NCJW : Israel

Israel Reflections Part I -- NCJW Study Tour November 2015

After a delicious and warm welcoming dinner last night at a restaurant in Jerusalem, our study tour began officially today with a packed agenda of meetings, briefings and food (of course!). The day began with a “book club” discussion with Elana Sztokman, NCJW colleague and author of “The War on Women”. Everyone in our group of 20 came prepared having read the book in advance and each of us shared our insights and questions about the current status of women and the personal status issues we, in NCJW, care so deeply about: Marriage, divorce and related issues that fall under the control of the rabbinical courts. We were then treated to a conversation with Rachel Levmore, who is a rabbinical court advocate and on the committee that appoints rabbinical court judges. Rachel gave us an insightful analysis of the intersection between Israel as a “Jewish” state and Israel as a “democratic” state. Unlike the rabbinical courts in the US (the Beit Din), the Israeli religious court system is neither voluntary nor optional for those who must plead their cases before it. In Israel, she explained, the rabbinical court has the same powers as any other court and thus leads to much discrimination against women including those who await “permission” to divorce or want to be married in a civil ceremony (not possible right now in Israel).

From our early morning briefing we then headed to the Knesset where we met MK Michal Rozen who was the former head of the rape crisis centers in Israel and now is an MK representing the Meretz party. After a thoughtful discussion wit MK Rozen about trafficking and gender mainstreaming, we were treated to a meeting with the chair of the Committee on the Status of Women, Aida Touma-Sulimen who is the first ever Arab chair of the Committee. Aida is an MK from the Joint LIst and came to her election by way of the Hadash party. MK Touma-Sulieman discussed the state budget from a gender perspective and then touched on affirmative action, gender-based violence, and personal status issues including civil marriage.

We then headed over to the Ministry of Economy and had a lively discussion with the head of the Equal Opportunity Commission, Tziona Koenig. Commissioner Koenig is nearing the end of her term and discussed with us the challenges and opportunities that the EEOC has during her 6 year tenure. The Commission uses their legal expertise to enforce the equality laws of the state, enable inclusion in the labor market, deploy expertise to inform policy and practice and make equality under the law work.In the past 6 years, the Commission has heard 5200 appeals ranging from age discrimination and sexual harassment, to pregnancy and minority discrimination.

Our last stop before going to dinner was our Israel Granting Program grantee, the Jerusalem Open House, where we funded the transgender counseling program. We were thanked for supporting the JOH and for being the first check they received following the pride march for emergency services after the traumatic and tragic stabbing event during the march and the death of Shiri Bank. We chatted with the professional and volunteer leadership of the Jerusalem Open House.

Our very packed day ended with a lovely dinner hosted by Marla Stark, a friend of Debbie Hoffmann who lives part-time in Jerusalem and part-time in Cleveland. The highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Jewel Bellush award to Hamutal Gouri, the Executive Director of the Daphna Fund. This award is given to “an outstanding feminist in Israel” who carries on the spirit of Jewel Bellush. The award was established in honor of Jewel and her role in founding US-Israel Women to Women and Hamutal certainly is worthy of that distinction. Hamutal was joined by her husband, two children, her parents and her mother-in-law. The evening ended with a presentation by David Stark (son of Marla and Bob( who works for an innovative start-up company in Israel.

We have another packed day tomorrow so let say Laila Tov and stay tuned!!



Israel Reflections Part II -- NCJW Study Tour November 2015

Our whirlwind trip to Israel is winding down and I have been remiss in not communicating since last week. Our days have been full of serious work and lots of great relationship-building among all of us on the trip as well as the many partners we have met with in Israel. I last communicated at the end of our first full day last Wednesday and, needless to say, each day since then has been packed with many meetings, visits and, of course, good food! So, I begin with that!

