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Study of American Jews making its way into Israeli schools

TEL AVIV, Israel – The Jews of America may be the largest Jewish community in the diaspora, but that does not mean Israeli schoolchildren learn much about them.

Sixty-two years after Israel’s founding, its school system still largely sticks to the Zionist trope that all Jews should live in Israel and those who do not at the very least should be actively engaged in helping support the Jewish state. In turn, there is scant study of contemporary Jewish life in America.

“The bottom line is that there is very little taught, if there is anything at all,” said Daniel Gross, a Hebrew University graduate student who has researched the topic.

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If an Israeli Education Ministry pilot program to teach about American Jewry takes root, Israeli schoolchildren will learn about the diaspora’s largest Jewish community for the first time. Yossi Zamir/Flash90/JTA

But there is some change afoot.

Signaling the beginning of a shift in direction, 11th- and 12th-graders preparing for the national history matriculation exam this year for the first time were required to study a unit on American Jewry’s contribution to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

Orna Katz-Atar, a high school history teacher who drew up the new curriculum for the Education Ministry, said that plans are under way to introduce a new unit on Israel and the diaspora, with a focus on American Jewry, probably by the fall of 2012.

“We are in the process of building the curriculum, gathering material, and teaching the teachers,” Katz-Atar said.

At a time when studies show a declining sense of kinship between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, Israelis’ unfamiliarity with diaspora Jewry is a subject of some concern in America. This lack of familiarity only exacerbates tensions over divisive Israel-diaspora issues, such as the debate over who is a Jew. There is a feeling that the world’s two largest Jewish populations know less about each other with each passing generation.

Until this year, when and if the subject of American Jewry was taught at all in Israeli schools, it usually was within the context of the great wave of Jewish migration in the 19th century, the life of Jews in America between the world wars, and what American Jews did to try to help their brethren during the Holocaust.

Policymakers feared that “showing a successful diaspora might encourage emigration,” Gross said. “Another problem has been how the religious schools would teach about Reform or Conservative Judaism, and how the topic might hurt the Zionist agenda.”

A 2005 report by the American Jewish Committee found that only 14 percent of Israeli teachers surveyed said they taught about Reform or Conservative Judaism in their schools in the previous three years.

While Israeli students are beginning now to study more about American Jewry, the focus remains on American Jews’ connection to Israeli history. In preparation for the history matriculation exam, Israeli students are taught about the aid American Jews provided at postwar DP camps, and the role American Jews played in helping lobby the White House to support Israel’s creation.

“I tell my students all the time that we and the American Jews are brothers,” Katz-Atar said. “It’s important that students understand that we did not do everything alone, that the Zionist project was assisted by the entire Jewish world.”

One place where diaspora studies are taught differently is in Modiin, a rapidly growing city midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. For the past five years, seventh-graders have been taking a course called “Friends Across the Sea” as part of a pilot program initiated by the Education Ministry, the TALI educational fund, and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In this new curriculum, students learn about the various Jewish religious streams, the challenges of Jewish continuity, and diaspora concerns over intermarriage. A section on Jewish feminism includes the emergence of female rabbis.

The program’s backers want to bring the curriculum to public schools across Israel — and to translate it into English for study in American Jewish schools and into other languages for other diaspora communities.

“I think it’s a result of changes in 1990s, when increasing numbers of Israelis encountered the Jewish American community through organized delegations,” said Varda Rafael, an educator who helped coordinate the project. They “realized we can learn from each other — not copy each other, but inspire one another.”

Gross says the Israeli perception of American Jewry is changing, at least in academic circles.

“In the past, Israelis would say of American Jewry that they chose not to be with us, but if they want to support us financially or politically that’s great,” he said. “But now there is the sense that maybe there is a need for greater Jewish pluralism in Israel.”

Israelis unhappy with the Orthodox monopoly on religious matters are beginning to look to American Jews for direction, Gross noted.

But among the general Israeli population, most Israelis seem to have little or no concept about the lives of their American Jewish counterparts.

Yisrael Wolman, in a scouring opnion piece last month in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, mocked his fellow Israelis for being apathetic about American Jews.

“The American Jewish leadership is aging and is frightened by surveys of assimilation and low birth rates and is putting most energies into strengthening its own community,” he wrote, “but this does not mean a parallel blind identification with Israel. The tragedy is that for the average Israeli, it is as interesting as last year’s snowfall. Tens of thousands of Israelis fly to America each year to have a great time in Times Square, gamble in Las Vegas, or hang out in Disney World. How many of them have visited a single Jewish institution or have met with American Jews of their own age?”

Rabbi Ed Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee in Israel, says that American Jews do almost as bad a job of educating their children about Israel as Israel does in educating their youth about American Jews.

“We in Israel, by not learning how American Jews think, lose in our capacity to engage in deep dialogue with them,” he said. Israelis pay for this ignorance, he noted. “These are the same people from which we are asking for passionate advocacy within the American Jewish system, people whose own children we are sometimes disallowing as Jews. We are smacking around the people who love us most.”

Shlomi Ravid, co-director of the Jewish Peoplehood Hub, a start-up that seeks to be a clearinghouse for peoplehood issues, says there is one key question.

“Are we a people who has a state, or a state that has a people?” he asked. “I would say for most Israelis it’s all about Israel, and the Jewish people are supposed to be a source of personnel, support and funding. There is a loss of a sense that the real client here is the Jewish people, and the state is a very important expression of the agenda of the people, but it’s not the soul. That Jewish life matters and is important everywhere it exists.”

JTA

 
 

Flotilla raid stokes debate on price of Gaza blockade

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 04 June 2010

ASHDOD, Israel – The blurry black-and-white video footage was not what any Israeli wanted to see: elite navy commandos armed with paint balls (the pistols were only to be used as a last resort) dangling by a rope onto a boat filled with activists wielding metal bars and knives.

In one scene, an Israeli commando is thrown to the deck below by the mob aboard the ship.

“It’s not just appalling footage, it’s a national humiliation and a blow to Israel’s deterrence,” military analyst Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz a day after the deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists aboard the Gaza-bound ship that left nine activists dead. “The question is why the soldiers were put in this situation in the first place.”

