The Charedi draft: Here we go again


Here we go again, like a broken record, and the sound is dissonant, disappointing, and disgraceful. Israel's Security Service Law, which drafts our sons and daughters into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), compelling them to risk their lives for their country, has been amended again by the Knesset because of changes in the make-up of the coalition government. Made in response to demands by the ultra-Orthodox parties, this amendment is the latest twist in the complex and absurd saga of the ultra-Orthodox draft in Israel.

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox for service in the IDF is both appropriate and doable—without a religious and cultural conflict—if the political system is smart and enables the members of this community to make this historic change at the right pace and under appropriate conditions. Although the new amendment ostensibly achieves this, since it exempts the ultra-Orthodox from military service for an eternity of nine years, the amendment is bad news for several reasons:    

First, Israel's Security Service Law has tremendous symbolic importance. The incessant zig-zagging on this law and its disfigurement through hurried and ill-thought out changes, devised in response to the religious and political desires of an oft fleeting Israeli government, is damaging national security.     

Second, it is very likely that judicial review by the Supreme Court will determine that the amendment is unconstitutional. The biggest problem with the amendment is that it entrusts Haredi conscription to the Defense Minister, who is to use his discretion to define target goals for ultra-Orthodox conscription, as well as the steps that the state will take if the goals are not met. There are no limitations on his discretion and it is wide open to his personal preferences. Thus, in doing this, the Knesset has waived its authority to decide on one of the most important and essential issues on the national agenda and entrusted it to the executive branch—a practice that was deemed unacceptable by the Rubenstein Supreme Court ruling of 1998.    

Third, the Knesset's abdication of responsibility—after years of deliberation on this matter, which was at the heart of the last Knesset election—is a clear example of the problems of the system of government in Israel. The vast majority of Knesset members would oppose this amendment were they allowed to make a straightforward, values-based decision. This was also true of the previous amendment of this law, when the Yesh Atid faction forced the majority of the Knesset to back its position because the coalition hinged on its support. These two episodes indicate the Israeli political system does not enable the will of the majority to determine policy. The Knesset's behavior regarding this law is an expression of its bankruptcy and dysfunction regarding central issues on the national agenda.   

Fourth, the amendment is unconstitutional. Attorney Miri Frenkel-Shor, legal advisor to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, issued a well-reasoned and convincing legal opinion warning of this before the Knesset vote. Knesset members who voted in favor of the amendment thus played into the hands of the Supreme Court, which will ultimately have to rule on this national issue and reject the opinion of the majority of the Knesset.  

Lastly, once the Supreme Court strikes down the amendment, many people will rail against the Court's judicial activism. This objection, however, will be misplaced, since the current amendment is so absurd that the legislators are essentially forcing the Court to intervene. One might even venture that the right-wing's support for this amendment is not only an easy way to preserve the coalition but is also a roundabout way of enabling an additional onslaught against the Supreme Court after the legislation has been shot down.

And what about the Haredi draft? The desired result could have been achieved quietly and efficiently had the Knesset adopted a rational arrangement that would encourage military service through positive and negative economic incentives. The extreme solution adopted by the previous law, which included criminal sanctions that were bound to fail, and the extreme solution adopted by the current law, which grants a de facto exemption from military service for many years, guarantee that this issue will continue to be a bone of contention that leads to hatred between brothers. It will also prevent the realization of a vital national goal: widespread conscription of Israel's ultra-Orthodox men for meaningful military service.


Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. 

Now is the time to support Ultra-Orthodox core-curriculum yeshiva education


Israel’s new political reality—with the two main Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi political parties, the Sephardic-based Shas party and the Ashkenazi-based United Torah Judaism, inside the government won’t help the next generation of Haredi young people—in fact, on the contrary, it will perpetuate a broken system. While Shas and United Torah Judaism have negotiated financial windfalls for their constituencies, as well as a pull-back on the demand that Ultra-Orthodox young men serve in the Israeli Defense Force, this old style of conducting business could be harmful to our community’s young people. That’s because the reality is that education—not political power–is the key to the future for the Haredi community in Israel, especially if the government doesn’t put advancing Haredim through education and employment at the core of the agenda.

“Educate each child according to his own path,” the Book of Proverbs teaches us, “and he will not stray from it, even when he is old.” And yet, when it comes to educating Haredi youth in Israel, we still have much to learn. Quite honestly, there is nothing short of an education crisis in our community. Rather than providing real choices, our leaders have traditionally insisted that Haredi students have only one path: a formal, rote curriculum dominated by intensive Talmud study, with no option for students to take general studies or complete an Israeli matriculation certificate. This is the path that is likely to dominate the agenda right now—and it is not the path that our young people need or deserve.

The reality is that in the absence of a meaningful alternative, nearly a third of Haredi teenage boys will continue to become alienated from both mainstream Israeli society and the traditional ways of their community. Many drop out of school, spend their time on the streets, or are lost to the Haredi community altogether. They are unable to build families and successful lives.

Those yeshivas that do offer secular matriculation (and there are only a handful in the entire country) are far too expensive for most Haredi families to afford.

By creating Hachmey Lev Yeshiva High School, my aim is to do nothing short of transforming the Yeshiva model. We offer teens who are under stimulated in classical Yeshiva settings the opportunity to maximize their social, educational, and cognitive potential all while still maintaining a Haredi lifestyle. We are teaching the boys Gemara at the highest standards, in Hebrew and without compromise, and to live a Haredi lifestyle that will also allow them to earn a good living for themselves and their future families.

I was inspired to create Hachmay Lev based on my own family’s experience when our son reached seventh grade and boredom got the better of him. He showed little interest in his traditional yeshiva schooling. As a product of this schooling myself, I know the value of its rigor, but this model simply is outmoded for today’s young people.

Our students combine study of Talmud (32 hours each week) and general studies (20 hours each week), giving them a broader education than any other Haredi institutions in Israel. They study the core curriculum like English, math, history, Bible, civics, computer science, and Hebrew, while also enjoying music and sports. Students sleep in Jerusalem during the week and return home on weekends. Once the model has been fine-tuned, Hachmey Lev will be replicated in other locations across Israel.

I spent ten years putting Haredim into the workforce and that’s why I know that education is the core issue. After spending a lifetime of activism in the Haredi community on a variety of pressing issues, including making sure that our men serve in the IDF, and find gainful employment, I am convinced that unless and until we transform our educational system, there will simply never be the systemic change that we need.

North American and British donors know the necessity of getting the 20% of Israeli society that is Haredi into the workforce—and are supporting efforts to increase employment opportunities in the Haredi community, so that our young people can have new models to emulate. Philanthropists outside of Israel also know that Israel is the global exception, since nowhere else in the world are young people exempt from learning a broad range of studies or from working. But, money for employment without strengthening and expanding serious alternative educational models won’t create the type of workers for a 21st century workforce that Israel needs.

Philanthropists who want to impact the Israeli economy need to invest in educational models that will recast the pattern of poverty in our community. Now, more than ever, those of us who trying to change Haredi society from within need to show that our model can work for a broader segment of our community. 

Bezalel Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, is the founding principal of Hachmey Lev, a Jerusalem-based yeshiva boarding school that also includes core curriculum.

[www.kidum-edu.org.il/en/education-campuses/hachmey-lev-yeshiva-high-school]

Soul food: Aspiring haredi cooks train for restaurant jobs


Five haredi Orthodox men are standing around a large wooden table crowded with bowls of chopped tomato, garlic, carrots and greens, their ritual fringes poking out from under their aprons. Each is wielding a large chef’s knife.

Their instructor, wearing an embroidered chef’s outfit and grasping a raw chicken thigh, tells his charges to cut the limb along the bone and pull it apart with their hands.

Hunched over their cutting boards, the men get to work.

“I like good and tasty food, and I think I need to get to a higher level,” said Avraham Blau, a haredi father of seven hoping for a career as a cook. “I’m always critical of others’ food. I always have suggestions that bug me with their food.”

Blau and his four classmates are the first students in a six-week culinary arts program run by the Jerusalem Kivun Center, a government-funded initiative launched last year to train haredi Orthodox Israelis for full-time employment. After the program, they hope to become professional chefs in Jerusalem restaurants.