Thursday November 12

After a very informative briefing by our guide on the roof of the Hotel Mamila overlooking all of Jerusalem about the history of the city, the conflicts, the old and new tensions and the opportunities for the future, we proceeded to Machne Yehuda, the outdoor market in Jerusalem, for a culinary tour and cooking class with a local chef. The sights, sounds, and tastes in Machne Yehuda are a delight to all one’s senses. We were guided by a local culinary expert and treated to all kinds of visits and samplings in the shuk with the various stall owners. From the Yeminite herbal healer to the king of Halavah with over 100 varieties, we experienced the tastes and smells of the market. We then gathered in Restaurant Shem Tov where we broke into “cooking teams” and proceeded to be guided in the preparation of what would be our delectable lunch: Kale and Feta Burekas in rolled dough, Shakshuka, and fresh fish ceviche. We had fun and enjoyed eating the fruits of our labors. We were joined at lunch by new Knesset member Rachel Azaria who was a member of the Yerushalmit movement and elected to Knesset in March on the Kachlon party slate. Rachel discussed with us the three major issues facing women from her perspective: 1. The economic gap in wages 2. Personal status issues and 3. Prostitution. She explained that while the trafficking of women from outside of Israel has largely been stopped, the issue of forced prostitution within Israel remains a problem and the ending of trafficking only has increased the demand which she fells must be stopped. The good news is there are now 32 women in Knesset (out of 120 members); the bad news is they are not all working together as a caucus on these issues.

From there most of the group had free time to explore (and, of course, shop) before we gathered together to meet with Yerushalamit (the Jerusalem movement) at city hall in Jerusalem. Yerushalamit is a grantee of NCJW’s IGP program where we funded the bus posters and now fund a women’s co-existence project. Rachel Azaria (mentioned above) was one of the founders of the Yerushalamit movement as was Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz who is now a member of city council and chairs the Committee on the Status of Women. Rabbi Leibowitz is a modern orthodox rabbi in the Nachalot neighborhood where he has managed to unite the local neighborhood across class and religious lines in order to help build a civil movement for change. Shira Katz Winkler, the lead organizer of the movement introduced two women who have been leaders in building what has become a powerful movement for social change in Jerusalem.

The first woman, who spoke to us, was a co-founder of the movement who comes from the Orthodox Jewish community and shared with us the experience of using the courts to effect change but feeling like more needed to be done to create cooperation between people with common interests. She explained that the initial goal of the movement was to organize people to “love the city more than they hate one another.” She added that women tend to understand collaboration and cooperation better than men and have been leaders of many of the community projects.

The second woman is a newcomer to the Movement who is part of the LGBTQ community who became involved since the stabbing during the Pride parade and is one of the organizers of weekly dialogues among all sectors of the community that are held in Zion Square on Thursday evening. She talked about the importance of recognizing “the humanity of the other” and cutting through the “theology of politics and gender and religious differences in order to find common ground. She is leading an effort to try to take what happened at the Pride March and turn it into an opportunity for building dialogue and understanding.

The project NCJW funds brings together Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and secular women to teach them to take power and strengthen the community by “turning disadvantages into advantages”.

Some of our women went to Zion Square in the evening to witness first-hand the dialogue in action and a few of us went to see an organizing training conducted for the Movement which has been selected by Shacharit (an Israeli NGO funded by NIF and Cummings Foundation)as one of four places in the country to participate in extensive community organizing training by two of America’s most renowned community organizer trainers: Simon Greer, former CEO of the Cummings Foundation and Bend the Arc; and Arnie Graf, Lead Organizer of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I was honored to be asked by these two former colleagues of mine to speak to the group about the success we had in Boston using community organizing techniques to advance our social justice agenda and make it a national model for social change. It is something we have embraced in our new Strategic Direction and my hope is we can use a similar model to transform the work we do to advance social change in the field on local, statewide and national policies.

Friday, November 13th

Our day started very early as we made our way to the Western Wall to join the Women of the Wall for their monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the wall. It was quite moving to pray together wearing our tallit and not to be harassed or arrested by the police as was the case in the past. We did get hissed in spit at but nothing happened that disrupted the spiritual beauty of the moment on a glorious, sunny Friday morning at the Kotel. We were honored with two aliyot during the Torah service and we sang and dance together in celebration of winning our right to be there. Women of the Wall, is another one of our IGP grantees and we are proud to support them in their efforts to not only win the right for women who are not orthodox to pray at the wall but also to be able to come together in an egalitarian manner at Robinson’s arch which is yet to happen, but will in the future.