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An Israeli student brandishes her identity card in a June 1 demonstration outside Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in support of the Israeli navy raid on ships bound for Gaza. Kobi Gideon/Flash 90/JTA

As Israeli officialdom begins the process of reckoning — the navy is expected to conduct an inquiry and there have been calls for Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign — analysts tried to untangle the strategy behind the botched raid on the Free Gaza movement flotilla. Many in the Israeli media are describing the raid as an intelligence, operational, and political failure.

The massive diplomatic fallout triggered by the flotilla confrontation also has ratcheted up the debate in Israel over the efficacy of Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza.

“Three years of a failed strategy brought us to the events of today,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Website. “We could have dealt with this differently had we thought better strategically in advance about the consequences of our failed strategy in Gaza.”

Military sources said that although the commandos knew a confrontation was possible on the ship they boarded, the Mavi Marmara, they were surprised by the attempts to kill Israeli troops.

Despite the violent result of the raid, government officials said Israel had little choice but to find some way to confront and halt the six-ship flotilla because of the risk that there could be weapons in the uninspected cargo that could reach Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

“This is the ninth effort to get boats into Gaza,” said Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “The first three were allowed through, but then we began to see it was becoming like a leaking faucet we had to put an end to because, as we have seen, Hamas is doing all it can do in its power to smuggle in weapons.”

David added, “If they had wanted to really deliver humanitarian aid, they could have done it through the Ashdod port.”

Passengers aboard the ships, however, said they did not trust that Israel — which has enforced a three-year blockade of Gaza, since Hamas militants wrested control of the territory from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup — to deliver the aid.

The government also was wary about who was on board the ships, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told reporters during a briefing overlooking the Ashdod port as the ships in the flotilla were brought in for inspection Monday.

“You don’t know who is on board such ships and whether they might be a security threat or not,” she said.

Above all, the government appeared eager to make an example of this six-ship flotilla — the largest effort to date to break the blockade of Gaza — to show the world that it would not tolerate efforts to break the blockage, international condemnation notwithstanding.

The government made it very clear that it was not going to allow the passage of these ships and, in turn, wrote veteran commentator Nahum Barnea in Yediot Achronot, “committed itself, for all intents and purposes, to a confrontation.”

Some Israelis are saying the strategy was a mistake, that it would have been better to ignore the ships rather than give more fodder to pro-Palestinian activists trying to mobilize anti-Israel and anti-blockade sentiment.

“If the siege had any international legitimacy, today it lost a great deal of it,” said Meir Javedanfar, an independent political analyst. “Yes, Israeli citizens have a right to live in peace, but they have to find other ways of doing it. The siege hurts Israel more than Hamas because of the political costs it pays in terms of isolation, the damage of its relations with its allies and Europe, and how it helps demonize Israel.”

The blockade on Gaza has been a public relations burden for Israel ever since it began three years ago in an effort to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Though when it began the blockade had the backing of the United States, Egypt, and even the Palestinian Authority, it has been criticized as collective punishment for Gaza’s population. Even in Israel, some have called it a policy failure, complaining that the overly strict siege has blocked even legitimate humanitarian and civilian materials from reaching Gaza’s residents.

After Monday’s incident, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, and the commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Filippo Grandi, issued a joint statement scolding Israel.

“We wish to make clear that such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza,” the statement said.

But proponents of the strategy for dealing with the flotilla and of the blockade itself said that allowing the ships to pass would have opened a new access route for Iran to send rockets to the strip.

“If there was no siege at all, they can bring whatever boats they want,” Israeli lawmaker Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party told JTA in a telephone interview. “They will bring tanks, cannons, long-range missiles — exactly what we see in hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where we have no control whatsoever. If we stop the siege we will see the mirror image of Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip.”

JTA

 
 

With BP’s spill in mind, Israel considers delivery of natural gas

TEL AVIV – More than a year after a massive natural gas find in the Mediterranean Sea off the Israeli coast sparked hopes in Israel of a new era of energy independence, the project is running into concerns about how the gas can be delivered safely.

The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has raised concerns in Israel about processing the gas and its delivery within the country.

“You don’t just open the valve and everyone’s happy,” said Zeev Aizenshtat, a fossil fuels expert who works as a chemistry professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “In a country that has security problems, especially with the imminent threat of missiles coming in, you need to makes sure the pipes are well protected.”

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In early 2009, an energy exploration outfit in the Mediterranean Sea discovered a huge natural gas field about 50 miles off the Haifa coast. Creative Commons/Tsuda

The question is how to bring the gas, which was discovered in February 2009 one mile below the sea floor approximately 50 miles off the Haifa coast, to Israel, and then how to distribute it throughout the country. Natural gas is highly flammable, and Israel also lacks the infrastructure of piping needed to distribute the gas nationwide.

If Israel finds a way to deliver it safely and efficiently, the treasure trove of some 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could be Israel’s ticket to energy independence, providing the country with some 70 percent of its energy needs for the next 20 years, according to experts.

The trove is a combination of two major gas fields — called Leviathan and Tamar, named for the granddaughter of Israeli energy mogul Yitzhak Tshuva. It was Tshuva’s Delek Group and a U.S. partner that were responsible for the drilling that led to the finds.

Israel’s energy needs are now provided mostly by coal. Israel imports natural gas from Egypt via a pipeline, and it imports coal and oil from countries around the globe, including Russia, Mexico, and Norway.

“This discovery is nothing short of a geopolitical game-changer,” Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based NGO that deals with energy and security issues, wrote last month in the Haaretz newspaper.

But several challenges come first. Lebanon claims it has rights to the Leviathan find because they say the northern part of the find is in Lebanese territorial waters. Israel dismisses the claim, saying it is firmly within its own maritime boundaries.

“We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law,” Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau told the Bloomberg news agency last week, responding to the Lebanese claims.

Then there is the question of how to deliver the gas and avoid accidents like the BP spill especially if, as is now being considered, Israel builds a natural gas processing plant in the sea rather than on land.

The underwater plant has two potential benefits. It could offer the processing plant additional protection from attack by terrorists or enemy aircraft, and it could circumvent the not-in-my-backyard syndrome that stands as an obstacle to the construction of a processing plant near Israeli population centers along the coast. Local opponents already have emerged against each of six potential sites for the plant on land.