Increasing haredi participation in Israel’s labor force has been a central goal of the Israeli government, which has passed a raft of legislation since 2013 aimed at integrating haredi Israelis into the country’s military and economic ranks. Many haredi men receive stipends to study Torah well into adult life and only 45 percent participate in the labor force, as opposed to 81 percent of all Israeli men.

Most of the 2,500 haredim who have attended Kivun’s classes have trained for desk jobs with minimal physical labor and relatively steady hours. But Kivun director Yehiel Amoyal said the culinary class helps meet Jerusalem’s high demand for chefs and appeals to those who want to work with their hands.

“We want to stream jobs to where there’s employment,” Amoyal said.

In an effort to help the job search, Kivun invited hotel and restaurant managers to watch the students chop vegetables. Managers offered jobs to students pending completion of the course based on, among other things, how fast they chopped, whether they maintained posture and how many chopped carrots fell on the ground.

Though seven of the initial 12 students dropped out of the course, the remaining five are guaranteed jobs in kosher Jerusalem restaurants after they graduate this month.

“Regarding inclination to cook, whoever has the motivation to learn and advance will get where he wants,” said Maor Gross, the manager of Papagaio, a South American restaurant that will be hiring one of the trainee chefs. “I’m looking for good people who want it, who have a work ethic.”

A love of cooking drove some of the students to the course.

Blau, 37, who has managed a print shop and jewelry store, revels in cooking at home and has long dreamed of becoming a chef. But concerns about cooking non-kosher food and working with women kept him from culinary school until he learned of Kivun’s course.

“I have a lot of experience with meat, and I was weak on dairy,” said Blau, who now enjoys making lasagna and quiche and will work at a branch of Cafe Cafe, a chain of upscale dairy restaurants, after the course. “Cooking entrecote, I would do it too well done. Now I do it medium-well and it’s much juicier. That raised my skill level.”

The course, which meets two to three times each week, covers 21 cooking skills, from desserts to pasta, meat and fish. Instructor Itai Farkas calls it a crash course in what can be a demanding profession.

“It’s like basic training — taking people who haven’t worked and making them work 200 hours a week,” Farkas said.

Cooking may prove difficult for haredi men, as restaurants and hotels often demand they work nights, weekends and holidays — times the men are used to spending with their families. But Blau says he’s willing to make that sacrifice to pursue a craft he loves.

“If I have a career and a salary, it’s worth it to take evenings, Saturday nights and minor holidays,” he said. “In a few years I’ll have experience and a salary, and the ability to go far.”

 

The Israel-Hamas war through Haredi Orthodox eyes


Most Israelis blame the war in Gaza squarely on Hamas, though there are plenty who fault the Israeli government for not pursuing peace more aggressively.

In the haredi Orthodox community, however, where practically everything is ascribed to the omnipresent hand of God in one form or another, the true cause of the conflict is seen as something else: sin, with the war as God’s punishment.

Which sin? Take your pick.

Is a gay pride parade in Tel Aviv to blame for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank? One haredi rabbi thinks so.

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, a Sephardic rabbinic leader, blamed the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers last month on the gay pride parade that took place the day after they were abducted.

“God brought Hamas because ‘the world has filled with hamas’ now,” he said in a speech last week, according to the haredi blog Vos Iz Neias. The Hebrew word “hamas” means evil or corruption.

Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, one of the Satmar rebbes and a vocal anti-Zionist, blamed the kidnapped boys’ parents and the “desire for Jews to inhabit the entire State of Israel.”

It “is incumbent upon us to say that these parents are guilty,” he said, addressing his yeshiva in Kiryas Joel, a Satmar community approximately 50 miles north of New York City. The recording aired on Kol Satmar, the sect’s phone-in news service, and was reproduced by Vos Iz Neias. “They caused the deaths of their sons and they must do t’shuva [repent] for their actions,” Teitelbaum said in Yiddish.

While many haredim avoid guessing at the Divine reasons for catastrophe in Israel (at least publicly), there is universal consensus that prayer and the performance of mitzvot (fulfilling the Torah’s commandments) constitute the best ways to ward off further disasters.

In a July 11 statement issued by Agudath Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote:

We must remember that… it is therefore to Hashem that we must focus our entreaties with special intensity at this critical time.

Our prayers should include entreaties for the wellbeing of our fellow Jews under attack, as well as for those who are risking their lives to defend them and defeat those who wish us harm.

One of the more unusual initiatives to bring peace to Israel through the performance of mitzvot is Chabad’s Project EDEN (Eat ice cream Defend Eretz Yisroel Now), which rewards modestly attired female Chabad campers with ice cream. Organizers believe that having women dress modestly will bring Israel Divine protection.

The challenge of defining Charedim


The Iranian nuclear issue and Palestinian peace talks may be dominating the news about Israel nowadays, but if discussions within the Jewish state focused on any social challenge this year, it was the question of how to integrate the Charedi Orthodox population into Israel’s workforce and military.

A new centrist party, Yesh Atid, won 19 Knesset seats in January promising to cut subsidies and draft exemptions for the Charedi community. As the government has pushed legislation cutting Charedi benefits, Charedi leaders have debated how to respond.

But observers assessing trends and responses among Israel’s Charedim first need to ask a crucial question: Whom do we count as Charedi?

This week, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel came out with a novel way to define the community that departs from previous measures used by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Existing studies define Charedim based on whether they attended advanced yeshivot, and whether they avoided army service or eschewed college. Families with too many college degrees or too many soldiers were placed outside the Charedi box.

This method becomes a problem when you’re trying to measure, say, a rise in Charedi college attendance or army service. The Taub Center’s methodology avoids those pitfalls by choosing metrics that set Charedim apart from other Israelis while avoiding statistics that it’s trying to track (like Charedi presence in the workforce).

Instead, the Taub Center looked at recent electoral maps and identified precincts that voted in high numbers for Charedi political parties — a traditional measure of communal loyalty. The center found that in those districts, 80 percent of families were Charedi.

But how to separate that 20 percent? Answer: TV sets. Surveys of the Charedi community have found that fewer than 10 percent of Charedim watch any television at all, and that those who do watch TV watch very little — perhaps only outside of the home. Taub’s conclusion: If you live in a Charedi-voting district but own a TV, you’re almost definitely not Charedi.

If the political and social forces pushing for Charedi integration succeed, military service, academic degrees and employment will become increasingly less relevant to the task of classifying Charedim as time goes by. But until “The Voice” becomes popular in Me’ah She’arim, the Taub Center’s methodology seems safe.

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox


Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Police: Women prohibited from saying Kaddish at Western Wall


Women will be prohibited from saying the Mourner's Kaddish and other prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem police told Women of the Wall.

Jerusalem police commissioner Yossi Pariente in a letter sent Thursday to Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman said he would enforce the Justice Ministry's strict interpretation of a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting women from violating the traditional practices at the site, which is overseen by haredi Orthodox officials.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall, saying it disturbed the “public order.” The ruling was legally expanded in 2005 by the Justice Ministry to prohibit women from saying certain prayers in a minyan, or prayer quorum.

Women of the Wall has held a prayer service at the holy site, known as the Kotel in Hebrew, almost every month for the past two decades. The service is held on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new Hebrew month, at the back of the women's section.

The next scheduled prayer service is on April 11, the first day of Iyar. Pariente said in his letter that police would enforce the ban on certain prayers.

Hoffman told Israeli media outlets that the women will say Kaddish, something she said is acceptable throughout the Jewish world, at next week's service. She added that it is particularly significant that the police would choose the month of Iyar, which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day and the country's Memorial Day, to enforce the ruling.

Last month, when three female Knesset members joined the Women of the Wall for the group's monthly prayer service, marked the first time in months that no arrests were made during the Rosh Chodesh gathering. The prior month, Jerusalem police arrested 10 women, including the sister and niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman, for disturbing public order.

Lawsuit filed against haredi radio station for excluding women


The religious women’s organization Kolech filed a class-action lawsuit against a haredi Orthodox radio station for excluding women.

