Opinion: Don’t set back reproductive rights for Israeli women

In 1979, I moved from the United States to Israel, where I discovered that unlike in America, reproductive choice in Israel was by and large not an issue—not religiously, politically or socially.

As the director of the Israel Office for the U.S.-based National Council of Jewish Women for the past 17 years, I was always grateful and surprised that with all the problems regarding women’s rights in Israel, the consensus on abortion was to leave well enough alone.

I’m hoping that is not about to change.

At the moment, birth control and abortion services are not only legal but, in most cases, abortion is covered by health plans with a small copay. Women serving in the Israeli army are entitled to free birth control and abortions. But last month, Nissim Zeev, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Shas party (the Sephardic religious party) submitted legislation seeking to limit abortions after the 22nd week of pregnancy.

Zeev claims that since technology now allows life outside the womb at 22 weeks, pregnancy termination after that is tantamount to “murder”—a word he actually used. He went on to argue that women are encouraged to end their pregnancies for social reasons, and they later regret their abortions and suffer depression because of them.

In effect, Zeev is following in the footsteps of the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who two years ago attacked the official committees that by law approve abortions. Eliyahu charged that “a million children have been cut down alive since the state [of Israel] was created.”

Luckily, the government opposes Zeev’s proposal. Most political analysts agree it was merely a ploy to draw attention away from issues such as drafting haredi Orthodox men into the Israeli army and ending gender segregation, both of which have roiled the waters between the haredi Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.

In Israel, all requests for a government-subsidized abortion through one’s health plan are reviewed by a committee that includes a family doctor, a gynecologist and a social worker. Knesset member Zahava Galon, who heads the left-of-center Meretz party, has drafted bills several times to eliminate all such committees—an idea the government also opposes and habitually keeps bottled up in committee.

Galon describes attitudes toward abortion as ranging from “indifference, to resistance, to a desire to control the right of a woman and her wish to decide her reproductive rights.” These attitudes, she says, “allow the state to continue to define the decision-making process on the termination of pregnancy.”

Such views are also contested in the United States, where despite President Obama’s support for abortion rights, congressional opponents succeeded in severely limiting government-funded abortions covered by the new national health reform law. Since the 2010 election, states have enacted a record number of laws intended to restrict or even eliminate access to abortion.

While I appreciate Galon’s desire to make abortion even more accessible to all woman in Israel by doing away with the committee that reviews requests for a government-subsidized abortion, it is still the case that with committee approval, every Israeli’s health plan covers abortion for most women between the ages of 18 and 42 for a small copay, and for free for women outside that age range. That is a stark contrast to the situation in the United States.

Israeli law, which incorporates halachah, or Jewish law, makes abortion legal and justified in most cases. The U.S. pro-choice camp would love to have such liberal laws on the books.

When I made aliyah, it seemed birth control and abortion rights were a done deal in the United States. I hope that remains the case despite ongoing attacks there. And for Israel, my wish is that Zeev and his allies find something else to oppose and leave women’s reproductive rights at least as strong as they were when I arrived here more than three decades ago.

Shari Eshet is director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Israel office.

Helnwein ‘Epiphany’ Afflicts Comfortable

In contemporary artist Gottfried Helnwein’s painting, “Epiphany I,” an Aryan Madonna-like figure sits holding a naked, uncircumcised new born boy, while some SS officers stand around her, critically sizing up mother and child. The painting is a reproduction of a Nazi propaganda photograph in which Hitler was the central figure; here in the painting, the mother is.

“Epiphany I: Adoration of the Magi,” one of five works by Helnwein currently on exhibit at the Schmeidler-Goetz gallery in West Hollywood, is not the first work of art to explore an uncomfortable subject like the Holocaust.

Depictions of tragedy and violence are often so powerful we may wish to avoid them entirely. Holocaust images and those of other persecutions tend to be rendered manageable by being circumscribed to memorials and museums, places that by their very design prepare us to receive them in hushed tones of historical concern. But confront these images in an unexpected context and one’s reaction may be less predictable, especially if the content is not the vaguely safe images of Nazi horror, but the very symbols and propaganda that fed the rallying call of Hitler’s death machine.

What is in fact the capacity of these symbols to move people? Artists can seem to teeter on the line of propriety in exploring this question. Helnwein, in particular, has been exploring this throughout his career. In one of his early exhibitions, in Germany in 1971, audience reaction encompassed the gamut of emotional reactions, from adulation and Führer worship at the sight of an oversized portrait of Hitler to violent rejection in the form of vandalism to sympathetic watercolor images of deformed and crippled children.

Helnwein was born in Austria in 1948 in a post-WWII culture unwilling to confront its wartime past. Humanist themes pervade Helnwein’s work, but his approach is not one of pandering or niceties. From his earliest moments as an artist, Helnwein has sought to provoke and elicit “unexpected reactions that reveal the innermost held feelings and beliefs [of the viewer],” according to Alexander Borovsky, curator at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Some of the most powerful images that deal with Nazism and Holocaust themes are by Anselm Kiefer and Helnwein, although, Kiefer’s work differs considerably from Helnwein’s in his concern with the effect of German aggression on the national psyche and the complexities of German cultural heritage. Kiefer is known for evocative and soulful images of barren German landscapes. But Kiefer’s and Helnwein’s works are both informed by the personal experience of growing up in postwar German-speaking countries.

For some artists, like Annette Lemieux, an artist and professor at Harvard University, historical images, even those of the Holocaust, provide a framework for more current concerns: “I would have to say, that I was not thinking about re-contextualizing past ‘found’ images. My ‘found’ images have always been visual substitutes for the present.”

One of Helnwein’s other works is “Selection: Ninth of November Night,” a Kristallnacht commemoration originally shown at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, in 1988. For the large-scale exhibit set in a public plaza opposite the museum, Helnwein photographed contemporary children and whitewashed their faces to appear as Holocaust survivors. Simon Wiesenthal noted, “Helnwein’s most convincing idea [was] to present this … in such an unconventional manner. He made no use of photos of heaped corpses; children’s portraits force the observer to stop and consider this idea.”

Many of the images were slashed across the neck and one was stolen. Rachel Schmeidler, one of the founders of gallery, contacted Helnwein after hearing him speak about the exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance last year.

Since then, Helnwein has exhibited the works damaged, demonstrating the continued need to speak out against the horrors of the Holocaust and persecution everywhere. This commitment has been lauded by Wiesenthal: “….His images are a constant silent appeal against collective denial and repression.”

Some of Helnwein’s images have joined the pantheon of pop culture. Many would instantly recognize images from his “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” series: the painting, “Nighthawks,” his appropriation of Edward Hopper’s 1942 work of the same name, of lonely diner patrons, in which Helnwein substitutes James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Humphrey Bogart as the patrons.

William Burroughs said that the American revolution begins in books and music, and political operatives implement the changes after the fact. To this maybe we can add art. And Helnwein’s art might have the capacity to instigate change by piercing the veil of political correctness to recapture the primitive gesture inherent in art.

The exhibit runs through July 24 at Schmeidler-Goetz/Los Angeles Rectangle Gallery, 9013 1/2 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. The gallery is open 6-9 p.m. (Friday), noon-5 p.m. (Sat. and Sun.) and by appointment. For more information, call (310) 273-0135. To see Helnwin’s art online visit