Israelis are concerned that the gas power plants could become military targets or turn into fireballs, said Amit Bracha, executive director of the advocacy group Adam Teva V’Din, The Israeli Union for Environmental Defense.

“The not-in-my-backyard syndrome takes on new meaning in Israel, which is so small,” Bracha said.

Adam Teva V’Din supports the alternative option of establishing the plant underwater.

“No one can bomb it,” Bracha said, “and it’s safer because it’s not near any neighborhoods.”

But safety concerns attend to that option, too.

A spill in the water would cause serious environmental damage, albeit less than a toxic oil spill. Even on land, Israel would have to build a network of pipes that would be secure and able to shut down automatically if there is a leak.

The government is conducting a survey to determine the best option for constructing the natural gas processing plant. In any case, the gas itself won’t be tapped until 2012 because it takes time to set up a distribution infrastructure.

In a statement to JTA, the National Infrastructure Ministry wrote that even if a decision is made to build an underwater plant, it does not preclude the possibility that one might also be built on land.

Aizenshtat said the natural gas find could help Israel achieve newfound independence.

“We were promised a land of milk and honey by God, but nothing was ever said about petroleum,” he said. “But the moment you do have it, people start looking at you differently.

“Energy today is a commodity that countries live and die by,” he said. “Whoever has control of the faucet can have a strong influence on the world. Politically this find is very important.”

JTA

 
 

Life sciences become big business in Israel

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Life science industry figures mingle at the Tel Aviv ILSI-BioMed conference in June, which drew more than 7,000 people from around the world. Ilan Levi

TEL AVIV – Yaron Aizenbud lays out in neat rows a set of patented titanium tools designed for back surgery, picks out a curved drill that matches the curve of a spine and a plastic model of vertebrae, and simulates how the drill is used to stabilize a damaged spine.

Aizenbud and the other founders of the small Israeli start-up Scorpion Surgical Technologies hope their medical devices will become a new solution for back operations, particularly for people with osteoporosis, in some cases even eliminating the need for replacing ruptured discs.

Scorpion Surgical was among the hundreds of companies displaying their wares in a maze of rooms and bright lights at a recent biotech and life sciences convention in Tel Aviv. Among them were firms with home-grown advances in cell and gene therapy, imaging, and heart disease drugs.

In its ninth year the conference, ILSI-BioMed, drew some 7,000 people, including international investors and industry leaders. It was the largest such industry gathering outside of the United States, according to conference organizers.

Aizenbud, a veteran of Israeli high-tech who has worked for IBM, Amdocs, and a host of start-ups, spoke of the special satisfaction in switching gears to the life sciences.

“You feel the difference in what you are doing,” he said. “This is about contributing something to the public.”

The field of life sciences, an umbrella term that refers to medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology, has become big business in Israel. There are more than 1,000 companies, and another 80 join the field every year, according to industry estimates.

Last year, life sciences accounted for $6 billion in Israeli exports, mostly to the United States, making it one of Israel’s biggest exports.

Israel tops the list of countries in medical device patents per capita and is fourth in the world for biotechnology patents per capita.

Observers credit Israel’s success in this extremely competitive market to the nurturing ecosystem the country has produced to foster life sciences innovation. The ecosystem brings together a combination of top research at Israel’s universities that transfers to companies, many of which get their start in state-subsidized “incubators.” In 2000, the government designated life sciences a priority sector.

“My impression is there is both a lot of innovation here and a willingness to take high risks here, even in comparison to U.S. biotech,” said Simeon Taylor, vice president of Cardiovascular and Metabolics Discovery Biology at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a major U.S. pharmaceutical company that had representatives at the ILSI-BioMed conference.

Over the years, Israel has built up a strong name internationally with a track record of success stories. Perhaps most well-known is the invention by the company Given Imaging of the PillCam, a capsule containing a camera that a patient can swallow, enabling the physician to see distinct portions of the gastrointestinal track.

And there are the potential blockbuster products coming on the market, like the drug to help treat schizophrenia developed by the Jerusalem-based company BioLineRx. The drug, BL-1020, helps reduce patient violence.

In June, BioLineRx signed an out-licensing agreement with a major U.S. pharmaceutical company for $335 million.

At the conference, Kinneret Savitsky, the company’s CEO, tried to put her company’s success in a larger, national perspective.

“Research is in our blood,” she said. “We think out of the box. It comes out of our way of life here.”

The medical device business accounts for more than half of the life sciences industry in Israel. These technologies require less research than biotech and usually can be brought quicker to market — before investors become impatient.

The relatively long time it takes to build a success in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology makes the industry a high-risk, high-yield one.

Claudio Yarza, the partner in charge of life sciences for PriceWaterhouseCooper’s Israel office, cautioned that although the industry has developed well in the past few years, the risk remains.

Even when a deal is made, Yarza said, it’s not clear that the product will make it to market or become a success.

“Bio-tech is harder to succeed at than high-tech because the development stage is more complicated,” he said. “Many high-tech companies start with an idea for a product, and it’s already ready for development, not awaiting more research. And in bio-tech we think we might have a new solution on our hands, but until trials are completed we cannot say it definitely does.”

Debra Lappin, the president of the Council for American Innovation, said the United States needs Israeli know-how and thus should be welcoming to Israeli companies and the advances they bring.

“The new nature of innovation relies on partnerships,” she said. “The U.S. is reliant on outsourcing its innovation, so we need to make sure the door is open because otherwise Israel will look elsewhere.”

JTA

 
 

With wineries and tourism, settlers try to rebrand settlements for Israeli public

_JStandardWorld
Published: 24 September 2010
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The winery in the Jewish settlement of Psagot, in the west bank. Abir Sultan/Flash90/JTA

PSAGOT, west bank – Inside the cool of a cavernous wine cellar stacked high with oak barrels of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to fade away, even at this Jewish settlement in the heart of the west bank.

This is precisely the message a stop at the Psagot Boutique Winery is meant to convey.

It’s part of a new strategy by settler leaders to “rebrand” settlements, offering tours of settlement communities in a bid to win over an Israeli public they fear may have abandoned them either through apathy or outright hostility.