We then headed to Tel Aviv and enjoyed some lovely “free time” exploring the new Sarona Market on the site of the former Templars community. The market is a wonderful place for families, old and young, to gather, to shop, to eat and to relax on a beautiful erev Shabbat afternoon. Think Faneuil Hall market in Boston or Ferry Building in San Francisco and you will get an idea of how beautiful and fun this marketplace is in the middle of Tel Aviv!

We celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat, Tel Aviv style at Beit Tefilah which is an alternative Israeli-Jewish service of music and prayer. And, lo and behold, the interim rabbi was none other than Liora Kalman Ezrachi the daughter of Nahma Kelman, the first woman dean of HUC in Israel and a third generation rabbi. We then were hosted by five different families for Shabbat dinner where we all enjoyed the conversations and sharing of our insights and theirs about the current state of life and politics and Israel. There was no lack of topics to be covered and no lack of opinions to be shared!!

Shabbat in Tel Aviv

While some of us wondered what Shabbat in Tel Aviv would be like, we all participated and enjoyed a day of learning and rest and relaxation. In the morning we had a heart-wrenching discussion with women from the IGP project supported by the Robin and Stephanie Frank: Hillel, Open Gateways. Hillel supports women who have made the wrenching decision to leave their lives as Haredi Jews and venture out into the world. The stories of rejection by parents, spouse and, in some cases, loss of children, were truly tragic. But, Hillel is working to support these women so they can restart their lives and be free of the bondage of their former lives which, in these (but not all) cases were stifling and isolating.

We all then chose to either do Yoga (let by Shari’s daughter at a woman’s spa) or walk the streets of Tel Aviv, or visit the beach or whatever! One group even chose to play Mah Jong together at the hotel. Whatever we all did we all enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv on Shabbat when families join together to rest and relax and be together in this vibrant and beautiful city on the sea.

In the evening we were treated to a lovely Havdallah Service and dinner in the home of Ricki Lieberman (friend of Nancy’s from NYC)in Jaffa and a really fun and informative conversation and presentation on women in Israeli cinema with Galit Roichman, a screenwriter and film critic. She analyzed with great depth and insight the film “Aviva, My love”, which portrays issues of bullying, independence and some of the difficult situations in life women find themselves.

Sunday November 15

Sunday is “back to work” day in Israel as it was for us as well! We began the day with a visit to Ariel, the capital of Samaria in the West Bank. Ariel is part of “Area A” according to the Camp David Accords and is part of the “consensus” in Israel that would be part of an ultimate “land swap” deal with the Palestinians, but not absolutely. We met with Dina Shalit, the former Deputy Mayor of Ariel and former director of the Ariel Development Foundation as well as two other residents. They share why they came to live in Ariel, some for ideological reasons and some for economic reasons and now consider Ariel their home. Ariel is a beautiful city of 20,000 residents in the Judean Hills of the Jordan Valley looking westward to many Arab villages and Jewish towns. We met in the beautiful cultural and art center that was built primarily with private funds raised from Jewish and Christian donors.

We then drove through the city to Ariel University where we met with four Arab students who are studying there. They come from near and far (within the green line) and most of them live in the dormitories. Some of them were Muslim and some were Christian but they all agreed that they were there to get an education (mostly in engineering areas) and not to engage in “politics”. They all consider themselves “Israeli Palestinians” and are Israeli citizens who would choose to stay as Israeli citizens even if there was eventually a Palestinian State. It was an eye opening and interesting conversation with some differences and nuances among them just as there would be if we met with Israeli students.

From Ariel we headed to Dalyat Carmel for a lovely lunch and shopping in this Druise village and then on to Haifa. In Haifa we met with two of our grantees: Turning the Tables and Isha L’Isha. Turning the Tables, with our support, has opened a fashion training studio for trafficked women in shelter that houses women who have left “the life” and are trying to get back on their feet.

