraphrase Prof. Gadi Taub, Italy isn’t a sovereign state because God promised Italy to the Italians, but rather because it’s where the Italians’ story begins. Likewise, Jews have a right to live in Israel, but not on the condition that leavened products not be sold during Passover and public transportation not run on Saturdays; I live here because it’s where my story begins and I want to be a part of that story. I do not need Jewish practice as defined by a particular group and used to take the rest of us hostage, to justify my aliya.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It's Time to Out the ultra-Orthodox הגיע הזמן לחשוף את החרדים

Previous to Haaretz running my op-ed piece in today’s edition, which was a version of my previous post about the secular struggle for Kiryat haYovel, the back-and-forth between myself and Editor David B. Green had value apart from the editing process per se, as it forced me to clarify and sharpen my argument, which is exactly what non-Orthodox Israelis need to do in the face of the perceived ultra-Orthodox invasion.

I believe that the knee-jerk anti-ultra-Orthodox reaction of most non-Orthodox stems not from blind hatred, but rather from the fact that most Israelis, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, have never had the pleasure of living in a civil society, i.e., one wherein the rules don’t change arbitrarily depending on who’s in power at the moment. Such arbitrariness is exemplified by the Chelm-like sleight-of-hand with which a judge decides that a supermarket is not considered public space [for the purposes of selling leavened products during Passover]; and a private residence is not zoned for praying.

Instead of the tactics they have employed until now, the non-Orthodox need to take a leaf from the book of life coaching, the underlying philosophy of which is: Instead of acting based on fear of what will be, imagine the outcome you want, and take positive steps to get there.

In the case at hand, the goal is to out the ultra-Orthodox on the fact that their practices (uglifying neighborhoods with their pasted-up notices; harassing inappropriately dressed women; driving cars fitted with bullhorns around residential areas at slow speed, blaring incessantly that the Messiah is coming; closing off streets to traffic at their own prerogative) have nothing to do with Torah observance, and everything to do with the fact that they want to escape back into a medieval ghetto and take the rest of us with them*. Perhaps I'm naive, but it's hard for me to imagine them launching a public, establishment-backed struggle for the “right” to engage in the above-mentioned practices.

Another thing I've observed about the ultra-Orthodox is that as much as they say that haShem and the Torah are their only authorities, they do respect strong leadership and law enforcement from outside the community. The key word here is "strong" -- the authority exerted must be confident and unyielding, not conciliatory like that of Beit Shemesh police chief Oz Eliasi, who allegedly made a deal with the ultra-Orthodox community there that police wouldn’t enter the neighborhood without first talking to the rabbi.

Taking potshots at “the black tide” won’t get us anywhere. Resistance to the ultra-Orthodox running our lives has to begin at the neighborhood level, and that means getting organized and leaving God out of it.

*So do the Amish resist modernity, but they don't move into my neighborhood and insist that I follow suit.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Kiryat Yovel, Change Tactics, Stat קרית יובל, שני את הטקטיקה במידי

Reading Yair Ettinger’s account of the secular struggle for Kiryat Yovel עברית was mightily frustrating for me, as once again I see the same tired “there-goes-the-neighborhood” scenario being played out. It’s not the “Orthodox invasion” per se that frustrates me, but rather the predictably inefficacious, hand-wringing response on the part of the neighborhood’s veteran residents.

In going after a minyan held in a private residence, they’re no more empowered than hunting hounds going after a mechanical rabbit*. In the time it’s taking them (and the energy and court costs) to squelch it, ten more will pop up, representing a hundred new Orthodox families in the neighborhood. Is that what they want?

Instead of looking to the government to referee their dispute like some babysitter, the non-Orthodox must change their entire mindset, as per Henry Kissinger’s quote on the op-ed page of the same issue עברית. To paraphrase: The issue isn’t one more or less minyan or yeshiva in the neighborhood, but rather a total change in orientation. Repeat as needed: The government should not be involved in matters of religion. That’s right: Not to decide who can and cannot marry, nor to dictate who can and cannot live, pray, or study in a neighborhood.

Instead, the Kiryat Yovel residents and others in their predicament should learn two words: community organizing. Ettinger’s article mentions “an organization that seeks to preserve the neighborhood’s [secular] character”. Note that I put the word “secular” in brackets. That’s because it was in the quote, yet it’s superfluous. The terms "secular" and "Orthodox" need to be removed from this discourse entirely. The important issue here is that the veteran residents want their neighborhood to remain an appealing place to live, as it was when they moved in and as it’s been up until now.

Instead of disrupting prayers, which only makes them look bad, the veteran residents should be expending their panic-driven energy on strengthening their neighborhood, the one they’ve lived in for decades. What do I mean? Besides , showing up for said prayers en masse, they should be taking the following practical steps: A neighborhood association representative should visit every newcomer business and institution and inform the property owner that the following will not be tolerated:

1. Graffiti or signage of any type, including pashkavels and notices to the effect of “Daughters of Israel, dress modestly” and the like

2. Garbage, sewage, dog droppings, other pollution, or noise

3. Harassment of passersby and physical assault, including spitting

4. Blocking or obstructing any byway, for either pedestrian or motor traffic, either on a weekday or Sabbath or holiday

5. Soliciting, either for business or non-profit causes

By the way, the above must apply to the corner newsstand not displaying drug paraphernalia or girlie magazines, and to the (God forbid) local drug dealer. If the property owner asks why the above are prohibited, s/he should receive a two-word reply: property values. That’s all. Nothing more. No mention of religion or freedom therefrom. It’s quite simple: We bought homes here, we pay municipal taxes, and if any of the above violations occur, our homes will be worth less. That's where the entire dispute should begin and end.

Then, they need backup from City Hall in the event that there are violations, and no, this doesn’t have to be in the form of Meretz city council members. Parties are irrelevant here. The point is that a neighborhood ordinance has been violated and the neighborhood association must show “early and often” that it means business, i.e., violators will be prosecuted.

I truly believe that if the plan I’ve outlined above is followed, which means removing religion from the equation entirely (a difficult concept for us Middle Easterners, I know), neighborhood newcomers as well as veterans will fall into line, as they will see that 1) The same rules apply to all; and 2) If everyone observes the rules, the neighborhood will actually be a pleasant and desirable place in which to live and conduct business, and all will benefit. Plus it surely beats taking on every micro-minyan that pops up, which is about as effective as a drowning victim flailing about just to keep her head above water. Kiryat Yovel, you’re a symbol for us all: Don’t flail ― swim!

*Not to mention the utter absurdity of the case, matched only by last year’s chametz sale verdict. Outlawing prayer in private residences? Come on! It happens every day: shiva, circumcisions, Chanuka gatherings where a chanukiya is lit, Passover Seder…please, folks, let’s not even go there…