“We have been feeling that enough is enough. Stop making us look like monsters,” said Yigal Dilmoni, who directs the newly created information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, which is organizing the tours.

“Most people don’t realize how regular our lives here are. People wake up in the morning, go to work and are not engaged in the world of politics,” Dilmoni said.

The tours are meant to strike a stark contrast to what Dilmoni described as the common media image of settlers as violent radicals on the prowl for brawls with neighboring Palestinians.

For the Yesha Council, the significance of not having the Israeli public behind the settlement project hit home in wake of the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 8,000 Jewish settlers were evacuated, some forcibly. It was a traumatic episode for the settler movement — not only because of the evacuation, but also because there was no broad Israeli uproar against it.

It was a lesson, too, in the important role played by opinion-makers — journalists, media personalities, and business leaders — in shaping Israeli society’s views, settler leaders said. This is why the Yesha Council has decided to start bringing such opinion-makers to settlements as the first phase of their attempt to improve their public standing.

Avri Gilad, a well-known Israel media personality, told listeners on a radio show the day after he returned from such a tour that it dramatically changed his view of the settlements.

“I went on a tour that revolutionized my awareness of settlements in Samaria,” he said on the show. “I visited places I was raised to detest. I returned in a state of confusion: confusion about the injustice done to citizens who were called on by the state to settle, given building permits, and then frozen out. I was surprised to meet people with whom I had a lot to talk about, with great warmth and intimacy.”

An earlier public relations strategy, an ambitious project of billboards and advertisements briefly launched in 2008 under the slogan “Judea and Samaria, The Story of Every Jew,” proved successful but too expensive to maintain over the long term, Dilmoni said.

Dilmoni, 40, an earnest and energetic geographer and urban planner by training, believes that no one comes away unmoved from seeing the settler enterprise up close, even if political opinions remain unchanged.

About 320,000 Israeli Jews live in the west bank. They believe the land is their biblical birthright, and successive Israeli governments have supported that notion. But the land also is territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.

The settlements, viewed as illegal by much of the international community and a threat to the country’s long-term survival by critics inside Israel, have become one of the major issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

They also threaten to derail the recently relaunched direct peace talks between the two sides. (See pages 15, 16, and 27.) Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he’d pull out of the talks if Israel did not extend a 10-month freeze on construction in settlements that is set to expire Sept. 26.

The message of the tours, Dilmoni said while driving visitors along a stretch of highway that cut through a valley surrounded by ancient terraced hilltops, is “Come here and see what has been built here and then decide what to think.”

The settlement tours constitute a packed day. They begin early in the morning, end at sunset, and include stops and conversations at a range of settlements — large and more urban ones like Ariel, and smaller ones like Kida, which have sweeping views of the desert unfolding into Jordan. They end with a return to the Israeli side of the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan that demarcates the west bank.

In the past, when settlers gave tours of Judea and Samaria — the biblical name for the west bank — the focus was on security and the role of their homes as strategic buffers because they sit on the mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean coastal strip to the west and Jordan to the east.

Now a “softer,” more human-interest spotlight has been purposefully chosen, one in which visitors can do a wine tasting at the winery in Psagot, part of a new multimillion-dollar visitors’ center for the Binyamin region that is set to open over the Sukkot holiday.

During a visit there last week, workers were rushing to finish building a room that will house more than a dozen touch-screen computer terminals offering information about the area. The center is a sleek new complex that also boasts event space and a small movie theater with plush orange seats that will show a short feature film about a young man who, on the verge of leaving the country for a job in London, “returns to his roots” to tend land on a settlement.

The itinerary for the settlement tours also includes home visits. At the edge of the settlement of Eli, home to 700 families, a woman named Eliana Passentin, 36, stands in her backyard overlooking an expanse of sloping terraced hillsides and speaks of her passion for living alongside the history of the Bible.

Explaining the view, she points out an Arab village whose name in mentioned in the Bible for producing especially fine wine. She also points to the ancient site of Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was once housed, providing the central site for Israelite worship for 400 years.

Passentin describes how her home, located in a neighborhood the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled was built illegally and has ordered to be razed, was built with the area’s history in mind.

“The dining room windows look out onto Shiloh,” she said, “and from the living room we can see the site of Judah Macabee’s first and then final battle.”M.p<

JTA

 
 

Do diaspora Jews have a role in making peace?

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Members of the Jewish People Policy Institute at its annual conference in Jerusalem on Oct. 21: Glen Lewy, left, a board member and past board chairman of the Anti-Defamation League; Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council; and Ami Ayalon, retired Israeli general and former government minister. Shamayim Productions

JERUSALEM – Cloistered away in a snug meeting room with stone-faced walls and arched doorways across from Jerusalem’s Old City, some of the most important Jewish communal leaders in the world came together recently to wrestle with a question: Is there a role for the diaspora in Israel’s decision-making on peace?

The answer: Yes and no.

The forum was part of the annual conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel that identifies and evaluates challenges facing Jewish communities around the world. The consensus of the participants was that while ultimately it is up to the Israeli government and the Israeli public to decide the outlines of a peace deal, input from the rest of the Jewish world should be considered. In particular, several participants said, the issue of whether or not to divide Jerusalem requires input from the diaspora.

Furthermore, most in the forum of about 25 people agreed that the creation of a Palestinian state is not only Israel’s best hope of one day emerging from the conflict, it would be a boon for diaspora communities as well.

“The achievement of a peace agreement would be tremendously liberating for the global Jewish people,” said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

“It would allow us to devote our energy to other major priorities facing the Jewish people and the liberation of resources would be quite powerful,” Rosenberg said. “It would also come with significant risks and potential trauma, like the withdrawing from some territory.”

The challenge remains for the JPPI to move away from being an A-list talk shop to affecting policy on the ground. To that end, one of recommendations that emerged from the two days of talks was for the creation of a small forum of diaspora figures to discuss final status issues with the Israeli government — a “go-to” team that the government could consult with, as the institute’s founding director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, described it.

But Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, pointed out the difficulties of forming such a group.

“Who do you call? Who represents the diaspora? Who represents even American Jews ideologically? Politically?” Abrams asked.