The nearly $26 million lawsuit filed Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court against Kol Berama alleges that the station does not hire women as interviewers or invite women to be interviewed.

“From the start, the station adhered to a patently illegal policy, and women’s voices were completely silenced,” the suit says. “At all hours, only men are heard in the station’s programs. A woman who wishes to be interviewed is refused, and is requested to send a fax to the station, which is read by the presenter.”

The station went on the air in 2009; the Reform movement had asked the Israeli Supreme Court to prevent its launch.

Earlier this year, Israel’s Second Authority for Television & Radio ordered Kol Berama to interview women in official positions or who are experts in their fields. It also called on the station to allow women to speak on the air for four hours a week, Haaretz reported.

The station claims to have hundreds of faxes from female listeners that are satisfied with the station’s format.

Foxman: Draft Israeli Arabs, haredim to defend their neighborhoods


Israel should consider drafting its Arab and Haredi population to defend their neighborhoods, according to a prominent American Jewish leader.

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Times of Israel that the proposal would undercut ideological arguments since draftees would take care of their own neighborhoods.

“You’re going to be protecting your own community, your own home, your own family. There will be some Arabs and some Haredim who will say `no,’ I understand that,” Foxman told the Times of Israel. “But if you don’t care about your family, about your street, then what are you doing there in the first place?”

In February, the Israeli Supreme Court nullified the Tal Law that exempted haredi Orthodox Israelis from military service. Since the expiration of the law on August 1, the Israeli Defense Force said that it has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi men through the draft process.

Israeli Arabs are not required to do military service.

Foxman said that his plan would allow a more equal share in the national burden and provide the needed manpower to upgrade the Home Front Command so it can be better prepared for emergency situations.

“The beauty of that is that Israeli Arabs would begin with their own community,” he reportedly said. “They would take responsibility for the shelters, the communications networks, for the medical preparations, God forbid, of the home front. After that, they would expand to other parts of Israel.”

He added, “The same would be true for the Haredim: they would start with Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim but eventually would work in Petach Tikva and wherever.”

Israeli military begins drafting haredi Orthodox


The Israel Defense Forces have begun drafting haredi Orthodox 18-year-olds without encountering significant protests, one week after a new law requiring haredi military service took effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on July 31 ordered the IDF to compose guidelines for haredi army service within 30 days, and in the meantime implemented the Military Service Law of 1986 with regard to the haredi Orthodox. The law requires every Jewish Israeli to serve in the IDF, and includes penalties of up to three years in prison for those who do not comply.

A military source with knowledge of the issue told JTA that one week after the law’s implementation, the IDF has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi youth through the draft process.  The 18-year-olds are undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee.

Previously, under legislation known as the Tal Law, haredi youth would be able to go to an IDF induction center with a letter from a rabbi exempting them from military service so they could study Jewish texts in a yeshiva. The Israeli Supreme Court invalidated the Tal Law in February.

The court mandated the government to pass new legislation by Aug. 1, but no such legislation has been passed.

New glasses blur women for haredi Orthodox men


Charedi Orthodox men in Israel are buying glasses that will prevent them from seeing the immodest women that threaten their way of life.

The glasses, which are being sold for $32.50, have a special blur-inducing sticker on their lenses that provides clear vision for up to a few yards so as not to impede movement, but anything beyond that becomes blurry — including women.

While it is not known how many have been purchased, the devices have gone on sale recently in Charedi Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and elsewhere, reported the Times of Israel.

The Charedi Orthodox community’s unofficial “modesty patrol” has developed a range of products to act as a first line of defense against the threat of seeing immodest women, Israeli media reported.

In an effort to maintain their strictly devout lifestyle, the Charedi Orthodox in some neighborhoods have separated the sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces.

Barak orders haredi Orthodox conscription


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to draft haredi Orthodox men as it does other Jewish Israelis.

Barak has allowed a month for officials to formulate regulations on haredi conscription, according to reports.

The order came as the Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service, expired on Wednesday. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law in February.

Israeli law mandates that Jewish Israelis enter the army at age 18. Some Israelis legally defer army service for a year or more to study and prepare for the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army.

Since the Tal Law was overturned, the debate over Israel’s mandatory conscription has been at the center of the country’s political discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a unity government in May with the centrist Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, to draft new legislation on mandatory service that would address haredi and Arab youth, but Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in July after failing to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu wants two teams to examine draft alternatives


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Friday that he has ordered the formulation of two teams to examine universal draft alternatives.

One team will be headed by Prime Minister’s Office representatives and the other by ones from Kadima, Ynet reported.

Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, however, has rejected Netanyahu’s plan to form two new committees.

Netanyahu had said Mofaz had agreed to the move, but the Kadima chairman stressed that any advancement on the issue must be based on recommendations of the Plesner Committee, which was charged with formulating a new law on haredi Orthodox military service.

The Plesner committee released its preliminary findings on Wednesday, despite being dissolved two days earlier by Netanyahu.

The committee’s report calls for universal service for all Israeli citizens, including mandating the draft of haredi Orthodox men and upgrading the National Service program for the Arab sector. It also calls for formulating an effective enforcement system and incentives for serving.

The report calls for individual financial sanctions against draft evaders, as well as sanctions against yeshivas that prevent their students from entering the draft.

In February, the Israeli Supreme Court declared that the Tal Law, which allowed haredi Orthodox men to defer service indefinitely, to be unconstitutional, and set Aug. 1 as the deadline for a new law to be passed.

Haredi Orthodox burn Israeli flag in Antwerp


Dozens of haredi Orthodox schoolchildren participated in a Lag b’Omer bonfire in Antwerp that featured the burning of an Israeli flag.

An eyewitness who photographed the event on May 10 said the boys attended a cheder of the Satmar community—an anti-Zionist Chasidic stream of approximately 150,000 adherents worldwide.

The picture, taken in an interior courtyard, shows a middle-aged man burning a handmade Israeli flag as some 30 boys watch.

“This is one of the first times we have seen this sort of thing in recent years,” Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Belgium’s leading Jewish publication, Joods Actueel, told JTA.

According to Freilich, the flag-burning ceremony provoked “a lot of anger” within Antwerp’s haredi Orthodox community. Followers of the Chasidic schools of Lubavitch and Belz spoke out against the burning, Freilich said, but the Satmar leadership in Antwerp remains unrepentant.

The last organized instance of flag burning by Belgian Jews was in the 1980s during a few demonstrations outside the Israeli Embassy.

The Satmar movement opposes Zionism because it believes the establishment of a Jewish state should only come after the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.

“Regardless of the complexities of attitudes to Israel in the ultra-Orthodox world,” Freilich said, “many feel that the political act of burning a flag is wholly inappropriate during a Jewish holiday like Lag b’Omer, which is meant to unite, not divide.”

For new Israeli coalition, haredi army exemptions issue is front and center


Israel’s new unity government may not alter Jerusalem’s strategy for curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons program or do much to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But it could dramatically change something at home about which a huge number of Israelis care deeply: haredi Orthodox exemptions from military service.

For years, haredi issues have been something of a third rail in Israeli politics. Nearly every government in recent years has needed the haredi parties to cobble together a governing coalition, rendering haredi entitlement programs like the military exemption politically untouchable.

This long has irritated Israelis who serve in the army and resent that the haredim, by and large, do not serve yet draw all sorts of entitlement payments from the state.

But with Shaul Mofaz’s decision to bring Kadima and its 28 seats into the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer needs the haredi parties to keep his government in power. They could pull out, and it would make no real difference—at least, until the next elections, scheduled for October 2013.

The question now is how far Netanyahu will go in taking advantage of a historic opportunity to end this special treatment afforded to haredi Israelis.

The question is likely to hinge on political considerations.

There already is movement on putting together an alternative to the Tal Law, which granted haredi Israeli men military exemptions but was struck down several months ago by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court ordered that an alternative to the law be put into place by Aug. 1.

Crafting an alternative to the Tal Law is one of the top four priorities set forth by the new government coalition. The other three are passing a comprehensive budget, reforming the structure of government and making progress toward peace. The budget issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other, as budgets generally are, but there is something pie-in-the-sky about the other two priorities.

