Posts Tagged ‘Peter Beinart’

Getting On Board With Jewish Pluralism

June 11, 2010

If Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, head of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (the first woman in this position), can “slam religious coercion” in Israel, then I, too, can say my piece on the issue. The following is an op-ed  I wrote on the recent decline of religious freedoms in the Jewish State, which had not been published…until now.

Please bear in mind that this was written in mid-May (pre-Gaza Flotilla-gate) and is consequently dated in some ways. Events sure do change quickly in the Middle East.

George Mitchell is now conducting proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but it looks like there may soon also be a need for proximity talks between Israel and liberal Zionists in the United States. Israel has survived for 62 years in a state of conflict with the Palestinians. The bigger question: can it survive in conflict with American Jews?

Peter Beinart wrote that “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States—so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age,” in his article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, and immediately met with a flood of criticism and debate. Almost all the ensuing discussion centered on the utility and fate of liberal Zionism in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, but none of it addressed its critical role in protecting the freedom of Jews in their own homeland, a supposed democracy that allows gender segregation on public buses.

"Mehadrin" bus line poster states, "This is a "Mehadrin Kosher" bus stop. Accordingly, men shall enter and sit at the front of the bus. Women and all others shall enter through the rear door and sit at the back. Thank you."

Israeli women who find themselves riding any one of 2108 buses running on 56 of the public bus lines throughout Israel are de facto required to sit in the rear third of the vehicle. Although seating on these buses is ostensibly voluntarily gender-segregated to ensure the “purity” of the primarily Ultra-Orthodox male riders, some women who have violated this arrangement – either purposely or accidentally – have met with insults and blows.

A noticeable rise of anti-democratic tendencies within Israel’s governing parties and the growing radicalism of the religious settler movement and its increased influence within the government and military establishment, have caused concern about the erosion of the civil rights of Israeli-Palestinians and Palestinians in the West Bank. Less attention, however, has been paid in the U.S. media to their deleterious effects on the religious freedoms of Israeli Jews. If Israeli society becomes increasingly inhospitable to Jewish religious pluralism, many American Jews will find the Jewish homeland less personally compelling. When it comes to religion and civil status in Israel, the personal could not be more political, and the State, in its quest to remain both Jewish and democratic, cannot afford to alienate liberal American Jews.

Israeli society has benefited greatly from both the political support and the immigration of American Jews, but will the support be as strong or the stream of immigrants continue when the government-sanctioned Israeli religious establishment refuses to recognize the denominations to which most American Jews belong? Marriages performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized by the State (there is no civil marriage in Israel), and conversion is solely in the hands of the local Orthodox-dominated conversion courts. A bill introduced by Member of Knesset David Rotem (of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party), supposedly meant to make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis to convert to Judaism, would consolidate the power over conversions in the hands of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and offer no guarantee for the recognition of conversions done overseas.

It would be of no help to Jessica Fishman who, after becoming an Israeli citizen and living in Israel for seven years – two of them as an enlisted soldier in the Israel Defense Forces – has returned to the United States after being denied the right to marry in Israel, because her mother was converted before Jessica’s birth by a Reform rabbi in St. Louis. Fishman, an observant Conservative Jew, is good enough to risk her life for Israel, but not good enough to marry a Jewish Israeli. She is by far not the only young immigrant who has found herself in this untenable situation. “Seven years ago, I arrived here as a Jewish and Zionist woman. Now I am leaving Israel because in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate I am not a Jewish woman, and when I myself am already not so sure I am so Zionistic,” she is reported as saying.

Women of the Wall conduct egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall.

Noa Raz has also been in the news lately. Raz, an Israeli-born Conservative Jew was physically attacked last week by an Ultra-Orthodox man for wearing tefillin (black leather straps and boxes bound on the head and arm, traditionally worn only by men, but now also worn by some liberal Jewish women) during prayer. The attacker did not even see her wearing them. The noticeable marks left on her arm by the straps were sufficient justification for him to verbally intimidate, grab and kick her.

Raz is a friend of Nofrat Frenkel, the young woman who was detained by police for reading from the Torah at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem last fall. She is a member of Women of the Wall, a group of Israeli and other Jewish women who hold egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall, which is controlled by Ultra-Orthodox authorities. For their efforts to do something that is normative for hundreds of thousands of Jewish women in America, they have been heckled, pelted with projectiles, and even arrested by their fellow Jews.

One could argue that Israel, under pressure from the Obama Administration to renew negotiations with the Palestinians and show some real progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state, has bigger fish to fry than accommodating egalitarian, pluralistic Jewish denominations that have far more followers outside the country than within. But Israel cannot afford to leave the issue of religious freedom and civil rights on the back burner.

The Ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalists may be appeased, and continued political support and immigration may come from the Orthodox Jewish American camp, but the Zionist dream of a sovereign, democratic Jewish homeland will unravel. So much depends on Israel’s retaining its commitment to democracy and civil rights, not the least of which are its close and unique strategic relationship with the United States and its centrality to world Jewry, especially the six and a half million Jews living in the U.S. who hold liberty and personal freedoms dear.

It is clear demographically that Israel’s democratic nature is in imminent jeopardy if it holds on to large areas of the West Bank. But even if a two-state solution is eventually reached and Israel relinquishes control over land heavily populated by Palestinians, there is still a lot of work to be done by it so that no one will be left sitting at the back of the bus.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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Reality TV: Sharing In Sharon

June 10, 2010

As we get older, we start to better be able to see shades of grey. Black and white are not as starkly perceived as they once were, and things that once seemed clear cut get fuzzy around the edges. We begin to realize that at least some of what we thought to be true and immutable is not so, that distinctions can be artificial and arbitrary. In other words, things are not always as they seem or as we thought they were – or were supposed to be. And, oh yeah, we also find ourselves from time to time in over our heads.

I so often write about young Jews who, after having grown up completely assimilated or having had a negative experience with Jewish education, are trying to find a connection to Judaism now that they are adults. So much Jewish social and educational programming today is designed as a means of reaching out to unaffiliated or disaffected Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. It’s all about meeting young Jews where they are at and hopefully bringing them closer to their cultural and religious roots. These are the liberal Jews spoken of by thinkers such as Peter Beinart, the ones he says identify strongly with values of democracy, humanism and universalism and are distancing themselves from both Zionism and Jewish particularism.

On the other hand are young Jewish adults who have emerged from upbringings and youthful experiences steeped in Jewish learning, community and tradition. They are the other half of the contemporary American Jewish equation of which the sociologist Steven M. Cohen wrote in his A Tale of Two Jewries study. It had been argued by some that these young people will be the group that becomes further strengthened and that will constitute the core that will survive and carry our people forward.

A new documentary, unscripted reality style TV show, In Over Our Heads, that debuted earlier this year on Jewish Life Television, chronicles the lives of four such young Jews (no need to worry if you, like me, do not have a TV – you can watch already-aired episodes on YouTube). The series has all the drama of Srugim, the hit Israeli cable TV program about a group of young Modern Orthodox professionals in Jerusalem, only with more raw and grittier production values. Unlike the protagonists of Srugim and the average liberal young American Jewish professional, who are all either single or newly married but childless in their late 20’s or early 30’s, the four friends who star in In Over Our Heads (and who also double as its production team) are all married and parents of young children.

Cast and production team members Yitzi Cusner, Malkah Winter, Valerie Frank and Simcha Weinberg

At first glance, it would appear that Malkah Winter, Simcha Weinberg, Valerie Frank and Yitzi Cusner have completely internalized the values and expectations of their heavily Jewish community of Sharon, Massachusetts. But have they really? This is the question that weaves its way through the first three episodes (and likely will continue to do so in future ones). The viewer discovers that things are not so straight forward and that these individuals do not fit simply into labeled boxes. In the first episode, which explores the concepts of niddah and mikveh (a woman’s ritual impurity during menstruation and immersion in a ritual bath), the focus is not on one of the women who grew up Orthodox but rather on one who considers herself Reform. In the second, we meet a married mother of two from Monsey, NY (a highly religious enclave) who regularly goes on all-night clubbing escapades in Manhattan in search of a spiritual outlet. In the third, we learn how these young people struggle with the choices they have made and with the expectations they feel their families, community and society at large put on them.

Stereotypes these people are not. Their lives are complex and their personalities nuanced. What makes this show so compelling is not only its candor and humor, but also the depth of religious and spiritual questions, considerations and yearnings that its real-life characters bring to it. They are often seen on camera referring to and discussing religious texts and commentaries, and each episode is framed by relevant quotations from Jewish and secular sources. God is present and real in these people’s conversations and in their lives – even for those who lean more toward doubt. It is this every-present layer of meaning-making cast over the production that makes it so startling (in a good way).

As much as my age cohort may enjoy and learn from this creative outlet for these four suburbanites, the show is even more important for their contemporaries (both affiliated and not) to watch…and reflect upon…and discuss.

Watch these segments from the first three episodes and see why I am hooked, and why you may be, too. I invite you to join me in spreading the word about the show. I plan on telling people that In Over Our Heads is “seriously funny,” which it absolutely is – just not in the way they will probably initially understand the phrase.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Bucking The Establishment

May 26, 2010

Biting, risque, and irreverent (as his comics usually are), Eli Valley’s noir-ish Bucky Shvitz – Sociologist For Hire, was published today on The Jewish Daily Forward’s website. Valley, in this one page comic, captures the essence of much of the thousands upon thousands of words that have been written in the past week by Peter Beinart, his supporters and his critics. Click here to see the Bucky Shvitz comic.

Eli Valley holding a comic sign he made for a protest against the ADL's Abe Foxman (photo from Jewcy)

Valley, a writer as well as a comic artist (as in someone who draws comics, not a comedian…but, then again, I guess the two are related in a way) is a regular contributor to The Forward and Jewcy. His day job is Senior Foundation Writer and Editor at The Steinhardt Foundation For Jewish Life, and he is the author of The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide and Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Cracow and Budapest. You can see more of his brilliant work on his “EV Comics” (“Ethnocentric Parochialism for the Whole Family!”) website.

Even if you don’t identify with his Millennial sensibilities or agree with his point of view on all things Jewish or political, you’ve got to hand it to him for his intelligent originality and creativity – as well as his willingness to court controversy.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.