Archive for the ‘Impressions’ Category

Jordan Impressions

We just left Jordan or “Ordan” as they pronounce it in Arabic;  it became “Yordan” in Hebrew; now it’s Jordan in English.

We drove up into the green mountains that look like Israel’s Samaria and then into the brown mountains that look like Israel’s Judea.  But, there are fewer similarities than meet the eye…

Jordan is 95% Muslim with the remaining 5% split between Orthodox Christians and Druse.  There are no Jews or Protestant Christians or Shia Muslims in any official census.  Jordanians are proud of how close their spoken Arabic is to classical Arabic.  They are proud of having the highest standard of living in the Arab middle east.  We don’t have the economic statistics but lots of people live in what appear to be physically dilapidated dwellings with not a few abandoned cars strewn about.  But, everyone on the streets seems energetic, well-dressed, and mostly bustling. 

Jordanians are incredibly handsome people—everyone of them.  They smile a lot.  They are very demonstrative in their informal social encounters.  Everyone in the tourist trade is happy to have us, though they assume that we are American Christians rather than American Jews .  I am not sure Jordanians’ welcome would change that much if they realized, but they would be reflective and consider it (later they figured it out and didn’t mean—we discussed the “situation” and water politics). 

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Yesterday, we went to the Knesset.  In addition to seeing the fabulous tapestries and mosaics by Marc Chagall, we had a private meeting with one member of the Knesset (MK).

Yoel Hasson is a young hot shot in Kadima who got his start as an admirer of Ariel (Arik) Sharon.  Sharon is the tough guy who invaded Lebanon in 1982 and who goaded the Palestinians in a provocative visit to the Temple Mount and who unilaterally withdrew Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip.  When Sharon started a new political party called Kadima, Yoel joined to help organize and motivate young people (he is 35).

In the election on February 10, Kadima received the highest number of seats:  28 out of 120.  But, the slightly more conservative Likud party got 27.  A new party called Yisroal Beiteinu (Israel our homeland) received 15 votes as its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, campaigned with a demand that all Arabs in Israel take a loyalty oath. Before the elections Lieberman compelled the government to disqualify the Arab parties from participating in the election.  The Supreme Court reversed this and ordered the government to allow the Arab parties to participate.  The 3 Arab parties won 11 seats including one seat held by a Jewish member!  The point here is that despite the close outcome between Kadima and Likud, the outcome was a conservative landslide.  A second point is that Israel's democracy works, even if it is messy and can produce uncomfortable results (so can ours–remember George W. Bush?).

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New Israel Fund

I think it is time to add more impressions and thoughts to the blog with less travelogue. What is this organization, New Israel Fund, that I am traveling with?

I think that liberal Americans may be thinking that Israel, with its vast military superiority, has really become the “thug” in the Gaza conflict. There is a reflexive tendency to believe that anyone with the most guns must be the oppressor. You may wonder, “what is Israel thinking?” to believe it can act with impunity, with utter disregard for world opinion, and with unwarranted cruelty towards the Palestinians of Gaza.

First, let me suggest that there is certain hypocrisy on the part of a certain European country whose conduct with respect to its former North African colony was atrocious. While it is hard to quickly find precise data, Hamas has fired several thousand missiles into Israel in the past several years. While few have done a lot of damage, no sovereign nation would tolerate its immediate neighbor firing missiles onto its territory. You may criticize the Israeli response as disproportionate, but it certainly has a right to make a military response. I do not believe this response constitutes war crimes. At the same time, Israel’s continuing development of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank and its treatment of its large Arab minority are both unacceptable.

As a result of the Gaza war, Israeli citizens elected more right wing candidates to their Parliament than ever before including an openly racist anti-Arab party. You might be inclined to think that there are no progressive voices in Israel that are critical of Israeli policy and keep the ideals of justice and equality alive within Israel. You’d be wrong. New Israel Fund is one of many voices within Israel working towards a more just and equitable society within Israel, better treatment of the Arab minority within Israel, and a more productive approach to working with Palestinians in the West Bank.