That leaves the Tal Law alternative as the potential historical legacy of this 18-month alliance between Netanyahu and Mofaz.

On Tuesday, that alternative began to take shape.

The Jerusalem Post reported that, under the Mofaz-Netanyahu deal, haredi exemptions from the army would be replaced by a Basic Law—the Israeli equivalent to a constitutional amendment—requiring all citizens to perform military or civilian service.

Last month, Kadima proposed instituting a universal military draft within five years. Under the Kadima plan, all Israelis either would serve in the military or do national service in one of a variety of fields, among them education, health and domestic security. Those who fail to comply would be barred from receiving any state funding.

The question is whether such a plan—which would radically alter the relationship between the state and its rapidly growing haredi Orthodox population—could survive opposition from Israel’s haredi Orthodox parties.

On the one hand, Netanyahu doesn’t need them to survive in office until the next elections. Indeed, if he were to push through such legislation, it could earn his Likud party much broader support, including from secular and more centrist voters, the next time Israel goes to the polls.

On the other hand, it could cost Netanyahu in October 2013 if his Likud party wins the election, Kadima fares poorly and Netanyahu needs the haredi parties to form a coalition.

Those considerations, say political analysts, will mitigate whatever changes are made to haredi exemptions.

There are some other factors at play.

For one thing, while in principle most Israelis would like haredim to be subject to the same requirements of service demanded of all other Israelis, in practice the army does not want a sudden flood of tens of thousands of new haredi recruits. The Israel Defense Forces lacks the infrastructure to absorb them, both in numbers and operationally. What would the army do with 10,000 new recruits who are religiously opposed to significant interaction with female instructors?

For another thing, a sudden, dramatic transformation of the relationship between haredim and the state would run up against opposition not only from haredi parties in the Knesset, but from haredi citizens. They would see the sudden change as a broadside against their way of life, and mass demonstrations and even riots likely would ensue. It would make the haredi riots against parking lots opening on the Sabbath and a Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh seem like child’s play.

The reality is that Israel doesn’t want all these haredim in the army; what Israel wants is more haredi men working, paying taxes and integrated into Israeli society.

Under the current system, haredi men must stay in yeshiva until their 30s to keep their military exemption (religious women are currently granted exemptions from army service upon request). That has helped bankrupt the haredi community and nurture a black market economy in which many haredi men work surreptitiously and do not pay taxes.

Changing the rule would help drive haredim into the workforce and into better-paying jobs. That would help Israel’s tax rolls, reduce haredi dependency on welfare and help integrate haredim into Israeli society.

There is great debate within the haredi community about whether or not to welcome these changes. Some haredim see it as key to the economic and social survival of their community. But other haredi leaders see it as opening up a slipperly slope away from the yeshiva and Jewish observance and toward the dangerous temptations of modern, secular Israel.

Ultimately, whatever change comes to the haredi community is likely to come gradually.

Kadima has proposed exempting 1,000 haredi yeshiva students from the military draft and allowing others to defer military service on a year-by-year basis while they are studying in yeshiva. According to a report in The Jerusalem Post, Likud is likely to propose an alternative that instead would establish a minimum number of haredi participants in national service programs that would increase every year, without a cap on those claiming yeshiva-related exemptions from service.

For now, the haredi parties appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There can’t be a situation in Israel in 2012 where someone who wants to study Torah will not be able to do so,” Yakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party told the Post. “But as long as the principle of ‘torato Omunato’ [Torah is one’s work] is preserved, UTJ will remain in the coalition.”

Bill would provide financial aid to youth who leave haredi world


A Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party has authored a bill that would provide financial aid to young people who leave the haredi Orthodox fold.

The bill being advanced by Zehava Gal-On would provide a financial aid package similar to one given to a new immigrant to the country, Haaretz reported.

Hundreds of youth who leave haredi Orthodoxy each year face financial hardship and difficulty in getting a higher education because their schools do not teach all the core subjects required for a matriculation certificate, according to Haaretz.

The aid would amount to more than $13,000, according to the report.

Meanwhile, an organization that works to help former haredim to reconcile with their families is putting together a class-action lawsuit against the state that says the ex-haredim should be compensated for their lack of a basic education in the core subjects, necessitating them to spend a large amount of money to catch up on the material, Ynet reported.

The Maavar Association told Ynet that it would file the lawsuit in the next two weeks and that the case would be handled on a pro-bono basis.

“Whoever studied in haredi schools without core issues (including those who are still haredi) and has been forced to complete matriculation or psychometric exams, losing years of work or suffering any other financial damage, is invited to send us his personal details,” Maavar said in a post on its Facebook page, according to Ynet.

An estimated 200 plaintiffs are expected to join the suit.

Controversy grows in Israel over extension of Tal Law granting haredim army exemptions


When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted a few hundred haredi Orthodox Jews an exemption from army service, it’s likely he never dreamed that 63 years later, tens of thousands of haredi Israelis would claim the exemption—or that the issue would be among the most contentious in modern Israel.

Haredi army service took center stage again this week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would not seek a five-year extension of the Tal Law but would allow the Israeli Knesset to vote on the issue.

The law, named after retired Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal and enacted in 2002 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, allows full-time yeshiva students to delay their army service until age 23. At that time, students either can continue studying full time, do a shortened 16 months of army service (instead of three years) or a year of national service. Afterward, they may choose to join the workforce.

“The Tal Law has failed,” said Yehuda Ben Meir of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It has not been able to wean the community off the idea of not serving and not working. There is now a third generation that believes this is the way they should live.”

Until the Tal Law, haredim were theoretically draftable unless they were full-time Torah students. Opposition to joining the army meant that tens of thousands of young men were staying full time in yeshiva just to avoid army service. Theoretically the men were subject to the draft if they left the yeshiva before age 40, but practically they could leave the yeshiva after turning 30.

The Tal Law was intended to get the students out of the yeshivas, into the army briefly and then into the workforce, solving a problematic cycle.

It hasn’t turned out as its proponents had hoped.

Only a small number of haredi Israelis have joined the army, though the numbers are increasing slightly. According to Israel Defense Forces figures, 1,282 haredi men enlisted in the army in 2011, up from 898 in 2010 and 729 in 2011. Most of them served in special male haredi units, where the kashrut standards are higher and there is no mixing with women.

But the vast majority of haredi men have stayed in the yeshiva, and their rabbis continue to discourage serving in the army. The opposition is largely ideological. Haredi leaders worry that the army will open up a path to lax Jewish observance. Some haredi sects are anti-Zionist, and those that support the state believe that Torah study is a legitimate alternative way of contributing to Israel’s security by sustaining the state spiritually.

“Jews are fighting this war on many fronts, and learning Torah is also fighting a war,” said Rabbi Shimon Hurwitz of the Aish Hatorah yeshiva. “A hundred years ago Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘To educate a person in his mind and not his morals is to educate a menace to society.’ Torah study teaches morality.”

Hurwitz said some staff and students at his yeshiva do serve in the army. His main objection to his students joining the army is the difficulty in maintaining strict levels of Jewish observance, he said.

“We tell the students that there’s a lot of peer pressure not to be religious and it’s very difficult to stand against that,” the rabbi said. “We don’t want them to lose something valuable in terms of their personal and spiritual growth.”

Resentment against haredi army exemptions from Israelis who do serve in the army—both secular and Modern Orthodox—is growing.

“Social justice begins with equally sharing the national burden and army service,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni told reporters this week. “This is a battle for everyone who believes in Zionism and who wants to live in this country.”

The Tal Law was passed initially for five years and extended in 2007. Now it’s up for another renewal, and many Israelis say the law has failed and should be canceled. The Israeli Cabinet was supposed to vote on the law this week, but Netanyahu said he will leave it for the Knesset to decide, insulating himself from expected haredi protests if the law is not extended.

The fight against extending the law is being spearheaded by the same group of Israelis who were behind last summer’s protests against the cost of living in Israel.

They are working middle-class Israelis who serve in the army and find it difficult to make ends meet. They believe they are shouldering an unfair amount of the national burden both in paying taxes and in army service. They say they feel like “friars,” or suckers, something to which Israelis have an inborn aversion.