Isha L’isha is a women’s collaborative that we are funding for their work on anti-trafficking legislation and advocacy. They are both part of a women’s coalition of organizations trying to advance social change for women. We met with someone of the women being helped by the program and toured the studio.

We then went to meet with Liron Peleg Hadmoni and her partner in Vital Voices, Noa Sattath. Together, they lead groups of Jewish and Arab women to deepen the dialogue and efforts to learn from each other about their respective narratives. We had a thoughtful discussion about the opportunities and challenges presented by engaging in such dialogues and roles women can play to deepen connections and understanding.

Israel Reflections Part III -- NCJW Study Tour November 2015

Monday November 16th and Tuesday November 17th

We spent Monday learning and reflecting upon the geo-political situation in Israel and the prospects for peace going forward. We began our day in the old port of Jaffa at the Peres Center for Peace and Justice. It is physically stunning as its layers of concrete and glass symbolize both the weight of the conflict and the hope for the future. It was built to honor the legacy and life of Shimon Peres and the work he continues to do (at the age of 92) to advance dialogue and peace between people who have fought each other for thousands of years, but find themselves sharing the same holy land together. Shimon Peres, from his start as an adviser to Ben Gurion, to his role as Yitchak Rabin’s partner and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Oslo accords in 1993, is a tireless advocate for peace and coexistence. We were treated to an insightful analysis by Nadav Tamir, director of international affairs at Peres Associates and former consul general and my partner in Boston for the four years he represented the Israeli government there. Nadav spoke about Peres philosophy and shared his own vision for moving forward with the peace process even in these troubled times when there is not good leadership on any side of the conflict. He stressed the importance of dialogue and of listening to the “other’s” narrative and the willingness to take responsibility in order to build a better future. He shares Peres’ philosophy that “the best way to change anything is to begin by changing ourselves” and the importance of not getting stuck in old stories and paradigms.

One of the most important messages Nadav offered was his belief that “Israel wants negotiation but no agreement”, while the “Palestinians want an agreement with no negotiation.” He was clear in sharing his and Peres’ belief that “we must continue to advocate for a 2-state solution to the conflict because the alternative, a one-state solution, will be neither Jewish or democratic and both are intolerable ends to the conflict and would mean the end of Zionism.” He also expressed his opinion that Jerusalem must be the capital for both peoples and believes that until and unless that is recognized along with a return to the 1067 borders with some land swaps, there will be no peace. He stressed that the skepticism that is rampant among both Israelis and Palestinians could be allayed by a change in leadership with a willingness to take bold steps for peace as both and Rabin and Sharon demonstrated in their respective governments.

Nadav also talked about the importance of empowering moderate Muslims and building relationships across the divide between Jews and Muslims within and beyond Israel’s borders. He acknowledged that the way Israel left Gaza may not have been the best approach, but that Israel had to leave and unfortunately nothing was built to support the Gazans who took over. He surprised many of us when he said that most of the European countries of friends of Israel and cautioned us not to equate constructive criticism of Israel with anti-Israel or anti-Semitic beliefs. Since many of those in the BDS movement are Jews he asked the question “how can they be anti-Semitic”. Nadav is “on leave” from the Foreign Ministry so all his thoughts were his own and not representative of the current government.

From Jaffa we drove to Eden Village, a NCJW grantee, which is 3 miles from the Gaza border. Eden is located on Kibbutz Carmelia and is home to 65 girls from troubled family situations who come as young as age 12 and stay there as old as 18. We spoke with the girls and heard about their hopes and dreams for a better future. Many of them want to serve in the army and then pursue careers and families that will help sustain them in a better place for the future. We ate lunch served from their “food truck” which was donated by Denmark and we toured the grounds and met with the staff. NCJW has funded Eden over the years, most recently with money to evacuate the girls to the Negev during Operation Protective Shield in the summer of 2014. They were most grateful for our support over the years.