Rosenberg echoed that view: “The overwhelming feeling is that there is a role for the diaspora, but how?”

Indeed, consensus was often elusive among the 120 participants, who represented academia and Jewish organizational and Israeli political leadership. In addition, some of those attending criticized the absence of women and participants under the age of 50 at the conference — something organizers said they were working to improve.

The challenges are not dampening the ambitious vision of the JPPI’s chairman, Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. diplomat who assumed the post after Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East peace envoy, stepped down in order to work for the Obama administration. Eizenstat said a key goal of his was for the think tank to have “more of a policy impact” on peace issues and other topics affecting the future of the Jewish people.

One move in that direction was the institute’s decision to summarize the various teams’ findings on several issues into pithy, action-minded policy position papers for use by both the Israeli government and Jewish organizations. Among the issues dealt with at the conference: peace efforts, the delegitimization of Israel, conversion, European Jewry, and Israel-diaspora relations.

“What’s important is the effort to come to grips with the potential impact of the peace process on diaspora Jewry,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who has served in the past as U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt. “There was lots of talking, lots of discussion … and at some point it needs to be translated into something more concrete. Is there action? An agenda to bridge the gaps and find specific ideas?”

For example, during discussions about the future of Jewish settlements in the west bank, sharp divisions emerged, with Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella leadership of the settler movement, saying that it is a Jewish imperative to keep the settlements in place.

Others in the room suggested that Israel already has decided which settlements would stay and which would be relinquished in the event of a peace deal by virtue of having built the security barrier between Israel and the west bank. Most of the major settlement areas are on the Israeli side of the fence and, with the exception of Ariel, the smaller, more geographically remote ones are on the other side.

Institute officials said that the subject of Jerusalem has created two camps: those who say that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel and those who suggest some sort of shared control or sovereignty over the eastern part of Jerusalem, where 28 Arab villages and refugee camps are also included inside the municipal lines.

“The people coming to the conference know how important Jerusalem is, but our discussion was how one differentiates between areas like the Temple Mount and [predominately Palestinian areas] like [the] Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and Shuafat Refugee Camp,” Kurtzer said. “Once you start to draw distinctions, you can define things better. The group did not say give up ‘X’ or keep ‘Y,’ but were heading in that direction.”

Rami Tal, a fellow at JPPI, tried to put the institute’s work in context.

“Think tanks, by definition, first explore an issue in an intellectual way using all methodology available to define problems … and then get to some intelligently reasoned analysis,” Tal said. “Here is where the discussions and opinions are heard and then the institute does the work of making conclusions that can be passed on to the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, and Jewish organizations.”

Abrams said there is value in the very act of talking about theses issues.

“The value of the JPPI is that nowhere else do you have these kinds of discussions,” he said.

The forum on the delegitimizaton of Israel garnered particular interest, especially regarding how Israeli policy and actions, especially military ones such as the recent Gaza flotilla incident, play out — both for Israel on the international stage and for diaspora Jews.

Noting the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in the world, Eizenstat spoke of the ripple effect a negative image of Israel can have on diaspora Jews, particularly the younger generation.

“Jewish identity is increasingly tied to Israel, and as Israel’s status improves, it will be easier for younger Jews to identify not only with Israel but Judaism,” Eizenstat said. “When its image is negative, it undercuts that.”

The gathering supported the notion that one of the best ways to fight delegitimization — described as a “battle of ideas” by Eizenstat — was for Israel and the diaspora to do a better job of promoting the Israeli narrative. (See page 24.)

To that end, conference leaders announced that Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was among the top-level speakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was considering a tour of several college campuses in the United States.

JTA

 
 

Army converts dragged into Israel’s conversion wars

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 12 November 2010
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The army conversion case of Alina Sardikov, shown at her wedding to Maxim Sardikov earlier this year, at which ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber officiated, has gone to the Israeli Supreme Court. ITIM

TEL AVIV – For years, army conversions were seen by many as a convenient solution for resolving at least part of the “Who is a Jew?” question that hangs like a cloud over the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis.

In the Israel Defense Forces, under the guidance of army rabbis, some 5,000 young soldiers in the last decade have undergone a conversion process seen as rigorous but welcoming. That process stands in contrast to the experiences described by many of those seeking civilian conversions run by the haredi Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Now the issue has come to a head with a decision by the Chief Rabbinate not to continue to stand behind IDF conversions until a panel of its rabbis can scrutinize the process.

Furthermore, the Chief Rabbinate broadened the panel’s task to re-examine Israel’s conversion process across the board. That has left thousands of converts, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, wondering where they stand.

“I am all for high standards for conversion, and I’m also for clear standards for conversion once a person converts under the Chief Rabbinate, but it’s outrageous to throw into question their sincerity or their Jewishness,” said Seth Farber, an American-born Orthodox rabbi who is the director of Itim-The Jewish Life Information Center, an organization that helps Jews navigate the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate did not answer requests for a comment on the issue.

It was a lawsuit filed by Farber’s organization that inadvertently prompted the latest crisis in Israel’s conversion wars. In the case, currently being heard by the Supreme Court, Itim is suing the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbis of four cities who have refused to recognize army conversions.

During a hearing in September, the state attorney said there was a procedural problem with recognizing the conversions — a snag that elements in the haredi Orthodox community have seized upon to turn the battle into an ideological one, Farber and other more liberal Orthodox rabbis argue.

They point to the full-page ads in two haredi newspapers taken out by the rabbinic leadership of the large Lithuanian haredi community as an example of the pressure being put on Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who oversees the issue of conversion, to withdraw his sanction of IDF conversions. The ads rail against what the rabbis call fictitious conversions and say that any conversions done without converts taking on the “yoke of mitzvahs” are to be considered invalid.

Israel Eichler, a former Knesset member from the haredi United Torah Judaism party and currently the editor of a religious newspaper, said he had no specific opinion on army conversions. But he suggested that if soldiers’ observance was in doubt, there could be a problem.

“A person who converts and does not fulfill the mitzvahs is not a Jew,” he said.

Meanwhile, a bill has been submitted to the Knesset that, if passed, would cement the IDF conversions as valid according to halacha, or Jewish law.

