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Zionism is Not a Spectator Sport

Dear Friends,


I am happy to share with you an opinion piece I wrote that was just published in the Detroit Jewish News. I hope this is an interesting diversion from the corona-virus crisis.


It's about the state of pluralism in Israel and my perspective as an American living in a secular Israeli community. While most people I know here in Israel are not thrilled about Benny Gantz's compromises, I see his entrance into the leadership government as a real positive for pluralism.


I ask that you please come back to Israel when the people of the world defeat this pandemic because Israel needs you. We need your tourism dollars (to put it bluntly) AND more importantly, your voice regarding the Jewish values of the Jewish state. While I want you to come here for an event because its my livelihood as an event planner, it is also something I believe in as a pluralist and feminist Jew. When you have a pluralistic ceremony here such as a bar or bat mitzvah and even a wedding, your voice regarding what Judaism is about is also being heard.


I wish you and your family health, happiness and prosperity, and I look forward to seeing you here soon!


Zionism is Not a Spectator Sport

Even if you’re not Israeli, your Jewish voice counts in determining the Jewish values of the Jewish State.

There’s an old Israeli platitude that goes like this: We’ll take your donations; but until you make the sacrifice to live here, you have no say in our affairs. After moving to Israel from Birmingham 10 years ago, I now understand this is out of time with the actual influence diaspora Jews have on the Jewish state. In fact, when it comes to the fight for religious pluralism, North Americans are the vital backbone behind Israeli activists.


Religious Imperialism in Israel


In Israel right now, the minority ultra-Orthodox political parties (representing 8% of the country’s population, according to the Pew Research Center) have outsized influence in the Knesset, and religious imperialism has creeped across society. The country suffers under the institutionalization of the ultra-Orthodox’s brand of Judaism, including legally allowing the ultra-Orthodox to abstain from Israeli Defense Forces conscription; halting buses on Shabbat; and creating an effective ultra-Orthodox monopoly around the officiating of conversion, marriage, divorce and funerals. They have managed to, in some areas, legally close or impose fines on businesses that open on Shabbat.


Secular Israeli Jews (40% of the population) will often voice their irritation with these issues. However, most Israelis are less bothered when it comes to pluralism at Jerusalem’s holy Western Wall, where women have been arrested and imprisoned for wearing tallit and tefillin, as well as for bringing in holy Torah scrolls for their religious services.


There are more than 200 Torah scrolls on the men’s side for free use and none on the women’s side. This is intentional because ultra-Orthodox custom — not Jewish law — forbids women from reading from the Torah. In addition, the official Western Wall “rulebook” of laws and traditions states that women may only pray silently. If we are menstruating, we are not allowed to touch the Wall or even look at a Torah scroll.


The Pluralist Activism of Women of the Wall


Opposing these restrictions is Women of the Wall (WoW), a 32-year-old Jewish pluralism activist group that advocates for women to have a larger prayer presence at the Western Wall. In 2013, WoW won the legal right for women to wear the traditionally male tallit, kippot and tefillin, as well as to pray, sing and dance at the Kotel. But because women are still not allowed to use a Torah, they continue to endure humiliating body searches by guards expressly hired to prevent them from bringing in the spiritual contraband. While WoW conducts their monthly Rosh Hodesh prayer service, ultra-Orthodox aggressors will cacophonously disturb their religious services and even shove participants.


The Influence of Diaspora Jews


At a recent talk I attended, Anat Hoffman, a founding member of WoW and a leading Israeli civil rights attorney, explained that the group owes a tremendous debt to diaspora Jews. This dates back to the movement’s very beginning in 1988, when the Orthodox Jewish American activist Rivka Haut led 70 participants in the International Congress of Jewish Feminists in prayer at the Western Wall. When they unrolled the Torah and began reading, they were met with screaming, cursing and pushing from the ultra-Orthodox.


Haut’s outsider perspective enabled the Israeli women to recognize what was truly at stake. “It would never have occurred to the Israeli women participants in a million years to go to the Kotel and pray,” Hoffman said. “Trust me, it was bred out of us at birth. The idea came from this Orthodox woman from Flatbush. She felt this was a good idea, and I’m immensely grateful. Throughout our 32 years, we would never have survived if it wasn’t for our North American and South African sisters.”


The All-or-Nothing State of Israeli Judaism Today


When I left Michigan, our family was a member of three different synagogues — not because we were at all religious, but because each offered a special kind of community or service for us and our children.


We decided to move to Israel after my mother died so my children could grow up near their Israeli grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Living among our family in Ramat Hasharon, I quickly discovered that synagogue and ritual-based Judaism aren’t part of Israeli secular lifestyle.


Our extended family gathers on Fridays for dinner, but the Shabbat candlesticks stay dusty on the shelf. My daughter became a bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Ra’anana that was vandalized by religious extremists weeks before her 2014 ceremony; but at her bat mitzvah, many guests said they never thought to encourage their daughters to learn a Torah portion. None of my daughter’s classmates had a bat mitzvah ceremony. Only one of my four nephews had a brit milah with a mohel. The cousins, girls and boy alike, had bar/bat mitzvah parties but no actual synagogue services. I’ve also discovered that many Israelis either marry overseas or cohabitate without a marriage contract because they have no interest in interacting with the Orthodox rabbinate.


To my dismay as a feminist, secular Israeli women are largely unbothered by the discrimination at the Western Wall because they have no interest in praying. What I see as government-authorized sexism, they see as religion.


Zionism is Participatory


Israeli leaders know the majority (71%) of American Jews are Reform and Conservative. While appeasing Americans is always high on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s list of priorities, in 2013, after three years of negotiation with Israeli and diaspora leaders, Netanyahu favored his ultra-Orthodox cronies and reneged on the “Western Wall Plan” for a pluralistic prayer pavilion. A Haaretz headline expressed the betrayal: “Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop Dead.”


The resulting American Jewish anger has electrified the subject as a political issue. “Every single Jew in the world should be able to feel at home in Israel,” Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz said to the AIPAC conference crowd in Washington, D.C., last month. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. When I’ll be prime minister, everyone will have a place at the Western Wall.”


Hoffman maintains if you are Jewish, you have a voice in the Jewish values of the Jewish State.

“You have a say in this,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has the right to push you away from the table. I invite you to participate. Take an active part. When diaspora Jews voice their concerns over issues of pluralism in Israel, things change here…Zionism is not a spectator sport. It’s participatory.”


Pamela Azaria is a native of Huntington Woods and a University of Michigan grad. She is the principal of the event-planning company Celebrations in Israel. She is also a grant writer for Chimes Israel, a nonprofit organization that helps people with special needs live full, productive and self-empowered lives.

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