Before heading to Moshav Gea for dinner, we went to Sderot where we viewed the new film by Laura Bialis called “Rock in the Red Zone”, the story of the musicians and teenagers who used music to allay the fears and trauma of the repeated rocket and Kassam attacks coming a mile away from Gaza. The story if both a love story and a reality insight into life in Sderot during the worst years of the conflict with Gaza. It is not in film festivals and is worth seeing and using for section programming.

Tuesday November 17th

While I had to head home to NYC Monday evening, the rest of the group stayed for one more day in order to visit the NCJW Women and Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University (TAU) where they met with faculty and NCJW scholarship recipients. We should be proud of the program at TAU which is the largest graduate program in the University and which has hundreds of alumni, men and women, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular; and offers amazing learning opportunities for people wanting to advance social justice through a gender lens.

The group held a debrief at the University to give everyone a chance to share their reflections on the week (that seemed like a month)and then they went back to the hotel to pack and take in the final sea air along the Tayelet next to the Mediterranean sea. In the evening, there was a farewell dinner with special guest Micky Gitzin who is a Tel Aviv city council member and executive director of Israelbfree, another NCJW grantee that advocates for freedom to marry and separation of religion and state in Israel.

Final Reflections

Many of our friends and families were concerned about us going to Israel at this difficult time with random acts of terror happening in the streets of Israel. But I, for one, would suggest when has Israel has never been a “quiet” place without conflict and, yes, sometimes violence. Having said that, when there is violence in Israel, it is often overblown by the media. Do we hear about every stabbing and shooting in our cities that happens on a daily basis? And what about our sisters and brothers in Israel who live with the threat of violence and terror on a daily basis? Every person we met was incredibly appreciative of our coming and being with them. Isn’t that what it means to be a diaspora Jewish community—to support the state of Israel in good times and bad!

You would have had no idea that there were three stabbings while we were there—we were certainly careful not to go anywhere obviously “dangerous”, but we did go to the old city and we did go to a settlement over the green line and we experienced no problem except from the ultra-orthodox in the old city who did not like us praying together as women with tefilin and tallit at the wall!

I have been to Israel 43 times and as I said to the group of 20 on the last night I was there, I gain new insights and have new experiences every time I am there. This time it was meeting with the communist, feminist, Arab chair of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women; and celebrating kabbalat Shabbat in Tel Aviv not Jerusalem; and enjoying a Havdalah service at a beautiful home overlooking the sea in Jaffa; and going to my very favorite city of Haifa and seeing the new fashion studio of Turning the Tables; and visiting Eden Village in Sderot and the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. I could also elaborate on the markets, the food, the shopping and the fun we all had together—a group of smart, committed NCJW women learning together on a whirlwind week in Israel.

My only regret is more people have not experience this very special treat, Even if you cannot travel with us, I hope you will enjoy the photos and the videos that will be posted in the next few days on our website as well as the powerpoint presentation we will be preparing for you to share with your sections, your synagogues and your friends and family!

It's Scary

It gets scary when the fate of one’s country is being deliberated. The security and peace issues surrounding the State of Israel are front and center when it comes to the nuclear arms deal with Iran. So it is not surprising to see that in the past few weeks over one hundred and fifty million dollars were pledged in the US for Israel advocacy to protect the State from complete annihilation. That is a great deal of money and there is a great deal of advocacy one could do with that.

JNF, the Jewish National Fund has received one hundred million dollars of that money, and has sponsored a survey of the American Jewish community on the issue of the delegitimization of the State of Israel and the BDS (boycott, sanctions and divestment) movement that has grown up around it. It was not surprising to me that Frank Lunz, who conducted the survey found , as quoted in the Times of Israel on July 5th said that “ when it comes to the most effective messaging, (Luntz) found that the statement “Women in Israel have exactly the same rights as men. No other Middle Eastern country offers women fully equal rights” was particularly well received “and he goes on to say that “It’s not security that needs to be highlighted, but [Israel’s] social justice and human rights.” Underlining Israel’s role in protecting human rights and promoting equality could be particularly resonant, he said.
“Wikipedia describes Lunz as an American political consultant, pollster, and “public opinion guru” best known for developing talking points and other messaging for various Republican causes and he himself calls himself right of center. We know what his bias is and should be respected for his transparency. And yet, I found it fascinating, as did he, that gender equality, is the issue that may be the key, may turn the tide in the onslaught of antiZionism and antiSemitism on college campuses.

Young Jewish progressives today are prochoice, pro-samesex marriage, prohuman rights and want to see a progressive platform in the State of Israel, the state that claims to be both the homeland of the Jewish people and democratic as well. The attempts to woo over progressives with messages such as “look how hitech Israel is or what great beaches” no longer work. What young progressives want to know today is what is Israel’s civil and human rights record, what is its stand on reproductive justice, gay marriage? Women’s status in the workplace? Maternity/Paternity leave? Healthcare for all?

The Pulpit Rock

All of these issues are being addressed in Israel today particularly through the women’s organizations, feminist bloggers, face book campaigns, academia, human rights NGOs and philanthropy.

One hundred and fifty million dollars towards Israel advocacy? Why not use some of that money to support a positive campaign for Israel, around Israel’s work for gender equality and message it right. Israel has state mandated fourteen weeks of paid maternity leave , Tel Aviv is the number one gayfriendly city in the world according to Fodor’s, Palestinian LGBTQs come to Israel for free HIV testing, something they cannot do elsewhere in the Middle East. Abortion is free and legal and does not require parental consent, although the system needs to be revamped.

Is Israel a utopia for women, Palestinians, LGBTQ people? Very far from it. That means we need to keep working and working hard especially with all the setbacks we have had particularly in the last few weeks. With conversion reform being rolled back, with religious courts being taken out of the Ministry of Justice and put into the Ministry of Religious Affairs, where there will be no serious supervision of its legal work, with women being removed from the committee to elect religious court judges, and no alternative to religious orthodox marriage, we have our work cut out for us. But still. Israel now has a Minister for Gender Equality and a law passed that says all national budgets must be analyzed through a gender lens if they want to pass. The Knesset will have its first committee meeting on the budget through a gender lens this week. For the sake of peace and security in the entire region, we need to get the message out loud and clear we’re working on it! Come work with us.



We are the 81 percent

Someone suggested to me that I write a blog on why gender equality is important to me. I don’t want to write about that. I think it is obvious why gender equality is important to everyone and if it isn’t, it should be for the sake of all civil society. I want to write about the new office of the Ministry of Gender Equality, Senior Citizens, and Minorities. Ok yes, that pretty much covers just about everyone, or at least 81 percent of us living in Israel.

Some say the new ministry is a fig leaf offered to the new minister, Gila Gamliel (Likud); some say without a big budget – which it does not have – it is useless ; and some say that the Prime Minister had to incorporate some women as ministers (there are now 3 out of 20 ) because it was not PC without them. I say that both Minister Gamliel and the citizens of Israel and all those who care about life in Israel have received a golden opportunity to make change.

And yes, while big budgets help, it is not always about the money. The late Uri Ohrbach was Minister for Senior Citizens without a big budget and changed the lives significantly of many senior citizens in Israel who are 10 percent of us today. And what’s more, when he passed away this year, we all knew who he was and what he did for the seniors. After all, we either have senior parents, we are seniors, will be seniors. You get my point.

So we are not all Arabs, but 20 percent of the citizens of Israel are and that is why we need to care about parity for them. We need to be concerned so that they too can live good lives and be proud to be citizens of this country. So that takes care of 30 percent of us, and now comes the other 51 percent of us – the women. We are not all Arabs, we are not all seniors, but more than half the population of Israel is female. And that is why the Ministry of Gender Equality, Senior Citizens, and Minorities must make a difference.

Without equality for women in the private and public spheres of life, none of us will really enjoy the status of a democratic Western country based on Jewish values and dedicated to justice. Without the right for women to marry or divorce as they choose, pray as they choose, and receive equal pay and equal opportunity in the workplace, we cannot define ourselves as a Western democratic country – even if we are allowed to compete in the European song contest. Without the right to reproductive justice and the right of every woman to determine for herself what to do with her body, we all know that there is no gender equality. And we all know that the transgender population is the most discriminated against in the LGBTQ community, and that is part of the conversation on gender equality as well.

So let’s all wish the new minister good luck, let’s all keep her apprised of what we know about the issues, and be sure to tell her how she can help us change the ways things are now. Not just for the 81 percent, but for Israel as a whole.

Elections in Israel: My Call to Action

No more war, no more words. We have fought enough. We have talked enough. It’s time to take action, and I’ve got a list for the coming months.

1. Kumbaya. We need to come together as a family. And I am not talking about the Israelis. I am talking about the Israelis and the American Jewish community. We have had our rifts before and our rifts will continue, but families stick together. 

2. Tell your family members what you think. Again, I am talking about the Israelis and the American Jewish family members. No reason to keep quiet about what hurts you, what you think is wrong, what you think is right.

3. Make it better. So after all the words, pain, and, emotions, it’s time to make things better. I know the American Jewish community and Israeli society are still whirling from the recent election, but at the end of the day nothing has changed. Israel is still facing existential threats from all sides of its border and beyond. Women’s rights and gender equality are still issues that need to be advanced and with more women than ever before (but still only one quarter of the Knesset body), we are hoping to keep progressing. The discrimination against minorities in education, economy, and in the public sphere has allowed the racist genie to come out of the bottle and this time, I fear it is not going back in. But for truth’s sake, we have only verbalized what was thought all along. Action in all these arenas and others are the beginning of a maturing society as well as its duly elected officials. So let’s allow this government to deal with Israel’s security issues head on with leadership, bravery, and trust. Let us see the implementation of Israel’s laws that protect against sexual violence as well as religious and personal rights of all women. Let us see more government funds allocated towards building infrastructure for Israeli Arab communities. Let us see affirmative action legislation for the disadvantaged population. Let us see fair settlement of the land issues  of the Bedouin population in the South. 

4. Ensure Israel is a good place for the younger generation. This is essential for all of us, but especially for those who are leaving in masses to seek a higher quality of life, for those who cannot afford to leave but also cannot afford to live, for those who want to stay, and for those who love this country and want to join in making it a great place to live, and for all those who believe in the Zionist dream of a democratic homeland of the Jewish people that provide equal opportunities for all its citizens. Let’s take action today to make sure that future generations of Jews commit to protecting the State of Israel as well as its values as a Jewish, democratic state, and to its status as a nation amongst nations. We owe it to the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people to take action. At NCJW we help our sisters in Israel work for a better place for all citizens of Israel and in particular for all women and for gender equality in all areas of life. We are hoping to see a stable government dedicated not only to the safety of Israel, but to the benefit of all its citizens. We have our work cut out for us. But, I hope my call to action will become your call to action, and that together we can ensure our future – Israel’s future.

Oh Esther Esther, where are you when we need you?

Let’s face it. Queen Esther is a controversial figure in the story of Purim, certainly for the feminist community. On the one hand, she is the heroine of the story that ends well for the Jewish people. On the other hand she is handed over to the King of Persia by her uncle, without much choice in the matter. I personally have always been ambivalent about her. Is she a heroine or is she a victim? In 1990, the ICAR – the International Coalition for Agunot Rights – succeeded in having the Fast of Esther proclaimed as International Agunot Day, dedicated to the plight of women whose husbands are unable or unwilling to grant them a divorce. An interesting choice.  Why the Fast of Esther? Why not Passover, for example, the festival of freedom

Israel has no civil marriage authority. Marriage and divorce for all women – Jewish, Muslim, and others – are governed solely by religious law and religious courts. According to Jewish law, a Jewish woman may not receive a final writ of divorce or get without her husband’s consent. Thousands of women in Israel, called agunot or mesoravot get, are unable to remarry because their husbands either left or refused to grant them a divorce. For these women, a civil divorce obtained outside the country does not resolve their status in Israel.

