Religion in the public sphere

By Sarah Sullivan, IRAC Communications Intern

For the past week, one of the biggest news stories in Israel has been the controversy over the language of the Yizkor Prayer that is said in Israel in remembrance of fallen soldiers. Previously, the prayer had begun with the words, “yizkor am yisrael,” may the people of Israel remember (the fallen soldiers). Recently, there has been a move to change the language of the prayer to begin, “yizkor elohim,” may God remember. This proposed change has sparked a massive controversy among Israelis in a clear example of the escalating conflict between religion and state in Israel.

In many ways, this conflict reminds me of conflicts that have occurred in the United States in recent years over the relationship between religion and state. Michael Newdow, an American attorney and atheist who is a staunch defender of the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit in 2000 on his daughter’s behalf to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. He believed that these words violated the Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Most Americans will tell you that the First Amendment provides citizens with freedomof religion, but we often forget that it also provides us with freedom from religion. Newdow felt that the words “under God” in the Pledge violated the freedom from religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Requiring students to invoke God when reciting the Pledge, Newdow felt, was unconstitutional.

In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court agreed with Newdow and ruled in his favor. However, when the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the decision was overturned. The Court dismissed the case on a technicality–Newdow did not have custody over his daughter and could not bring a lawsuit on her behalf. Thus, the Court was able to avoid addressing the controversial issue of whether having God in the Pledge is constitutional.

The controversy in Israel is also the result of inserting God into an aspect of public life. While God can be found in the traditional religious version of Yizkor, the version for soldiers had referred instead to the people of Israel. Now, secular Israelis are protesting the change that replaces Am Yisrael with God.

Interestingly, both of these conflicts boil down to problems of altered language. In its original form, the Pledge of Allegiance made no reference to God. The phrase “under God” was not added until the 1950s. In spite of the similarities that can be found in these two instances of inserting God into state-endorsed statements, there are also important differences that must be noted.

Israel is a Jewish state without a constitution. It is impossible as an Israeli to have freedom from religion because religious leadership controls many aspects of life here including marriage and divorce. Separation of religion and state is not a reality in Israel, nor do all Israelis see such a separation as a goal.

Additionally, while Michael Newdow clearly opposed the presence of God within Pledge, most Israelis are not objecting to the insertion of God into the Yizkor Prayer but rather to the removal of the people of Israel.

Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance in the United State, the Yizkor Prayer is deeply meaningful to every Israeli and is relevant to their daily lives. Removing the people of Israel from the prayer makes it seem as though it is not important for the people of Israel to remember fallen soldiers. Israel is a country that was created by the sacrifice of these soldiers, and in addition to God remembering, it is essential that Israelis remember those who have given their lives for the State and the safety of its citizens. The context is altogether different than that of the United States.

Regardless of official policy, religion has an impact on the state in both Israel and the United States. Inserting God into the public sphere is always controversial. However, context is essential in understanding these issues. The conflict between religion and state in Israel different challenges than such conflicts in the United States.

Thus far, working at IRAC has helped me to gain valuable perspective about the conflict between religion and state in Israel and what we can do to try to resolve some of these issues.

Political hostage no more

By Barry Leonard Werner
The author is an oleh chadash who came to Israel in December of 2009.  He is passionate about Israel and the Jewish people.
Israel is the Jewish State, the national home for the Jewish People. In Israel matters of religion are political issues because they have profound social consequences. Any rational observer knows that Judaism today takes many forms and that Orthodoxy is not the only form of Judaism there is. It is therefore a terrible mistake for Israel to give the Orthodox community the monopoly on deciding the definition of Judaism.There ought to be a broadly based Knesset committee of MKs, who are demonstrably personally committed to Israel being a Jewish state, organized to listen to voices from all the various parts of the Jewish community, inside and outside Israel. That committee should recommend the government’s response to matters of religion, such as the definition of what is or is not Judaism and matters of conversion.
Narrowly defined religious parties should be legally excluded from having a place in any government because the inescapable, inherent logic of Orthodox religious political parties precludes their conforming to the most fundamental requirement of public service. Public servants must give unbiased service to all Israelis, irrespective of whether those Israelis conform to the religious doctrines espoused by a particular Orthodox religious denomination. Israel is a democracy; it is not and should certainly ever even come close to becoming a theocracy.
The Orthodox parties are furthering their own narrowly understood religious values rather than the needs of society as a whole. For example, the Orthodox parties believe that the moshiach will come sooner if their children are paid to study Talmud in yeshiva instead of working for a living or serving in the army, and that this would be of such great benefit to everyone else in Israel that the cost of it should be borne by the taxpayer. However, that’s just one of many beliefs peculiar to their religious tradition that most of the rest of us don’t share. Even many (probably most) religious Jews don’t subscribe to that belief. Given the fact that Israel is faced with enormous military, social and education budgetary problems, it is irresponsible for the religious parties in the government to force Israel to incentivize a large segment of the population to be economically unproductive and a financial burden on the rest of society. Such a social experiment represents irresponsible governance in anything other than a theocracy. Not only that, they hold as political hostage other important matters, such as war and peace, in order to get their way.
If members of a particular sect want to define Judaism in their own particular way they should be free to do so but it should be a private affair that affects only those who freely chose to be bound by it, but of course only within the bounds of secular law.

On rabbis and racism

By Julian Resnick
Julian Resnick has lived in Israel since 1976. He made Aliyah from South Africa and has worked in numerous positions for the Reform Movement, starting with NFTY in Israel 30 years ago, Netzer Olami, and two shlichuyot for the MRJ in London.  He is currently a Shaliach for Habonim Dror in NYC, and you can catch him at the Connections Conference in San Francisco in February. 
I have always loved being Jewish. At times in my life I kept this great love of mine fairly quiet and out of sight as I was part of a social and political grouping in which a fierce ethnicity was not really a dominant part of our culture. It was a time where our culture was defined by our participation in a struggle which transcended what were then perceived as narrow boundaries.

In recent years, probably due to the many, many years I have lived in Israel, or should this read, in spite of the many, many years I have lived in Israel (?), as well as the time I spent working for the Movement for Reform Judaism in the UK and the powerful experiences of Jewish travel in my Jewish Journeys world, my every day has been a Jewish experience.

Last night lighting candles in my temporary home on the Upper East Side, just one road away from the 92nd St Y and an hour after seeing Black Swan, I felt so at peace and at home with my Jewish Identity. Just think of this: working as a Shaliach for Habonim Dror, the Socialist Zionist youth movement I grew up in, enjoying my Friday night services at Bnei Yeshurun (BJ) on the Upper West Side, lighting candles with Orly who is loving her Yiddish Studies classes at the Y and with Maya my 22 year old IDF officer thinking of spending her next year after finishing the army doing Social Justice work with Tzedek B’Tevel (Justice in the world) in Nepal. These are all part of my Jewish Identity.

And this is why I am so angry with the Psak Halacha (Rabbinical Ruling) a group of Israeli Rabbis officially employed by the Ministry of the Interior as Municipal Rabbis have just published in Israel calling on Jews not to rent to Arabs in the cities they work in. They are destroying this Jewish life and world I so enjoy. If we fall again as a culture and a people, it will be because of these spreaders of hatred, of senseless hatred.

I can live with Eli Yishai’s pathetic manipulations as he worms his way out of responsibility for the Carmel fire. I hate to say this, but the fire was not an existential threat to Israel as painful as it was. This is. We have to say it as it is. It is disgusting. It cannot be excused. If we, Israeli taxpayers, do not demand that people who spew out such filth in the name of Judaism are dismissed from office, then we must accept the consequences.  And, they could be many, but I will focus on one only: more and more great young Israelis, like my daughter the IDF officer, my medical student son, my young daughter who fought to be accepted by the IDF so she could serve in spite of a medical condition and who is now working with the most difficult of populations as an educator so she can make a difference, will all walk away from their Jewish identity and the culture which I so love.

I want to name and shame these rabbis as they should be known to all. Here are the names I know: Rabbi Ya’akov Edelstein of Ramat Hasharon, Rabbi Yosef Sheinin of Ashdod, Rabbi Moshe Havlin of Kiryat Gat, Rabbi David Wolpe of Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Avraham Margalit of Carmiel, Rabbi Tzion Sudery of Gedera, Rabbi Shmuel David of Afula, Rabbi Simcha Hacohen of Rechovot, Rabbi Azaria Basis of Rosh Ha’ayin, Rabbi Yitzchak Yakobowitz of Herzliah, Rabbi Yeshaya Meitels of Naharia, Rabbi David Tzedakah of Pardes Hana, Rabbi Avraham Ochion of Ofakim.

When I think of what we suffered at the hands of those who could not bear to live in the same neighbourhoods as we did, my revulsion is even greater and I thank the Rabbis of the Tzohar organization who have offered a different Halachic ruling for trying to prevent this rabble of rabbis from destroying what I care for so deeply.


Cultural experiences with Anat

By Abe Roisman

I’ve begun to realize that spending time with our dear Anat is a cultural experience in its own.  All I have to do is follow her around and I will see things in a different way.

The first time I realized this was on the way to a seminar that all of IRAC and the IMPJ went on.  We were driving to a kibbutz in the South, just me and Anat, and she asked if I wanted breakfast.  I was driving, and I said sure.  She carefully prepared something, and before I knew it, she had placed in front of my face a half of a baked potato, cut the long way, with salt sprinkled on top.  Well, certainly I’d had baked potatoes before, and even with salt.  However, I’ve never been handed one for breakfast in this way.  Suffice it to say, though I never thought to eat this way, it was great and I highly recommend you try it.

On a more serious tone, the other day, we held a demonstration in the shouk, Mahane Yehuda, in Jerusalem to honor the 18 women who were killed in the last year in Israel on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.  We prepared a presentation, which included a display.  The display was a board with photographs–when available–and stories of all of the women who were killed in Israel.  And weapons.  We put all of the weapons used to kill these women next to their pictures, which included over a dozen knives, a gun, a cleaver, and a baseball bat.  It was very powerful, and hundreds of people stopped to look at it while we handed out flyers with a hotline for women and children to call if they were in danger.

Where’s the cultural experience?  The ride to the shouk.  There I am, sitting in the back of Anat’s car, steading this board that is covered in knives and a cleaver, on our way to the shouk.  Then, we park, pull the board out, and walk right into one of Jerusalem’s busiest arteries of commerce, weaving through a crowd with over a dozen weapons.  All the while, Anat keeps that smile on her face.  Isn’t it great what we’re doing?  I ask you, dear readers, when was the last time you marched into a busy market with over a dozen knives, let alone in Israel?

I really enjoy getting to work with Anat.  She’s a fascinating woman who does things her own way.  The lesson I’ve learned from her so far is if you know it’s right, why not?  I look forward to spending the remainder of my fellowship learning new ways to be efficient and effective from Anat.  Beside learning from her, I will also enjoy spending time with her.  We have pretty similar tastes in music.

good times in Shfaram or, no really, IRAC’s that cool

By Abe Roisman

The IRAC office is in a really nice building.  It has great lighting.  As much as I love it, it’s great to spend a day out in the shetach.

Last week I went with Keren B’Kavod to a high school in Shfaram, a city in the Galilee that is home to Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities.  A group of Jewish students from Haifa met us there, and together, after a few activities to get to know one another, we packaged over 100 boxes of food for the upcoming holidays–Eid al-Adha, Christmas, and Hannukah.

This was the best program I’ve ever seen that brought Arabs and Jews together in Israel.

I studied Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis, where I studied the history of the State of Israel, especially the situation of minorities in Israel.  I spent a year living in the Middle East, and during that experience I was able to participate in and witness many different projects that brought Jews and Arabs together to meet one another, learn about each other, and walk away with good memories that they would carry with them in order to hold onto some hope when a new issue might come and divide the communities even further.

But that was the problem.  They always walked away and rarely walked back.  The programs made the mifgash, the encounter, but there was rarely a situation when people could walk away from it saying they really knew someone from the short experience, that their situation felt different because they were no longer on one side of a line or the other.

Enter Keren B’Kavod, a humanitarian aid project of IRAC that has no lofty goals of creating world peace or ending decades of conflict.  In fact, in the program that we ran last Wednesday, the organizers never even told the 15-year-old kids “you are different” or “the purpose of you being together is to see that we can overcome this separation.”  They were all there, as equals, to package food and supplies for families living in extreme poverty.  Each student, regardless of their ethnic background or faith, was just as capable of filling those boxes, just as each of the people receiving our support were just as needy of it.

As the program ended, all of our participants walked away having accomplished something together.  They helped underprivileged people in their society, and they did it together.  The same group of students from these two schools will be meeting a few more times this year to do the same thing, but now they know each other.  Some of them are friends on facebook with one another, some have phone numbers and email addresses, and others may have been too shy to ask this time but certainly will next time.

I felt great being a part of this program, and I look forward to going back for the next set of holidays.  I can’t wait to watch these new friendships progress.  I really feel like this group of nice, outgoing kids have an opportunity to grow up in a way that most Israelis aren’t able to, and I hope that this has an impact on the direction of Israel’s future.

While IRAC’s work is very important in affecting change in policy and helping individuals to obtain their rights, let it be known that IRAC is also inspiring young people to deflect every wrench thrown at the system in order to build a better future where there is no need for organizations like ours.