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Ground Zero

We were in Sderot, just 3 miles from the Gaza Strip and one of the villages that has received the most rockets launched from Gaza.  We went to a hill overlooking Gaza where you can see the buildings of Jabaliya:

People in Israel constantly remind you of how close things are.  In Seattle, we are about 200 miles from Canada—our nearest international border and a rather peaceful one.  Nearly all of Israel would fit in that distance.  And the distance from Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, to Gaza is about the same as the distance between Tacoma and Seattle.  Last I heard, Tacoma was not launching missiles towards Seattle and Seattle was not bombing Tacoma.  Sderot is closer to Gaza than Tel Aviv.  In the satellite image below, the pushpin on the right is Sderot; the middle one is the border with the Gaza strip; the one on the left is Jabaliya—one of the large cities in the Gaza Strip.  Note the distance scale near the bottom of the satellite photo:

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Breaking the Silence

Yehuda (Judah) is a former IDF soldier who is also an orthodox Jew, which makes him a bit more to the right, by background, then many Israelis who question some Israeli policies. His sister is a settler. But, when Judah came back from his mandatory 3 years of service, as a sergeant and platoon leader, he wondered if what he had done had been right. His question to himself was, “where is the moral boundary beyond which Jews defending the state of Israel should not go?” He also wondered if most Israelis knew, understood, or cared what the army was doing on their behalf in the occupied territories. While there is probably no Israeli Jew who would not defend Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democracy and who would understand defending threats within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, most probably don’t realize that many of the actions taken in the territories do not have a defensive character.

I am already getting more political than Judah. He came back from serving in Hebron wondering if what he had done was right. Starting with his own platoon, he asked others how they felt and many felt the same way. They collected photos and videos of their service in Hebron and mounted an exhibit at the Israel Museum (or was it the Tel Aviv museum?) in 2005. It quickly became the talk of all Israel.

Hebron is a challenging place. It was an Arab village through 1967 that was occupied after the Israeli victory in the 6 day war. Hebron contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which allegedly is the burial spot of Abraham/Ibrahim and Isaac and is holy to both Muslims and Jews. The Taliban-esque Rabbi Levinger decided that Jews should recover the tomb, with approval of the government of Israel and military leaders in charge of the occupation. The history of the settlement is told in Gershom Gorenberg’s masterful The Accidental Empire.

Now, Hebron has a settlement of 800 Jews more or less in the middle of an Arab village of 16,000. Most of the other West Bank Israeli settlements are distinct villages or small cities that are separated from Arab villages. But, here some Israeli Jewish houses and Arab houses share walls. The settlers are mostly orthodox and ultra-orthodox. They carry machine guns. They frequently taunt and interfere with the Arabs. The army is there to protect the settlers but more than occasionally finds itself defending the Arabs from the settlers—and then getting abuse from the settlers for defending the wrong people.

So, Hebron is a tough neighborhood. Judah started Breaking the Silence to enable soldiers who had been stationed in Hebron to recount specific facts about what they had done in Hebron. He gave us two examples:

…when you see a bag in the middle of the street you don’t know if it is a bomb or just a bag of garbage. How do you tell? You can do one of three things: You can shoot it from a distance and if it is a bomb it will blow up. You can call a demolition engineer to examine and dismantle it. You can grab a Palestinian off the street in the day—or pull someone out of their house at night—and have the Palestinian pick it up and carry it away—and he’ll blow up if it is a bomb. So, which happens the most often? Number 3—it’s easier; it shows who is in charge; it adds a little excitement to boring duty. And it’s wrong.