This week, a group of these Israelis formed a “sucker’s encampment” to campaign against renewing the Tal Law.

“We want the government to legislate a law that requires mandatory service, army or civilian, from everyone—Jews, Arabs, religious and secular,” activist Boaz Nol told reporters.

The Tal Law seems likely to be extended for at least a year, although Barak, now defense minister, insists he will not back it for more than another year. At the same time, the haredi political parties have enormous power in the current coalition. The Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party has threatened to pull out of the government if the law is not extended.

It seems unlikely that the haredi community will join the army in large numbers anytime soon.

“The government didn’t correctly estimate the cultural gap between the haredim and the mere idea of military service,” said Zeev Lerer, a professor on gender and organization at Tel Aviv University. “The Tal Law failed and it will continue to fail. It will take a long and deep revolution to incorporate the idea of military service.”

Even if haredim did decide to join the army en masse, it’s not clear that the army is prepared to utilize them. On one hand, there is a growing manpower shortage. At the same time, the army has to make special accommodations for them, such as organizing all-male units and providing glatt kosher food.

“It really is more of a symbolic issue,” Lerer said. “As the army has become more dependent on women serving, often in more combat roles, I don’t see how they can absorb the haredim. It would mean a complete change in the identity of the army.”

Some analysts say that if the government decides that it is important enough for the state, haredim evenutally could be integrated into the army.

“You would have a tremendous social crisis, and many of the rabbis would tell their students to go to prison rather than serve in the army,” said Ben Meir. “But they don’t really want to go to prison.

“It can be done, perhaps. But not with this government and this coalition.”

Israeli women’s rights moving to front of bus


Anat Hoffman, the progressive Israeli activist who made headlines two summers ago when she was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Western Wall, comes to California next week with a clear message for American Jews: What’s happening in Beit Shemesh is as big a threat to Israel as what’s happening in Tehran.

“Americans have been trained to care about Israel’s security and think of it in terms of Israel being surrounded by millions of enemies,” Hoffman said in a phone interview in advance of her Los Angeles visit Feb. 3-4, during which she will speak at shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Beth Am. “But security is not just measured by soldiers on the border. It’s also measured by an 8-year-old girl’s ability to go to school without being bullied.” Hoffman was referring to Naama Margolese, the Beit Shemesh girl who became a household name after Channel 2 TV aired a report revealing that she had been spit on and called a “whore” by ultra-Orthodox men while on her way to school. Their complaint was that the shy Modern Orthodox girl in a long skirt was not dressed modestly enough.

A native of Jerusalem, and a city councilwoman there for 14 years before becoming executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) — the Reform movement’s legal advocacy arm in the Jewish state — Hoffman, 57, has been fighting for decades to ensure that things like this don’t happen. Now, as the story of Naama Margolese reverberates throughout the Jewish world, Hoffman’s moment may have arrived.

For the first time, Hoffman said, issues of gender equality and religious pluralism are poised to figure heavily in the Israeli political debate. “I see this as a very important window of opportunity, because we are on the eve of an election,” she said.

Moreover, the Israeli populace is still fired up and feeling politically re-engaged by the protests of last summer, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets and — setting a precedent for the American Occupy movement — erected tent encampments to protest economic and social inequalities.

“The question now,” Hoffman said, “is are we going to be put to sleep again and focus only on the security bit, or are we going to focus on the internal issues?”

Hoffman is convinced that those internal issues — gender equality, religious pluralism and minority rights chief among them — pose as great a threat to Israel’s future as the prospect of a nuclear Iran. But she’s not sure American Jews agree. “Ask a hundred Israelis right now what is the most dangerous thing for Israel, and most will not say the atom bomb. Ask a hundred American Jews, and they’ll say the Iranian bomb. I say, let’s not think about Iran for a bit. Let’s ask Israel, ‘Why can’t a woman have a bat mitzvah at the Wall?’ ”

Hoffman has been fighting for more than 20 years for a woman’s right to pray and read from the Torah at the Kotel. As chairwoman of the group Women of the Wall, she has long been at odds with the Orthodox establishment that controls Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish site. But it’s not just their influence over religious sites that irks her. As extremist factions of the ultra-Orthodox minority have grown ever more brazen, their influence has spread beyond the confines of their cloistered communities.

The practice of gender segregation on public buses exploded into the public debate last December after Tanya Rosenblit and, later, Israel Defense Forces soldier Doron Matalon were harassed by ultra-Orthodox men for refusing to sit at the back of a bus.

But Hoffman has been chipping away at the problem for years. In 2007, IRAC filed a petition on behalf of five women who had been harassed on gender-segregated buses, and last January, Israel’s Supreme Court deemed the practice illegal. Since then, Hoffman has regularly led “Freedom Rides,” wherein she and other Jewish women sit at the front of gender-segregated buses to ensure the court decision is being upheld. When they are harassed by ultra-Orthodox men, bus drivers often don’t interfere, Hoffman said, deferring to the customary practice of separating the sexes. “We have 13 lawsuits against drivers for not enforcing the law, and it’s very effective,” Hoffman said. “Those suits for damages are helping to unlearn what 10 years of segregated buses have taught.”

But why have these issues only reached a boiling point in recent months? According to Hoffman, women’s role in Israeli society is changing on a broader level, and the powers that be are threatened.

In Israel’s secular world, a deeply entrenched culture of sexism is finally beginning to crack. A law protecting women from sexual harassment that passed more than a decade ago is challenging the male establishment, and 2011 saw Israel’s former president, Moshe Katsav, begin serving a seven-year prison sentence for rape. “Once the law began to be implemented, behaviors that had been tolerated in the army and government suddenly became illegal,” Hoffman said. “The bastards changed the rules and didn’t tell Moshe Katsav.”

At the same time, in the Orthodox world, women are gaining power and influence. Hoffman points out that it’s women who receive a more worldly education — and therefore pay the mortgage and balance the checkbook — while men receive only a religious education. “Women are in the world, and the kids see that the women know more. So how else can the Orthodox world keep them in their place other than to say, ‘You might know more in the modern world, but in the religious world, you should know your place.’ ”

As Hoffman — who earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA — prepares to address Jewish audiences in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, she said she hopes that American Jews will hold Israel’s feet to the fire on social issues. “Don’t go easy on us,” she said. “Israel needs to hear the truth from its supporters. To be a Zionist is not a spectator sport.”


Anat Hoffman will be speaking in Los Angeles on:

Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m. “Between the Stones and a Hard Place: The Challenge to Gender Equity in Israel.” Hoffman will speak during Shabbat Unplugged Service-In-The-Round. Following Kiddush, she will also speak from 9:15 to 10:15 p.m. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. Free and open to the public.

Feb. 4, 9 a.m. “Civil Rights in Israel.” Shabbat Morning Worship. Temple Beth Am, 1039 South La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Free and open to the public.

Feb. 4, 4 p.m. Women’s Rights in Israel. Mincha, Seudat Shlishit, Maariv and Havdallah. Temple Beth Am, 1039 South La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Hoffman will speak during Seudat Shlishit. Free and open to the public.

Woman assaulted by haredi men in Beit Shemesh


A woman hanging posters for Israel’s national lottery was assaulted by haredi Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh.

The men reportedly surrounded her car, slashed her tires and stole her car keys. A stone thrown at the car hit the woman in the head.

The posters did not contain any photos of women.

Police helped the woman and arrested three suspects, Ynet reported. Other attackers reportedly fled the scene and are being sought by police. The woman filed a complaint with the police.

Beit Shemesh has been the scene of tension between haredi Orthodox and city residents as well as visitors over the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

The back of the bus


If Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy teaches us one thing, it’s that the fight for civil rights is not particular to a time, a place, a people or a gender.

It’s still shocking to watch vintage 1960s TV footage and see moms and dads yelling at someone else’s children for simply walking up the steps of a high school.

Now, we watch all-too-similar images on YouTube as we confront what’s happening to women and girls in Israel.