But Rabbi Yakov Ruza, the rabbi of the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam and a member of the rabbinical council — the equivalent of the Chief Rabbinate’s high court — said those who have converted in the past through the IDF should not be concerned that their conversions could be revoked.

Ruza was appointed as one of the rabbis on the new investigative panel but has stepped down, citing technical reasons.

Taking aim at critics of the Chief Rabbinate, however, he suggested that the whole episode is being overplayed.

“There are certain sources that are battling the Rabbinate to try to make it look like an extremist institution,” he said. “They take certain incidents and make them appear to be questioning the status quo, which they are not.”

An estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israeli citizens are not Jewish according to Jewish law — immigrants or children of Russian-speaking immigrants who were granted citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows those with a Jewish grandparent to become Israeli even if they are not Jewish according to Jewish law.

Most of those who have converted through the army fit that category.

Among them is a young woman who preferred to be identified as Shira (not her real name). She immigrated to Israel alone 10 years ago as a teenager from a small town outside of Moscow. Her father is Jewish, her mother is not.

Shira always felt herself to be Jewish and knew one day she would formally convert, an opportunity she welcomed while serving in the air force.

“They do it so well in army. They focus on all the beautiful things in Judaism like human relations and values,” she said. “They know dealing with new immigrants. There’s no brainwashing but a focus on the important things, the right things.”

Shira is distraught at the idea that army conversions might be in peril.

“We are talking about young Zionists who have come to serve in the army,” she said. “It’s not easy, but they want to serve the country and feel connected to who they are.”

Rabbi Chaim Iram, who serves as director of conversion preparation for the Institute for Jewish Studies, the organization that coordinates IDF conversion courses, dismissed suspicions that army conversions are anything but legitimate.

“I invite anyone to come see our course, the materials we use, and the seriousness and devotion of our students, and then we can talk about criticism,” he said. “According to any and all parameters — both knowledge and practice — we are doing top-level work.

“We need to tell all of our converts that they are Jews, period, that this is a procedural problem that cannot be made into a problem of principle. But yes, welcome to Israel. There is politics, yes. That is a problem.”

Amar’s panel, which is in disarray with three of the five appointed rabbis quitting, has been given four months to make a recommendation on the conversions. Farber notes that is exactly when a freeze on discussion of a controversial conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem is set to expire.

Farber suggested that the Chief Rabbinate is preparing to use the panel as leverage to win approval for Rotem’s bill. The measure has many opponents, among them non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish organizations that fear it would give too much power to the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate on conversion issues, formally shutting out the Conservative and Reform movements.

Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, said it had been naive to think army conversions could be isolated from the overall atmosphere regarding conversions in Israel.

“We claimed for years that the wall between the army and civil society was a fake wall,” he said. “In the end, unless something is done to address the irrational, immoral, and un-Jewish approach of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, it will have a serious and severe effect on the conversions in the army.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

In saving Jewish remnants in Galicia, an effort to enlist Ukrainians

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 24 December 2010
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The remains of a Jewish cemetery dating to the 16th century in the Ukrainian village of Solotyvn. Dina Kraft

SOLOTVYN, Ukraine – On a sloping green hill tucked between small farmsteads, the mottled graves of Jews buried here since the 1600s rise up like a forgotten forest.

Trudging through the mud between the tilted stones, their chiseled Hebrew lettering and renderings of menorahs sometimes barely visible, Vladimir Levin, a young historian who specializes in Jewish art, wants to save the gravestones.

“When we talk about preserving Jewish history, it’s not just about the spiritual life, thought, and books but the material culture Jews produced for themselves. And that is what remains in this place,” he said, looking at the tombstones. “They are the artistic remnants of this small Jewish community.”

Levin, a 39-year-old immigrant to Israel from St. Petersburg, Russia, is part of a team of Israeli historians attempting to document what remains of a once populous and vibrant Jewish life in the regions of Galicia and Bukovina, most of which is in the western edge of present-day Ukraine.

As part of efforts to recover the world that once was in these towns and shtetls, where some one million Jews lived before the Holocaust, the researchers are partnering with Ukrainian academics. The idea is not only to boost the level of scholarship but to highlight to Ukrainian locals a Jewish past that spanned centuries but is rarely remembered publicly in the country.

“Jewish history is not part of the agenda” in Ukraine, said Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which has partnered with the Israeli researchers. “It’s like a whole subject that disappeared.”

The project aims to collect oral testimony and document cemeteries and synagogues left derelict or used for such purposes as canning factories or storage, and enlist young Ukrainian historians to do Jewish-related scholarship. An online database has been established on the project’s website to make the research widely accessible. The project also has set up a scholarship for Ukrainian graduate students to spend a year at Hebrew University to learn Jewish history, Hebrew, and Yiddish.

“Records are being lost in front of us, and so the goal is collection and preservation,” said David Wallach, a professor of molecular biology at Israel’s Weizmann Institute who is among the group of families that helped establish a fund called the Ludmer Project to help pay for the research.

Academics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are overseeing the project with the hope of including other universities.

Wallach, 64, became intrigued by the region’s history after his father’s death. He found among his father’s belongings a black suitcase crammed with photographs and documents he had taken with him from Bukovina before immigrating to prestate Palestine in 1932.

“There is an urgent need for this research,” said Wallach, a tall man with a graying beard.

His relatives came from various parts of Galicia, including a shtetl called Nardvirna where Gestapo units assisted by local Ukrainians rounded up most of the town’s Jews on Sukkot of 1941. With whips and dogs, the 3,500 or so Jews were herded into a nearby forest and shot, their bodies dropping into ditches.

Here the complete destruction of the country’s Jewish communities is marked with little commemoration or public knowledge. No haunting edifices of concentration camps like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland, stand as testimony.

The collection of oral testimonies from Ukrainians who were old enough to bear witness to this period and prewar Jewish life is part of the project’s mission.

Among the grimmer tales collected in Solotyvin was information on the approximate location of a communal grave of Jewish doctors and pharmacists and their families who were killed after most of the village’s Jews were rounded up. The grave was dug near the cemetery’s entrance, locals recalled, although no one could be sure if it was to the left or the right of the path that divides the hundreds of tombstones.

They also told of a doctor’s young son who was found hiding and brought to the cemetery to be shot and buried.