… a lot of missions involve breaking into someone’s house to arrest someone or to search the house. But, you don’t go directly to the suspect house. You go the neighbor’s house and then you drag the neighbor out of his house and hold him in front of you when you knock down the door of the suspect house. This is called “bringing a neighbor along.” It was challenged by an NGO in the High Court of Justice and made illegal. But, does it stop? Of course not. Now you “bring a friend…”

I have a book of these reminisces and it just makes me sick to read them. Is this worse than what the Americans do in Iraq? Or what the Serbians did in Bosnia? Or what any other occupying army does? As Judah put it, “That’s not the point. It’s not what Israelis should be doing.”

You can see some of this for yourself at:


Religion is a tricky thing in Israel.  Israel has all the trappings and appearance of a secular democracy.  There are elections.  There is no explicit approval/disapproval of policy or candidates or the serving government by any religious authority.   There is freedom of conscience and freedom of religious practice for non-Jews and non-orthodox Jews.  Non-Jews, specifically Muslims, are citizens, may vote, may serve in the government, and—at least on paper—have full civil and economic rights.  In practice, there are meaningful obstacles to Muslims and Arabs (who might be Christians) exercising the full benefits of citizenship.

But, it would be going too far to say there is separation of church and state as in the United States.  Judaism is not established as the state religion of Israel.  This is different than most Muslim countries and some European countries.  Surprisingly, some of the most secularized European countries have official state religions including England (Anglican), and Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Finland (all Lutheran).  Israel does define itself as a “Jewish democracy.”  Jewish here might mean the historic people and descendants who are Jews or those who practice the Jewish religion.  The practical outcome is that Israel seeks to preserve a situation in which Jews can be safe in Israel, express their historic and religious identity,and be a clear majority of the population and the electorate.   And there are some specific legal entanglements, shall we say, that will be discussed momentarily.

Wikipedia does a nice job of expressing some of the nuances of the Israeli situation from a strictly legalistic standpoint:

Israel is defined in several of its laws as a “Jewish and democratic state” (medina yehudit ve-demokratit). However, the term “Jewish” is a polyseme that can relate equally to the Jewish people or religion (see: Who is a Jew?). The debate about the meaning of the term Jewish and its legal and social applications is one of the most profound issues with which Israeli society deals. At present, there is no specific law or official statement establishing the Jewish religion as the state’s religion. However, the State of Israel supports religious institutions, particularly Orthodox Jewish ones, and recognizes the “religious communities” as carried over from those recognized under the British Mandate. These are: Jewish and Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Latin [Catholic], Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian [Catholic], Chaldean [Uniate], Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, and Syrian Orthodox). The fact that the Muslim population was not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period[citation needed] during which Islam was the dominant religion and does not affect the rights of the Muslim community to practice their faith. At the end of the period covered by this report, several of these denominations were pending official government recognition; however, the Government has allowed adherents of not officially recognized groups freedom to practice. In 1961, legislation gave Muslim Shari’a courts exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status. Three additional religious communities have subsequently been recognized by Israeli law – the Druze (prior under Islamic jurisdiction), the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and the Bahá’í.[1] These groups have their own religious courts as official state courts for personal status matters (see millet system).

OK, let’s get practical here.   There is a Ministry of Religious Affairs.  It directs the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as well as supporting the other recognized denominations.   There is a Chief Rabbi of Israel.  There is a Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Force.  The state supported educational system provides explicit support for 2 branches of Jewish education.  So, in addition to secular public schools there are Jewish schools which include a full secular curriculum (including English, math, science, history, etc.) and specific Jewish instruction.  Beyond these Jewish schools are government supported Jewish religious schools (heder) which are not required to offer any secular subjects at all.  There are also government supported Arab schools which blend a little bit of Muslim religion, instruction in Arabic, and a full secular curriculum.

Now let’s see what’s really going on with the government.  Then, we’ll look a little more broadly at society at large.  Because the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, there is strong preference for Orthodox Judaism and little support for other branches of Judaism (Conservative, Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist).  In the US, Orthodox means orthodox,  But, in Israel there are at least 4 flavors of Orthodox.  There are ultra-orthodox Jews, or Haredi Jews—Haredim, who try to minimize any participation in the secular world.  Most are Hasidic Jews who live and look like they would have in the 18th century in Lithuania (mostly present day Poland and parts of Ukraine and Belarus).  There are non-Hasidic Haredi as well (Mitnagdim—let’s forget the distinctions before your head breaks).  They don’t serve in the army.  Men don’t work; they study Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud.  Their wives work and bear 8-12 children.   The state provides a monthly stipend of 600 shekels to married yeshiva students and 400 shekels to unmarried yeshiva students—life long.  Within Hasidism are the hereditary rabbinic courts from Eastern Europe such as the Satmars, Breslovers (followers of Rabbi Nachman), and Lubavitchers (followers of Rabbi Zalman).  These guys wear long coats, broad-brimmed fur hats, and have the curls on the sideburns (paes).  (photo, below:  Poster of Rabbi Nachman, the Breslover rebbe, in Safed)

Then there are the “nationalistic” orthodox.  They may have been Hasidic or may have had some or even a lot of secular education.  They participate in secular and political life to the extent it fulfills primarily religious goals.  They tend to treat the bible (Old Testament or Pentateuch or Torah) as a deed to any land mentioned in the bible.  They want to reclaim any sites where Jews may have lived in Judah and Israel (Samaria) from ancient times.  Some serve in the army.  They are the core of the settlers in the West Bank.  These guys wear black crocheted kepahs (yarmulkes) and modern clothes.

Next we have modern orthodox.  These are the folks that may go to Yeshiva University in New York.  They are observant orthodox Jews but they have thorough secular educations and often work, quite successfully, in secular jobs.  Just one step to the left of them are liberal orthodox who differ only in openly pushing for religious reforms, especially more rights for women to fully practice their Judaism.

There is no explicit government support for the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism.  Indeed, the Orthodox consider them threats or apostate or worse.  You might as well be Muslim or Christian—in fact, if you are doctrinaire fundamentalist Muslim or Christian you would be more “understandable” to the ultra-orthodox, if no better liked, than some apostate liberal, secularized demi-Jew.  There are real consequences to these distinctions. A person who converts to Judaism under Conservative or Reform auspices won’t be recognized as Jewish. This means you could not participate in a Jewish marriage—because it would be viewed as a mixed marriage or secular marriage.  This is because there is no civil marriage in Israel:  you must have a marriage sanctioned by one of the denominations recognized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  You go get married in Cyprus or the US or Europe—then you come back to Israel and you’ll be married legally, but it won’t be a religious marriage.  And, if your Jewish conversion is not recognized then you can’t be buried in the Jewish part of a cemetery.   There are areas set aside for “non-Jews” so there is somewhere to put your remains.  The Rabbinate actually maintains a list of the Orthodox rabbis around the world who are deemed able to perform recognized Orthodox Jewish conversions.

Despite the lack of official state “establishment” of Judaism as a state religion, there are some insidious effects in politics.  There are several expressly Jewish politcal parties:  Shas is Sephardic Jewish (Jews historically from Spain, Northern Africa, and the middle East);  United Torah is Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox Jewish (Jews historically from eastern Europe), National Union is what I guess you could call the Zionist orthodox Jewish party.  These affiliations are not completely stable and these parties—even members within them—don’t agree on everything.  But, there are some shared tendencies.  All are against negotiating with the Palestinians. All want to preserve their special entitlements with the government.  The insidious thing is that none of the large political parties in Israel have enough votes to form a majority in parliament (the Knesset) so the plurality party will enter into a coalition which includes one or more of these religious parties, which then hold the coalition hostage to various demands.  For example, in the latest election Shas demanded that monthly stipends for Yeshiva students be increased by 50% as a condition of being in the government—they got it.