In Beit Shemesh just last month, TV cameras captured a frightened 8-year-old child walking to school with her mother. That girl, Na’ama Margolese, was terrified because Charedi Jews who don’t like the length of her skirt or the sleeves on her shirt regularly have spit on her and cursed her. The girl’s mother, Hadassa Margolese, who grew up in Los Angeles, talked to our reporter, Larry Derfner, in this issue of The Journal (p. 13) about her fight to maintain her child’s rights and dignity in their hometown of Beit Shemesh.

In recent years, ultra-Orthodox Charedi Jews in Jerusalem routinely have forced women riding bus lines that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sit at the back.  And now, as the freedom fighters did in the American South, in Israel, protesters have come together to defy such rules. Earlier this month, groups of men and women boarded buses in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, sitting together to draw attention to the gender segregation on public transportation that the Charedi community has demanded.

It would seem a no-brainer that, in a democracy, public spaces belong to all people — the civil rights of all human beings cannot be limited by the desires or wishes of a single group. But that is what has been going on for years in some neighborhoods of Israel, where not only are rules of segregation enforced through harassment, but the government has not stepped in to right these wrongs.

Whether by race or by gender, segregation in public spaces defies the dignity of human beings. No democracy can tolerate this.

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, let us remember a story he told at a Friday night Shabbat service at Temple Israel of Hollywood, right here in Los Angeles, on Feb. 26, 1965.

“Some time ago, Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India, and we had some marvelous experiences. … I remember one afternoon that we journeyed down to the southernmost point of India in the state of Kerala. And I was to address that afternoon some high school students who were the children mainly of parents who had been ‘untouchables.’ And I remember that afternoon that the principal went through his introduction, and when he came to the end, he said, ‘I’m happy to present to you, students, a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.’ And for the moment, I was peeved and shocked that he would introduce me as an untouchable, but pretty soon my mind leaped the Atlantic, and I started thinking about conditions back home. And I started thinking about the fact that I could not go in to most places of public accommodation all across the South.

“I started thinking about the fact that 20 million of my black brothers and sisters were still at the bottom of the economic ladder. I started thinking about the fact that Negroes all over America, even if they have the money, cannot buy homes and rent homes of their choices, because so many of their white brothers don’t want to live near them. I started thinking about the fact that my little children were still judged in terms of the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And I said to myself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an untouchable.’ And segregation is evil, because it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We’ve been in the mountain of segregation long enough, and it is time for all men of goodwill to say now, ‘We are through with segregation now, henceforth, and forever more.’ ”

King’s uplifting words — here and throughout his writings — can give to us, today’s untouchables, the inner peace to turn the other cheek, to keep walking forward with our daughters toward a better tomorrow.

Let us honor King’s memory and walk to school with Hadassa and Na’ama Margolese; let us send our support to the freedom fighters in Israel who refuse to have their children spat upon or to sit at the back of the bus.

Israel moves to outlaw use of Nazi symbols


Israel’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to laws to curb public use of Nazi symbols after ultra-Orthodox protesters caused outrage by calling police Nazis and wearing concentration camp garb.

Four bills swiftly passed one of five rounds of voting needed to become law, even though a spectrum of critics denounced them as a violation of free speech.

The laws call for up to a year in jail and stiff fines for anyone convicted of visually or verbally misusing symbols such as swastikas, the term Nazi or epithets related to the killing of six million Jews before and during World War Two.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the bills before they went to parliament, seizing on public outrage at devout Jews who dressed last month as Holocaust victims to show they felt persecuted by objections to their efforts to achieve gender segregation in public.

Some at the Jerusalem protest on December 31 also shouted “Nazis, Nazis” at Israeli police.

Israel has a law banning Holocaust denial but none so far against public displays of Nazi symbols.

The Jewish state established in 1948 is still home to more than 200,000 ageing survivors of the Holocaust, yet all kinds of protesters have long employed symbols of the tragedy to showcase their causes.

Jewish settlers protested against the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza by putting yellow Stars of David on their clothes, like those the Nazis once forced Jews to wear.

Critics of Israel’s occupation of land Palestinians seek for statehood have also sometimes called Israeli soldiers Nazis.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the new laws violated free speech.

“Freedom of expression means the right to say difficult things that might even been hurtful,” a statement on the group’s Web site said.

While the use of Holocaust symbolism was “indeed a big question which deserves a robust and free public debate, it is not a question that should be handled through criminal law.”

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Nazi-hunter group, said: “The misuse of Holocaust imagery is nothing new. It’s a terrible thing, we all agree.”

He said he thought Israel would avoid enforcing the measures for fear of aggravating social divisions and that “unimplemented, such a law would make a mockery of the whole issue.”

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Edited by Richard Meares)

Israel’s religion minister fears Jewish divides


Israeli society could be torn apart if disputes between ultra-Orthodox and less observant Jews continue to heat up, Israel’s religious affairs minister said on Wednesday.

In a telephone interview, Yaacov Margy, who also serves as director-general of Shas, a religious party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, condemned an incident last month in which zealots seeking gender separation spat at a schoolgirl they accused of dressing immodestly.

That attack was disclosed by an Israeli television station, whose report on the violence stunned many in the Jewish state, where concerns over religious coercion are mounting among its mainly secular population.

Margy said such incidents and ultra-Orthodox protests – in the latest, on Saturday, children were dressed as Nazi Holocaust victims to suggest public persecution of the community – had been overblown in the media.

“If they ganged up on an 8-year-old girl, this is something that must be uprooted. We have a police force, courts – anyone who is violent must be dealt with. But we don’t have to go crazy,” he said.

Margy accused media outlets of fueling the religious-secular dispute by covering in detail ultra-Orthodox protests.

“If we have a problem in Israeli society we should deal with it through dialogue,” he said. “I call on all people in the media and the extremists on both sides, crazy people: ‘climb down off the roof’.”

He said he feared that failure to do so “will tear Israeli society apart,” and pointed to banners at a recent secular demonstration where protesters voiced their fear that Israel could become like Islamist-ruled Iran.

“Every morning I go to look at the window and check whether I see some pro-Khomeini protest at my doorstep,” he said referring to the religious leader who led the 1979 Iranian revolution. “All I see are green fields, a good atmosphere and good neighbors.”

That view contrasts sharply with a cautionary note sounded last month by Israeli President Shimon Peres who said the country was in the grip of a battle for its soul.

BACK OF THE BUS

An emotional national debate has been raging over issues such attempts to segregate sidewalks in areas where devout Jews live and back-of-the-bus seating for women on public buses that ply religious neighborhoods and which are patronized by ultra-Orthodox passengers.

Turning to coalition politics in which his Shas party has traditionally been a king-maker, Margy said he was “very disappointed” in Netanyahu’s right-wing government, where a major partner has promoted contentious legislation governing marriage.

The bill introduced by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party would give Israelis a freer hand at choosing rabbis to register them for marriage.

Jewish marriage in Israel is administered by Orthodox rabbis, whose refusal to register mixed couples poses difficulties for Yisrael Beitenu’s considerable Russian immigrant constituency, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

“Nobody expects the Jewish state to permit mixed marriages,” Margy said.

With 11 lawmakers in Netanyahu’s 66-member coalition, Shas has enough sway to stand up and be heard as it helps assure the government of majority support in Israel’s 120-seat legislature.

The next parliamentary election is not due until 2013, but Netanyahu has scheduled an early Likud leadership ballot for January 31, raising speculation the date of a national vote might be brought forward.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller

A spit of death


I am sickened to hear the recent reports from Israel concerning eight-year-old Naama Margolese who is afraid to go to school because “orthodox” extremists spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.” In addition to violating the biblical commandment of Ahavas Israel, and Maimonides warning against extremism, this fanatical behavior can have disastrous consequences.

Some 30 years ago I was asked to meet with an Israeli woman who was involved with the Church of Scientology. Here is her story.

When she was 12 years old her uncle took her by train from her home town of Haifa to Jerusalem.  This first trip to the holy city would be her special Bat Mitzvah present. Upon arriving at the old Jerusalem train station she got separated from her uncle and turned to a religiously dressed man for help. She was wearing a sleeveless top because of the summer heat and the individual who could have helped her, decided it was more important to spit on her because he disapproved of her immodest dress.

She cried uncontrollably and eventually told her uncle that if this is the way religious Jews act she want nothing to do with them or their religion. 