“My parents did not speak. These were not things you told children about,” Wallach said, adding that his mother only warned him of her birthplace, “Don’t go there; the land is soaked in blood.”

Now he is spearheading efforts to solicit funds and assistance to keep the project going. For Wallach it has become a mission to honor the lives lived in a world that no longer exists. Along with a small group of historians and journalists, including one from JTA, Wallach traveled to the southern side of Galicia last month to see some of the project’s past and future work.

“We want to go beyond the Shoah,” said Levin, who led the tour along with fellow Hebrew University historian Semion Goldin, director of the Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and European Jewry. “Before people were killed, they lived many generations in these places. We are the result of these lives.”

In a small white van careening down pot-holed roads deep in the countryside, the group made a stop at a small town known as Podhajce (Pidhaistsi in Ukrainian), an important place on the Jewish map during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the hometown of several rabbis who went on to prominence in other parts of Europe.

Podhajce once was a walled town, an embattled place that found itself under successive attack over the centuries from raiding armies including the Tartars, Cossacks, Nazis, and eventually the Soviets.

Along a narrow road, a stone-faced building rises far above the surrounding tin roofs of the neighboring houses, the oldest structure in the town. It is a synagogue built in the early 17th century, with soaring Gothic windows. The massive buttresses on its south side suggest it may have been used as what is known as a fortress synagogue, intended to shelter locals and withstand attacks.

A corrugated roof was put on during the Soviet era, but inside the building is dark and abandoned. A packed dirt floor is littered with broken bottles and the odd discarded shoe. Its thick plaster walls house a deep niche, the former site of its holy ark.

Budget allowing, the historians plan to return with a team of Israeli and Ukrainian architectural students next summer to document the structure with measurements and photographs. But they fear that the building, in such poor shape, might not last another winter.

They also plan to document the town’s Jewish cemetery next summer. Dozens of rows of graves already are gone, leaving a massive gap between the headstones. They were taken away by locals for paving stones, some of which make up part of the stairs leading out of the cemetery.

“If the past is being erased, our response is to study, preserve, and document,” said Wallach, adding the talmudic maxim, “You are not obliged to finish the task but neither are you free to walk away from it.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Growing backlash against African migrants, Arabs

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Hundreds showed up for a Dec. 21 demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood against African migrants who have moved into the area in recent years. The sign says, “Israeli girls for the Jewish people.” Maariv/Flash90/JTA

TEL AVIV – For the tall 28-year-old from Sudan who calls himself Mike, life in Israel has become a game of survival.

Most days, he earns enough money to buy food for dinner doing odd jobs at construction sites or cleaning houses.

But with voices against illegal immigrants rising in Israel, Mike, an asylum-seeker here, is worried that his situation is becoming increasingly tenuous. Just days ago, hundreds of protesters gathered in his neighborhood of Hatikvah in southern Tel Aviv to rally under a slogan he found intimidating: Expel the foreigners.

“I hear they want to clear us out because this is a Jewish country,” Mike said as he stood among carts of tomatoes and yellow peppers at Hatikvah’s outdoor market.

Nearby, as Miriam Sharabi, 67, pushed a cart of groceries, she cursed the African migrants who have come to this working-class neighborhood plagued by poverty and crime.

“We need to get the kushim out of here,” Sharabi said, using the derogatory Hebrew term for blacks. “They are criminals; they steal things,” she said. “They rape women.”

These sentiments are part of a growing backlash in Israel against the estimated 32,000 foreigners who are in Israel illegally, many of them Africans who sneaked into Israel from Egypt and whose numbers have swelled in the past three years. The rising chorus of anti-foreigner sentiment, coupled with recent calls against renting or selling homes to Israeli Arabs, have prompted a national debate about the depth of racism and xenophobia in Israel.

Just this month, there were several attacks against migrants and Arabs in Israel.

In the southern coastal town of Ashdod, attackers threw a burning tire into a one-room apartment shared by seven Sudanese asylum-seekers. In Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood, a gang of youths hounded three teenage African girls, calling them “dirty blacks” and beating them.

In Jerusalem, police arrested a group of teenagers for allegedly attacking Arabs. In Bat Yam, near the Arab community of Jaffa in southern Tel Aviv, street demonstrators called on locals not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. Fliers distributed ahead of the rally urged residents to save daughters of the town from dating young Arab Israeli men in Jaffa.

The street demonstration echoed the sentiment expressed in a letter recently signed by numerous Israeli municipal rabbis announcing that it is against Jewish law to rent or sell properties to non-Jews. The letter ended with an exhortation to punish those who disobey the ban with excommunication from the Jewish community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a video statement posted on YouTube last week, called for an end to the incitement.

“We are a country that respects all peoples, whoever they are,” he said. “Citizens of Israel must not take the law into their own hands, neither through violence nor through incitement.”

Netanyahu said that the government is dealing with the problem of African migration, specifically by building a fence along the Israel-Egypt border and a detention center in the Negev large enough to serve as a way station for some 10,000 migrants awaiting deportation.

A number of lawmakers, public figures, and police officials have warned that the migrants pose a major danger to Israel, threatening its Jewish character and bringing disease and crime to the country. Yet a recent Knesset report found that the migrants have a very low level of criminal activity.

Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, said that such remarks promote an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia in Israel.

“When the public hears from decision makers that these people are bringing disease and crime and should be deported, then it gives them the legitimacy to say the same things,” he said.

Daniel Blatman, a Holocaust scholar and director of Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, said that the sentiment against the “other” stems from a sense of hopelessness among Israelis about the possibility of a peaceful future. In an Op-Ed in Haaretz this week that has drawn a lot of attention, Blatman compared the atmosphere of distrust in Israel today to that of Germany right before the Nazis’ rise to power.

“There is this approach that we have to live in a ghetto. We have to close ourselves off to the world, because everything coming from the outside world is threatening us — refugees, cultural influences, peace activists who come here to assist the Palestinians, and, of course, the Arab population who live inside Israel,” Blatman told JTA in an interview. “It’s a sort of xenophobia very similar to the one that happened in 1932 after Germany’s defeat in World War I, with no real hope for the future, economic difficulties, and political violence.”

The feeling that Israel is being delegitimized on the world stage exacerbates those feelings, according to Blatman. “There is a sense that we have to protect our own home and not protect others,” he said.

Shlomi Maslawi, a member of the Tel Aviv city council from the Hatikvah neighborhood, organized the street demonstration that called for the expulsion of migrants. He said there was nothing racist about it.

“The government has abandoned those of us in the city’s southern neighborhoods,” he said. “As it is, our people live with limited resources. This population is causing deterioration in our already fragile quality of life. This is not about racism, but that our neighborhoods have become more dangerous places.”

Maslawi complained about large numbers of migrants sharing apartments — sometimes 20 in a single unit. He also blamed them for driving up rents in the area.

“People talk about the human side of their story, but what about our people who are scared to leave their homes at night?” he said.

Raphael Gebreyesus, a 24-year-old asylum-seeker who came to Israel from Eritrea to escape his country’s lengthy military service, lives in a tiny apartment with two other asylum-seekers. Like most African migrants in Israel, they do not have work permits, but rather three-month conditional (and renewable) permits that allow them to stay in Israel while their cases are under adjudication. In the past, authorities did not bother migrants working in menial jobs, but now employers fear they will be fined if they employ migrants.

Yehuda Mizrahi, who grew up in Hatikvah, said that people like Maslawi are exaggerating the role of the migrants in creating the region’s problems. He said that crime in the neighborhood is being perpetrated by the same Jewish Israeli criminals, many of them drug addicts, who long have made Hatikvah a dangerous place.

“What does it matter if a person is black or not as long as he’s a good person?” Mizrahi said. “The problem is the government has to decide what it wants to do.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Katsav rape conviction hailed as watershed moment

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Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, with gray hair at center, outside a Tel Aviv court after his convictions for rape and sexual assault on Dec. 30. Yossi Zeliger/Flash90/JTA

TEL AVIV – For years it was an open secret in Israeli political and media circles that Moshe Katsav had a habit of sexually harassing women who worked for him.

In a nation at arms with a decidedly machismo bent, sexual encounters between powerful male politicians and military officers and their female staff often were seen as perks of the job, and such behavior quietly was accepted as part of the culture, if unhappily by many women.

But then came last week’s “earthquake,” as Israeli newspapers described it: Katsav, Israel’s president from 2000 to 2007, was convicted of rape, sexual assault, and harassment.

Walking out of the crowded Tel Aviv courtroom where Katsav had just been convicted on Dec. 30, Merav Michaeli, a leading Israeli feminist and well-known television personality, hailed what she said she hoped signaled a cultural shift.

“I wish I could tell you this will change the face of Israeli society, but even if it does not it is another step, a sign of change,” she said. “The judges believed the women and understood and recognized the impossible position women are often placed in when working for such powerful men.”

Katsav’s conviction, handed down in a scathing ruling by a panel of three judges who called the former president a liar and expressly stated that when a woman says “no” she means it, was hailed as a historic day for women’s rights and even for Israeli democracy.

Many Israelis say the conviction represents a watershed moment in Israel’s transition to a new set of societal rules about what is considered acceptable — and legal — behavior when it comes to relations between men and women, particularly in the workplace.

Moshe Negbi, a legal analyst for Israel Radio, said the verdict may come to symbolize “a mortal blow to the macho culture that turns women into an object of despicable sexual exploitation.”

The transition took hold years ago. In 1998, the Knesset passed a groundbreaking sexual harassment law. An important test case soon followed when Yitzhak Mordechai, a former general and defense minister who ran for prime minister, was forced to resign from government in 2001 after being convicted of sexual assault and harassment against several women who had worked for him.

Then came the case of Haim Ramon, at the time the justice minister, who in 2007 was found guilty of kissing a female soldier against her will. Most recently Uri Bar-Lev, a top contender for the job of Israel’s next national police commissioner, dropped out of the running for the post last fall after being accused of sexual assault.

“In the past there was this conception that we should not damage the respect given to officers or any man in a powerful position, and if [sexual harassment] happened to a woman it was probably her fault — it was a great way to hush everything up,” said Efrat Nachmany Bar, a colonel in the Israeli army reserves who until her retirement four years ago served as the army’s representative to the Knesset on issues of sexual harassment.

About Katsav, Nachmany Bar said, “Everyone knew and everyone was quiet. But now it has become not just his personal business but a societal issue.

“The Israeli public is now saying, ‘Let’s not be quiet anymore, but let’s talk. And let’s also talk about why we did not talk before,’” she said.

Nachmany Bar credits the army for being ahead of the curve of Israeli civil society when it comes to confronting sexual harassment. She held workshops and lectures and ran help lines for soldiers and officers for 16 years. She also sat on the committee that looked at sexual harassment cases.

That era coincided with women increasingly taking on combat support roles in the army.

Israel’s existence as a military society often gets the blame for forging a male-dominated culture, Nachmany Bar said, but “the issue goes beyond the army. I think a militaristic culture is not one borne from security risks alone, although that strengthens it, but of patriarchy itself.”

As part of the context for understanding the Israeli culture, she and other experts cited Israel’s history as a country forged on the image of the new Jew — the strong, muscular contrast to notions of the diaspora Jew as pale, stooped, and decidedly unmanly.

Using the Hebrew term “gever gever,” slang for a “real man,” she said, “Part of being this real man is to be in control all the time — the idea being that if we are to be a real man in regards to a woman, the man needs to lead and the woman needs to follow.”

A national survey done this year by the Ministry of Trade and Industry found that 40 percent of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment on the job.

Avigail Moor, who heads the women’s studies department at Tel Chai College, said her research found that the figure for actual harassment, reported or not, appears to be higher — affecting some 60 percent of the Israeli female workforce. The figure is similar to other Western countries, she said.

Sexual assault and rape hotlines have been overloaded in the aftermath of the Katsav conviction, with calls coming in from across the country.

Moor, a psychologist, said the question now is how much Israeli men will internalize the message handed down by the court.

“If this is the beginning of a new era, it could have a spectacular effect,” Moor said. “If women come forward in large numbers it could also trigger a backlash. Any social revolution, and this is what it is, has its ups and downs.” JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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