In society, religion gets more multi-faceted.  You’d think Israel was a step away from becoming a Jewish Iran, but it’s not. There are about 5.4 million Jews in Israel.  About 600,000-800,000 are Haredi.  So, this minority has disproportionate influence on religious life in Israel.  Most Jews in Israel are non-observant “Orthodox.”  This is sort of like being Catholic in France or Italy.   You are Orthodox because that’s the way to get married, get an education, and not get hassled.  But, you don’t really do anything at any time other than the high holy days, Passover, marriage, and circumcision.  You may or may not keep kosher.  But, you are not disruptive enough to overtly practice as a Conservative or Reform Jew.  Likely, you don’t practice at all.

There are pretty big regional differences.  Tel Aviv is the swinging urban place and most Jews there are non-observant.  There are plenty of non-kosher restaurants (where you can have a cheeseburger or even pork).  Haredi are mostly in Jerusalem, Safed, and other communities.   It’s harder to find a non-kosher restaurant in Jerusalem.  There are Haredi only neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Haifa, Akko and other places.  While there are no laws supporting exclusion you’ll get no legal help in breaking the resistance of someone who refuses to sell or rent to you in one of these neighborhoods.

Islam is also rather interesting in Israel.  Historically, the Palestinians (some of whom are Christian but let’s focus on Muslims for now) were among the most educated, professional, affluent, and progressive in the western sense of any Muslim groups.  They are certainly loyal Muslims but tended not to be fundamentalist or even particularly observant.  For example, one doesn’t see many headscarves in the old city in Jerusalem.  Many Arab Muslims who have lived in Israel since 1948 (and, of course, before) would probably tolerate Israel’s Jewish identity if they really had fully equal civil and economic rights and could participate in the government and society.  But, with Israel’s harsh response to the two Intifada’s, the Lebanon invasion, and the military response in Gaza, many Arabs in Israel feel more affinity to the West  Bank Palestinians.   Gaza especially and the West Bank to a lesser extent are getting economic support from more Islamicist organizations, Hamas and Hisbollah.  We saw strong Islamicist support for the Bedouin in Israel, who were historically not religiously observant.  So, it will be interesting to see if Muslims in Israel become more openly religious. If so, I tend to think it will spring from a politcal impetus and not primarily from some autonomous increase in religious fervor.    (photo, right:  brand spanking new mosque in Rahat, Israel’s largest settled Bedouin village)

Women’s rights are also a bit complex. In traditional Orthodox practice, women worship separately from men and cannot participate in the Torah service nor read Torah to the congregation.  Alice Shalvi leads a great organization fighting for pluralism and women’s rights within Judaism including the right of orthodox Jewish women to participate fully, the right of other Jewish denominations to practice, the right of converted Jews to be married and buried in Israel, and the right to civil marriage.  It is a sterling organization of nobility and dignity.  For all these seeming constraints, Israeli society is very open for women.  Women serve 2 obligatory years in the military, graduate from college, and hold professional jobs.  There is a certain Israeli machismo, but it is not universal. Homosexuals, including lesbians, have full economic and civil rights.  A religious homosexual marriage will be recognized.  Homosexual couples receive health care benefits.  This is certainly not because orthodox Jews are enamored of homosexuality—far from it;  it’s just that there were never any laws against, so it goes.  (photo, left:  Alice Shalvi)

There are many Jews who carry on their day-to-day lives as if Israel were a fully secular society.  Certainly in Tel Aviv it is easy to do. And they feel secure in their Jewish identity as part of an historic people with or without actively practicing Judaism.  Many Catholics throughout Europe don’t set foot in a church, but would never renounce Catholicism.  Many Protestants in the US aren’t actively religious but would never for a moment doubt that they were Christian.  So it is with many Jews in Israel—they just want to be “normal” and not think about any religious or identity-based threat or fear.  The difficulty comes in reconciling this with being a democracy.  From a practical standpoint it means extending full civil rights and rights of conscience to adherents of other faiths while maintaining a numeric Jewish majority in the electorate.  But, that is another whole issue in itself….

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