Years later during the six-day-war she was assigned to a unit in the Sinai and witness the depression war brought upon the soldiers. Out of nowhere she heard music and witnessed a bus load of Chabadniks arrive with a friendly smile and a few L‘Chaims. She thought to herself, “Maybe not all religious Jews are bad.”

After the war she married and settled down in Haifa. Her first daughter was born with a disability that prevented her from walking. Every hospital told her there was no hope. In desperation they traveled to visit medical experts in London and New York. The prognosis was awful. Nothing could be done.

Depressed and out of money she sat on a New York City park bench holding her daughter and crying. A taxi stopped and the driver asked if she needed a ride. Upon hearing her situation the Israeli driver said, “Let me take you somewhere you can get help.” He dropped her off outside the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s office in Brooklyn. The Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyomin Klein greeted her in Hebrew and invited them to stay with his family. He also arranged to have all the medical records presented to the Rebbe for his advice and blessing.  Weeks passed and the Rebbe finally recommended she move to Los Angeles. With nothing to lose she accepted the Chassidim’s financial assistance and traveled to LA.

It was a USC Medical Center where is discovered a new treatment that helped her daughter. Then on Yom Kippur her daughter had a relapse and needed to go to the emergency room. She asked a neighbor for a ride and once again contrary to Jewish law a “religious” and dare I say ignorant Jew, refused to help her. Some secular Israelis came to the rescue and drove them to the hospital and though there friendship introduced her to Scientology.

I was able to help her see though the propaganda of Scientology and invited her to Shabbat dinner at the original Westwood Chabad House. I will never forget the moment she arrived with her husband and daughter who walked in unassisted. She sat with my wife singing Shabbat songs together. I started crying and thanked God for the opportunity to witness this miracle.

For the third time this woman, who could have been turned off to Judaism forever, saw that not all religious Jews are bad and this time she committed herself to staying actively involved in Jewish life.

As the Talmud teaches, we must ask ourselves if our actions save a Jewish life or destroy it. Do we draw a person close with kindness or push them away with anger.

I hope the extremists wake up and realize they are making a horrible mistake and I also hope Naama reads this story and it warms her heart and gives her hope.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founder and director of Jews for Judaism International. He is dedicated to keeping Jews Jewish and can be reached at la@JewsForJudaism.org

Military rabbi resigns haredi recruitment post


The chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force has resigned from a program that recruits haredi Orthodox men over the issue of female soldiers singing at events.

Rabbi Moshe Ravad said in his resignation letter from the Shahar program that “in light of the current situation I cannot see myself being a part of the program as a rabbi and an adviser.”

The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday that its soldiers will not be excused from official military ceremonies at which women sing, but can request permission to be absent from performances by females during cultural and private unit events.

Ravad wrote in his letter, “The main argument I’ve always relied on was the fact that I could allow haredi men who enlist to maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and observe their faith. During recent months, the Personnel Directorate decided to reevaluate the rules. The most recent draft I read had omitted clauses that were intended to protect the beliefs of God-fearing soldiers. Under the current circumstances, I can’t be a part of the program as a rabbi or a consultant.”

Ravad, who has resigned from the recruitment program but not from his chief rabbi position, is set to retire from the IDF this summer.

Some 2,000 Orthodox soldiers have been recruited through the Shahar program, according to Ynet. 

Following a meeting Wednesday with Ravad, Chief Military Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz recommended to dismiss Raved from the military over the resignation.

Haredi Orthodox children attacked in Jerusalem


Two haredi Orthodox children say they were attacked in Jerusalem by non-Orthodox Jews in recent days.

An 11-year-old haredi Orthodox boy filed a complaint with Jerusalem police Tuesday alleging that two non-Orthodox teens attacked him and shouted at him at a bus stop in Jerusalem, and tried to prevent him from getting on the bus because he is haredi Orthodox.

On Sunday, a haredi-Orthodox girl, 11, told police that a non-Orthodox bus passenger on a Jerusalem bus spit at her and pushed her, saying “We will destroy the haredim.”

The haredi Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat reportedly opened a hotline for haredi Orthodox people to report violence against them. It has reportedly received numerous responses.

Females sit in the front to protest gender-segregated buses


Dozens of female demonstrators in Israel sat near the driver at the front of gender-segregated buses to protest the separation of men and women.

The protesters rode buses Sunday evening leaving from Jerusalem and Ramat Gan through the haredi Orthodox community of Bnei Brak and through Beit Shemesh, where a Modern Orthodox girls school on the cusp of a haredi Orthodox neighborhood has thrust the issue of the exclusion of women in the public sphere into the spotlight.

Be Free Israel, which according to its website is a nonpartisan movement working on behalf of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, organized the protest of the mehadrin, or sex-segregated, bus lines. Men also participated in the protest.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that voluntary sex segregation is permissible on public bus routes.

Also Sunday, the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces told a meeting of military rabbis that they must work to prevent the exclusion of women in the military.

“There will be no exclusion of women in the IDF,” Rabbi Rafi Peretz said. “We especially, who know the importance of respecting a woman, must make sure this controversy won’t penetrate our ranks.”

Where do Israeli haredim stand on haredi violence?


The cascade of condemnations started pouring in almost as soon as the Israeli TV report aired. It’s subject was an 8-year-old girl harassed by haredi men on the way to her Modern Orthodox girls’ school in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh.

The Israeli prime minister and president vowed that Israel would not tolerate haredi violence against women, whether directed at schoolgirls or women on public buses. Israel’s opposition leader, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, went to a demonstration of thousands held Tuesday night in Beit Shemesh.

In America, too, the condemnations came fast and furious: Hadassah, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the haredi Orthodox umbrella body Agudath Israel of America were among the many groups that responded.

There appeared to be just one segment of the Jewish community that was staying silent about the violence: Israeli haredim.

That’s because there is some ambivalence among haredi Israelis when it comes to religious zealotry.

“The question isn’t how many haredim support haredi violence and how many do not,” said sociologist Menachem Friedman, an expert on haredi life and professor emeritus at Bar-Ilan University. “In all the conflicts involving haredi violence in Israel, from the British Mandate period until today, violent haredim were always a small minority, and I believe that the vast majority feel uncomfortable about them.

“The problem is that most haredim allow the extremists to act and do not stop them,” Friedman continued. “Some, perhaps a small segment, really do support the violence; some, perhaps a larger segment, do not support the violence but understand the extremists, believing that actions like these, even if they are not pretty, at the end of the day are a true expression of religious sentiments,” he said. “And the majority perhaps opposes the violence and knows that ultimately it’s bad for Judaism but doesn’t have the courage to go out and oppose it publicly.”

There were one or two notable exceptions this week.

“If there are those in our generation who believe that warfare is the way to spread the light of Judaism, they are mistaken,” the Jerusalem-based leader of the Belz Chasidim, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, said Sunday during the nightly Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at his synagogue, which holds upward of 6,000 people.

Rokeach’s comments, though tepid by secular standards, marked a rare foray into current events by the rebbe, who has an estimated 45,000 followers worldwide.

But the roundabout way the rebbe’s message was delivered, and the scant media coverage given to haredi opposition to the violence aimed at non-haredim, is indicative both of the difficulties outsiders have with discerning shades of gray in haredi society and the ambivalence within the haredi world toward using violence to achieve religious aims.

For one thing, Israeli haredi condemnations of violence are not delivered the same way as condemnations in the non-haredi world. They are generally directed inward, not outward; they tend to be delivered not in statements to the press but as words of Torah to followers; they are often spoken not in English or Hebrew, but in Yiddish; and they are expressed less as a reaction to current events than as calls for dignified behavior by Torah-observant Jews.

“The Belzer rebbe is one of the few people who has the guts to say something,” Tuvya Stern, a haredi attorney who lives in Beit Shemesh, told JTA. “But he’s not going to condemn the extremists; that’s not his way. He’ll just advocate for a different approach.”

Rokeach’s speech, which was reported in haredi media and noted by Israel Radio, was unusual both because it referred to current events and because it was aimed, at least in part, at a wider audience: The rebbe had invited an Israeli Knesset member, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to be with him when he delivered his speech on Chanukah’s sixth night. Because Rokeach made his remarks in Yiddish, it’s not clear whether or not Sa’ar picked up on their significance.

