This article by Yizhar Hess, executive director & CEO of the Masorti movement in Israel, appeared first in Hebrew in Yediot Achronot, the largest circulation daily paper in the country. This is significant because it means Masorti is making its mark with the Israeli public. Yediot Achronot would not have allotted the space if it was not perceived as an important Israeli issue.
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David H. Lissy
Executive Director & CEO
Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel
Time to wake up
By YIZHAR HESS 22/04/2010 08:46
We've let the haredim take over everything concerning Judaism in the public sphere.
Anyone who used public transportation to get to the Western Wall during Pessah was confronted with a new phenomenon. Attendants were on duty at all the bus stations. As each bus pulled in, one of them would approach and, using a megaphone, instruct the driver: "Driver, open the back door." The drivers obeyed. The attendants continued relaying instructions to the crowd: "Men in front. Women in back."
The women left the line of people waiting to exit through the front door and made their way to the back door. The orders continued – "Men in front. Women in back" – until the lines were rearranged. The attendants, wearing bright yellow vests, stood beside the policemen who are routinely posted to guard the bus stations in the area of the Kotel, so they appeared to be part of the security forces entrusted with keeping the peace.
Who was paying these attendants? On whose behalf and on whose authority were they there? No one knew the answer to these questions. The Egged bus company said that they had no idea who was responsible. The police were surprised at the question, as if it had nothing to do with them. The attendants themselves refused to respond. Their yellow vests bore no insignia of any kind, and there were no identifying markings on the small, state-of-the-art megaphones they held in their hands.
They worked for a security company, which had simply been hired them to be there. We can, unfortunately, reasonably assume that we are the ones who are paying the bill, in one way or another and that public funds were involved. It was a well-organized, trained force. A militia. The revolutionary guard, if you will.
If you had been watching a scene like this on a world news program, and the language emanating from the megaphones was Farsi, the language of Iran, rather than Hebrew, it would have been possible to gloss over this incident. But it happened in the capital of Israel, on the festival of freedom.
Without being aware of it, this has become the reality of our lives. We have let the haredim take over everything that has to do with Judaism in the public sphere. The Western Wall has become a haredi synagogue; the entrances to it – not the plaza itself, but the entrance gates – are segregated, with huge signs separating men and women; the mehadrin (segregated) bus lines are already plying more than 100 routes, and not just in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem; in many cemeteries around the country, women, including the daughters of the deceased, are not permitted to follow the biers as they are moved toward the graves. Only men are allowed. Women must walk behind.
This harassment has become the background noise of life here. Let's take the past year, for example and look at all the points where we have been shown the haredi interpretation of "what Judaism is all about": revoking of conversions; the decision of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv that haredim are not permitted to donate organs essential for saving the life of another person, but they may receive such organs from others; "the Nahari bill," which obligated all local authorities to fund private, haredi educational institutions (and I wonder if any mayor would dare to defy this law and refrain from funding such local institutions given that the Interior Ministry is headed by Eli Yishai, the head of Shas); and of course the issue of the potentially enormous cost of relocating the new secure emergency room at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center because of some unidentified ancient bones. Link all these points together and you will get the picture of our lives. Sad, but true.
But, just a minute, let's consider the Barzilai incident as an example. Public pressure helped. The decision is being overturned. Anyone aware of the undercurrents that move the steaming lava of politics here has already noticed that something has changed. The public is waking up. The political party that succeeds in leveraging this trend of change right now will spearhead the courageous step of changing the electoral systems so that the power of the haredim returns to its true dimensions and position itself appropriately ahead of the next elections. It might even turn out to be a new political party.
But caution must be exercised. The Zionist vision of the Jewish state, a vision that was able to combine nationalism and humanism, is slipping away from us like sand through our fingers. It is no longer Herzl who is turning over in his grave, it's Menahem Begin. Israel is changing. Like a stone tossed in the air, which imagines that it decides the path of its trajectory, we still believe that everything is under control. But it isn't. Our hearing has become dulled, but the music is deafening.
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I had a beautiful day today. I stood with my sister, a passionate rabbi serving the U.S. Navy as a chaplain, at the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. We remembered our grandfather of blessed memory, who fought for America and shared hard-earned wisdom with his children and grandchildren.
I looked to my right and saw the Washington Monument. Looked to my left at the Lincoln Memorial. I read quotes engraved on massive stones. And I felt, to my core, one sad feeling: too much war.
Too. Much. War.
The quotes and certain retellings of history would have me believe that we fought for pure purposes: we fought for religious freedom, we fought to end slavery, we fought for freedom for all humanity, we fought to end tyranny. But it's also true that we fought (and fight) for economic interests. It&…