But again I ask, why on the Fast of Esther? Living in Israel for 34 years now, I have gone to the polls eleven times voting for unstable governments that for the most part do not last more than three years at a time. This time in March, there are more women running for election to the Knesset than ever before, and why? Because all the research shows, and in particular the work done by the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer  Institute in Jerusalem, that in Israel, the women’s vote counts and all the politicians know it. Who do women vote for? Other women running for office. And why? Because women elected to political office work on issues that concern women – families, security, and peace – more than men do when elected to political office.

We should be encouraged that in the last few years, a consensus in support of enacting an alternative to religious marriage is gaining strength among the Israeli public and among Israeli political leaders. We continue to look to the political and religious leadership in Israel for solutions acceptable to all. Resolving this situation would not only help  Israeli women seeking a divorce, but all Jewish women seeking a get in the rabbinical courts of other countries as well. But without more women in the political sphere, it may not happen.

I think Esther knew that instinctively and so chose to work within the system with all its weaknesses. Let’s face it – she made it happen, but only because she was close to the decision maker and worked to engage him in her quest for the survival of the Jewish people. Thus, the celebration of Purim. I don’t know  what party she would have belonged to today, but what I do know is that she would have stayed  in the system, working it,  determined and unafraid. Let us hope that the women elected to the 20th Knesset will do the same.



In Israel, Newfound Terror of Tunnels

“Tunnels,” a dreaded word that I remember from the Vietnam War. I recall watching the nightly news at 6PM and seeing the numbers, the body counts.

I have been living in Israel, now, for the past 34 years and this is the fourth war I have lived through. I have seen my children go to war, my husband go to war, my friends, my neighbors. So many dead, on both sides. But it’s the tunnels that got to me this time.

The difference for me between the Vietnam war and this war is that in the 60’s, I did not go to sleep thinking would the Vietcong creep into my house at night through the tunnels. Vietnam was far away from Miami Beach where I grew up. I have been living through rocket fire now for the past two weeks, seeking safety in “safe places” which usually mean hallways and closets that are not very secure, really.


Dispatch from Israel: Hope Amidst Tragedy

Today I was in the Knesset in Jerusalem for an important subcommittee meeting on including women in all conflict resolution, followed by another on the wage gap between women and men (66% to 100%), a ministerial committee meeting vote on important End Demand legislation in  Israel’s anti-trafficking campaign (it was voted down) and a meeting on non-Orthodox conversions. 

In the meantime 80 missiles fired on Israel today, including the Golan and Tel Aviv again with a Hamas-fired missile into Israel that downed the Israel electrical power facility used to supply 70,000 Gazans with electricity. Israeli authorities will not be fixing that until this conflict is over as it is directly on the border with Gaza and too dangerous an area to enter.

In some ways, daily routines go on, but in other ways the day-to-day is mired in tragedy. Three Israeli children were injured from missile fire today and 5 Gazans have been killed. And the day is not over yet. Living in Israel is never calm. It is sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging, sometimes spiritual and rewarding—but never calm. However, this particular conflict seems to be more intense and brutal than most.


Stopping Work to Stop Gender Inequality in Israel

by Ronit Piso, Executive Director, Shutafot

Translation: “We are all equal”

On Tuesday, January 21, at 11:00 am, hundreds of women across Israel took a coordinated “break” in the name of gender and economic justice. While they were doing this, I sat in front of a computer at work monitoring our protest. Every second I sat there, a click sound came from the computer—another woman had signed a petition supporting our coalition, ‘Shutafot’, another woman had taken a protest break in her workplace. The diversity of the names of these supporters, all fed up with the status quo, indicates that they are Jewish and Arab, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, longtime residents and new immigrants. Their email addresses, coming from their place of work, span national associations and organizations, local authorities, well-known large businesses and small businesses too.

Fifteen minutes later this successful social media campaign ended.  In that short time, 200,000 women were exposed to the ideas we promote, to bring women’s rights and equality to the forefront of the Israeli public and media agenda, with focus on the economic and employment fields. Thousands of women were active in sharing these ideas and supporting the facts and data we collected and displayed and supported us by joining our Facebook page. The campaign, which lasted a month and a half, produced a number of news reports, and resulted in the exposure of about half a million female readers.


More Entries