Rokeach’s reaction, however, was exceptional. Most haredi leaders stayed silent.

The violent zealots are drawn largely from the Edah HaHaredis, a community of anti-Zionist haredim that is particularly strict even by haredi standards and has strongholds in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The Edah is closely aligned with the Satmar Chasidic sect.

Haredi support for fighting a culture war against secularism extends beyond the Edah HaHaredis, but most haredim who espouse such views won’t go so far as to become defenders of the faith themselves. Haredim often invoke a classic metaphor to describe this approach: You may not want to live with a cat, but you need cats around to eat the mice if you want to prevent infestation.

This week, the “infestation” is the presence of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school, Orot, adjacent to a haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh. At other times, it has been the mixing of sexes in Orthodox neighborhoods, the operation of parking lots or roads on Shabbat in haredi neighborhoods, and attempts by women to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall.

Similar behavior can be found in certain Islamic societies and fundamentalist Catholic and Protestant communities, Friedman said, noting that a key difference with haredim is that any violence is relatively limited in scope, not involving serious injury or death.

Then there are haredim who oppose extremism but fear speaking out because they do not want to be seen as lax in matters of religion.

When Rabbi David Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon sect of Chasidim, spoke out a few years ago against religious violence via a Yiddish-language Torah exegesis of the story of Pinchas the zealot in the Book of Numbers, he quickly was condemned in placards posted around his neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem.

Other haredim don’t speak out because they see fights like the one in Beit Shemesh not as a battle between extremists and moderates but as part of a broader Israeli assault on haredi life led by the mainstream Israeli media.

“The source of the pollution is in halachah [Jewish law] itself,” former Knesset member Yossi Sarid wrote in a column published Friday in Israel’s daily Haaretz. Sarid called for the disqualification of haredi parties from the Knesset. On Haaretz’s English-language website, the article was titled “Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things.”

Facing such hostility, some haredim say, why get involved at all?

And then there is the large segment of haredim who see themselves as totally apart from the haredim perpetrating the violence. Their attitude is that if it’s not their community members, it’s not their business and they don’t need to get involved.

While to an outsider all haredim may look alike—with their black coats, hats and beards—the haredi community is as fractured as the Jewish community as a whole. In Israel, the haredi community is divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Chasidic and non-Chasidic, moderates and extremists. Within the Chasidic community, too, there are multiple sects—and sometimes even competing grand rebbes within the same sect.

But in a world seen by outsiders as monolithic, all haredim inevitably are associated with the extremism of a few, and haredi silence is seen as affirmation of haredi bad behavior.

It’s something that may irk haredim who are engaged with the outside world, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to haredim who aren’t.

That nonchalance is alien to the non-haredi Jewish world, where organizations and leaders go out of their way to denounce ideas, people or actions they find distasteful. That goes for everything from terrorist attacks to the bombing of churches in Nigeria, which at least four Jewish groups issued statements condemning this week.

When the main haredi umbrella organization in America issued its statement this week condemning the violence, it also took a shot at those denigrating haredim in general.

“Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended,” the Agudath Israel of America said in its statement. “It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.”

Until haredim take to their synagogue lecterns, the airwaves or the streets, however, that’s a message that’s unlikely to be heard by the Jewish public.

To be sure, there were a few haredim who joined Tuesday’s demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence. Some were members of a new local haredi party called Tov (Hebrew for “good”) whose platform espouses moderation and open-mindedness.

“It was a very hard decision” because many of the protesters were engaged in anti-haredi sloganeering, explained Stern, the haredi attorney from Beit Shemesh, who is a leading Tov activist. “There were signs at the rally saying ‘Haredim leave Beit Shemesh.’”

Nevertheless, he said, it was important to make a public statement.

“There are rabbis in the haredi world who believe in violence as part of a religious duty,” Stern said, “but they are not a large group of people.”

Haredi man indicted for harrasment after insulting female Israeli soldier on bus


A haredi Orthodox man who insulted a female soldier after she refused to sit in the back of a city bus was charged with sexual harassment.

Shlomo Fuchs, 44, was indicted in a Jerusalem court Thursday, a day after he was arrested by Jerusalem police for calling the soldier, Doron Matalon, 19, a “whore” and a “shiksa” on a Jerusalem bus; he was joined in the insults by other passengers. The bus driver pulled over and called police.

Also on Thursday, female members of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women rode on a segregated bus from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem.

Haredi Orthodox male passengers reportedly called out insults to the women, who sat in the front of the bus, and complained of provocation. Some saw the television cameras and opted not to get on the bus, according to reports.

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Wednesday called on the public to file complaints with the police over such harassment, Ynet reported.

Thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh on Tuesday night to protest the exclusion of women in the public sphere.

Israel will take action against haredi extremists, Netanyahu says


Israel will take action against haredi Orthodox extremists who harass women in the public sphere, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned.

“We won’t accept spitting on people in the street just because someone doesn’t approve of their dress,” Netanyahu said Wednesday at the Knesset, Haaretz reported.

He also warned against generalizing all haredi Orthodox people because of the actions of a few.  “The vast majority of the Haredi public combines an adherence to Jewish tradition and a complete respect of the law,” he said.

Netanyahu made his comments a day after thousands gathered in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh to protest the exclusion of women and violence against women in the public sphere.

American Jewish groups condemned the public violence against women in Israel.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said in a statement that it stands firmly against discrimination with regard to gender, religion and race.

“We denounce recent attempts by extremists to segregate and discriminate against women in public spaces in Israel,” the organization said. “All of our institutions … are fully committed to equal opportunity for all.”

The organization praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres “for their public statements and call on religious and political leaders everywhere to join them in condemning and committing to end extremist positions against women.”

The Jewish Federations of North America also praised Netanyahu and members of the government for their public condemnations of religious extremism and violence against women

“Our movement includes Jewish people from all streams and persuasions. Yet, despite our differing backgrounds, we unite today to strongly condemn, with one clear and loud voice, all acts of violence, intimidation, coercion and extremism, especially those that are undertaken, incredibly, in the name of Judaism,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA. “We know that ‘deracheha darchei noam’ – the Torah’s paths are ways of peace. We stand firmly and resolutely behind the voices of reason and moderation in Bet Shemesh and throughout Israel.”

Man arrested for insulting female Israeli soldier on bus


Israel detained an Orthodox man on Wednesday on suspicion of calling a woman soldier a “whore” on a public bus for refusing his appeals that she move to the back of the vehicle, a police spokesman said.

The incident came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of harassment by religious zealots, with the publicity surrounding these cases risking upsetting his political alliances with Orthodox parties.

Much of the controversy has surrounded complaints by women against ultra-Orthodox men trying to force them to sit separately in the backs of public buses in deference to their religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.

Soldier Doron Matalon said on Israel Radio that a devoutly religious man had approached her and insisted she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem earlier on Wednesday, after she had embarked at a station near her military base.

“It was very frightening,” Matalon said, saying the incident was not the first in which she had been asked to move to the back of a bus but that this time she felt more defiant.

Matalon said she replied to the man: “You can move to the back if you want. Just like you don’t want to see my face, I don’t want to see yours.” She added that she was “serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you.”

The man responded by shouting at her “whore, go sit in the back,” Matalon said, adding that the driver later stopped the vehicle and police arrived.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed an Orthodox man was taken into custody and “questioned about his motives” for insulting the soldier, but no decision had yet been made as to whether he would be charged.

Some bus lines that serve predominantly religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities have been segregated despite complaints from women’s groups that their civil rights were being violated.

Under Israeli law women are entitled to object to sitting in the back, but they risk verbal and physical abuse for refusing to do so.

Several thousand activists demonstrated in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on Tuesday against incidents in which ultra-Orthodox zealots have spat at and insulted women and female children, complaining they were immodestly dressed.

Some Orthodox politicians have condemned the violence as the actions of an extremist fringe but see the controversy as an effort to incite public opinion against their politically influential minority in the Jewish state.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan