Monday, February 06, 2012
Everybody Must Get Stoned
A Report from One of the Front Lines Of the Culture Wars in Israel
Message from Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
When Bob Dylan wrote the lyrics many years ago that “everybody must get stoned,” I am not sure he had Bet Shemesh in mind. I’m actually not sure what he did mean (in that or many other places), but I am fairly sure it was not about physical intimidation, harassment and assault.
I write these words towards the end of the winter week of my spread-out sabbatical in Jerusalem. It has been a challenging and deeply troubling year in the Jewish state. While security measures and circumstances have brought about a blessed and hopefully long-lasting reduction in terrorist attacks, internal Israeli issues and Jewish extremism have roared to the fore. From the massive social protest movements last summer (the front page of headlines here for many weeks before they broke through for any coverage in the American press), to desecration of mosques and even attacks on IDF soldiers by extremist West Bank settlers waging a private war called “price tag,” to the combined exultation and anguish over the return of Gilad Shalit and the high cost it took to seal that deal, we are a long way, today, from the easy pride and idealized vision of what was in any event a probably mythical past. At the same time a whole slew of seemingly anti-democratic legislation has come before (but not passed!) the Knesset, seeking to limit the rights of NGO’s, minorities, media, and anyone who would dare speak out against governmental policy.
Into all this now comes a painful – shameful – issue of gender segregation and oppression of women in Israel. At least, that’s what I thought the terrible images coming from a place called Bet Shemesh was about. It turns out that even this image is more complicated than I could have initially imagined.
For those not following this news closely, some background. Over the past several months long simmering issues regarding the role of women in Israeli society have been covered in the press as never before. Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) communities have instituted gender-segregated (public) buses, and, while the Supreme Court has insisted that such buses are only legal if totally voluntary, there have been many reported cases of vicious verbal and even physical assaults by Charedi men on women who would not move to the back of the bus (can you believe you are reading such words?) A Charedi neighborhood in Jerusalem attempted to divide a public street in half during Sukkot, mandating that women walk on only one side. A minister of the government giving an award to a female physician refused to attend the ceremony unless the awardee agree not to speak, lest he be forced to hear a woman’s voice. (In the end the awardee herself refused to attend.) Charedi and even National Religious (modern Orthodox) soldiers have demanded to be excused from cultural events, otherwise mandatory for their units, at which women would sing. Last week, while I was here, a woman working her job for the government putting up signs and distributing information was attacked in a Charedi neighborhood just for being there. And in a city called Bet Shemesh, in an incident which was caught on camera and went viral, an eight-year old modestly dressed Orthodox girl named Na’ama Margolese was repeatedly attacked on her short walk to school, called a prostitute and a non-Jew and many other unprintable names ostensibly because she dressed a little differently than the extremist ultra-Orthodox (although, as I said, it turns out this particular incident is more complicated than it seems). She is traumatized, and for a while was simply afraid of any Charedi Jew.
No, this isn’t Iran or Saudi Arabia. It’s important to remember how many wacky proposals and disturbing ideas are put out there in our own country and our own community. The voices of extremists do not represent the whole picture, and should not be allowed to do so.
But extremists will not represent the whole picture, and a community of deceny and progressive values will only remain that way… if extremism is met with a vigorous response. With information, education and engagement, not by anger alone, or alienation, or absence.
My cohort of rabbis at the Shalom Hartman Institute just returned yesterday from a tiyyul (a trip), an educational encounter in Bet Shemesh. We met with, and heard from, a woman who is active at the National Religious Orthodox school that Na’ama Margolese attends, a modern Orthodox man who is working for inner-neighborhood civility, a Charedi woman working towards the same end, we met with Na’ama’s mother – and we heard from a Charedi rabbi from the extremist Toldot Aharon sect who sounded slick and friendly and who said that everyone should get along and the solution to everyone getting along was simple: that the modern Orthodox school should move somewhere else.
And, it turns out, that is what at least this last incident is about. It is a turf war, in a clash of neighborhood lines, where an expanding Charedi community does not want to be anywhere near modern Orthodox, whose lifestyle is even more threatening to their isolated way of life than would be secular Jews… because their children could envision becoming modern Orthodox, whereas the secular world is simply beyond their imagination. And it turns out that much of the extremist reaction in many of the incidents here is a result of real fear… fear of the encroachment of the modern world, of Charedi women going to colleges in increasing numbers as a result of poverty flowing from large families and men avoiding paid work in favor of full time Torah study, fear of a crumbling wall of isolation as information and technology and circumstance make preserving an ancient way of life increasingly impossible.
I am filled with admiration for the mainstream Orthodox families under fire in their very homes, where signs appear telling them to dress even more discretely or not watch television where it can be seen out of the window, or else. They live under real threat. But I was also fascinated by the fact – and the way – that they are fighting back… fighting for their homes, using Facebook, organizing a flash dance of women in the main square of Bet Shemesh (you can see that on You Tube)… and I note that the moderate/modern Orthodox community of Bet Shemesh consists very largely… of Anglo immigrants. These are Jews from English-speaking countries, and they are drawing a line in the sand, bringing values they learned in democratic and progressive countries to stand firm, to not run away, to fight for their homes and their lives.
Extremism in any form calls for a response. We are all locked in a global struggle against all kinds of extremism at the moment. One of the gifts of our own country to the rest of the world is the possibility, the promise… that different kinds of people really can learn to live together. It may have taken us a long time to learn this here, there may be a long way to go (some of the stories our Emeritus, Rabbi Bruce Kahn, tells from his work at the Equal Rights Center are certainly shocking) and we must assert constant vigilance to make sure we do not slip back to where we once were.
But I am proud that it is, in part, American values, and American-style activism, that is being deployed now, to make Israel live up to what it should be. This is a struggle, and the outcome is neither pre-determined nor clear. What Israel needs now is, well… you. To learn, to come, to care… and not to run away.
Sometimes we face a moment – a person making an ethnic slur, telling an inappropriate joke, engaged in offensive behavior – and we know we have to act. Sometimes what we read about disgusts us, or shames us.
So. OK. That is the world we find ourselves in. Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s make it better.