Diplomacy and democracy: NCJW President Dana Gershon in the Persian Gulf and Israel

Diplomacy and Democracy NCJW President Dana Gershon represents National Council of Jewish Women in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel

It is only since 2020 that Israel has had any level of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Between this reality and the global pandemic of the last three years, a trip like the one I just concluded with to the Gulf and Israel is a a new opportunity.

I was proud to represent National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) this year on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’s (CoP) Pre-Mission to the UAE and Bahrain and their Leadership Mission to Israel, as well as at the Global Coalition for Israel Forum, which was run by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It was my honor to share NCJW’s perspective with this powerful group of Jewish communal organization presidents and CEOs — and with heads of state and other top political, governmental, and military officials in all three countries we visited. It was especially moving to hear from women leaders in the region, where the status of women continues to grow and evolve.

Other highlights of the trip included a visit with the US Naval Command in Bahrain, the opening of the “Abrahamic House” in Abu Dhabi — including the first synagogue built in the Arab world in over 100 years, exclusive sessions with the President of Israel and at the Knesset with lawmakers and important committees for the diaspora, and hearing from Israel’s thought leadership in the media, academics and beyond. The trip was rounded out with visits to museums and religious sites, some protesting in support of  Israeli democracy, and even running the 10K portion of the Tel Aviv Marathon.

Here’s a look at the trip!

Our trip began in the United Arab Emirates at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi — the largest mosque in the country.
Here we are with Sara Mohammad Falkanaz, one of the 20 female members of the 40 member UAE Federal National Council, the country’s parliamentary body. The American women with me are leaders of CoP member organizations.
After leaving the UAE, we traveled to Bahrain, where I had the opportunity to ask Lieutenant General Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, Minister of the Interior, about the status of women in the country.
Women are well represented in the multinational coordination of these three countries, as well as in the Bahraini workforce. The photo on the left is with Gali, an American Jewish special advisor to Admiral Cooper, Commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command. Gali’s role is to advise the Admiral on implementation of the Abraham Accords and cooperation between the US Navy and the Israel Defense Forces. On the right is Linda Jahani, Bahrain Economic Development Board Chief of Corporate Services.
Pictured here is the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, the first synagogue built in the Arab world in more than 100 years. The synagogue sits on a tri-faith property alongside a church and a mosque. All three houses of worship are the same size.
Dubai really is the city of the future! At the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, we learned that more than 40% of the engineers are women who are a part of an incredible team responsible for launching multiple satellites and rovers to Mars and the Moon. One out of four of the UAE’s astronauts is a woman too! On the right is the Museum of the Future.
Israelis have been protesting for weeks now, attempting to save Israeli democracy from a judicial overhaul package, which threatens the fragile checks and balances of the Israeli governmental system.

As the Israeli government continues to stall on the several-years-old Kotel Agreement — a plan for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall — I am grateful to have joined a prayerful protest with Women at the Wall, featuring Israeli activist and former member of the Jerusalem city council, Anat Hoffman.

We were fortunate to witness Orly Erez-Likhovski, Israel Religious Action Center Director, argue the case in support of the Kotel Agreement at the Israel Supreme Court. At the time of writing, we are still awaiting a decision.
And finally, a celebratory shot when I finished the Tel Aviv 10k!

Israel rally remarks from NCJW CEO Sheila Katz

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Sheila Katz spoke at Sunday, March 12’s protest of Israeli Finance Minister Belazel Smotrich, including his threats to women’s rights, alongside the Progressive Israel Network and UnXeptable. We’ve shared the full transcript of her remarks below.

NCJW doesn’t normally protest government officials or elected individuals. Rather, we focus on policies and issues.

Like many other nonpartisan organizations, we strive to work with politicians on issues we care about — whether we agree with them or not. But there comes a time when it is no longer business as usual. 

This is that time. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich cannot be seen as just any other elected leader or politician.

The Torah teaches us not to stand idly by the blood of our siblings, and instead to engage and take action.

This is a moral emergency. We must name the deep pain that so many of us feel for what’s happening in Israel right now, a place so many of us love.

It is with that love that we come here tonight — standing with our Israeli siblings — saying there is nothing normal, nothing acceptable about this moment.

It is unacceptable that Smotrich speaks openly of his desire for a society with unequal roles for women, subservient to the roles of men in government and beyond.

It is unacceptable that Smotrich has said that he is a “proud homophobe,” who has compared the Pride parade to bestiality, threatening the safety of the whole LGBTQ+ community.

It is unacceptable that Smotrich has advocated for segregated maternity wards to separate Jewish and Muslim women, threatening grave inequalities.

It is unacceptable that Smotrich has said that “Arabs are citizens of Israel ‘for now at least,” threatening the hope and promise for a diverse, democratic, and safe state where both Jews and Arabs can flourish.

It is unacceptable that Smotrich has said that he wishes the founders of Israel had expelled all of the Arabs from the state at its founding, normalizing hate and exclusion.

And it is unacceptable that Smotrich threatened what amounts to genocide, calling to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara, which has over 5,500 residents. 5,500 people with dreams and aspirations. This validates and encourages violent actions which threaten Palestinian safety and disregard human rights.

Many people ask NCJW what we learned from the fall of Roe v. Wade here in the United States, impacting millions of people’s access to reproductive care. I’ll tell you what we learned. 

When politicians threaten to take away our rights we must believe them — and we must act and organize accordingly. 

We cannot normalize or simply accept politicians in government who don’t act in the best interests of the people just because they were elected or invited to be in a coalition.

Yesterday after Shabbat, half a million people showed up on the streets of Israel to say loudly — Demokratia! — to say loudly that they will not allow the government to destroy Israel’s democracy through its judicial overhaul plans.

We’re here today to say our friends in Israel are not alone. And that we, the American Jewish community, who believe in the original vision and promise of the State of Israel, will not stand idly by.

We will not tolerate threats against women — including segregated national parks or punishments for failure to meet modesty standards at the Kotel.

We will not tolerate hateful rhetoric.

We will not tolerate violence or extremism; racism, incitement, or discrimination.

We will not tolerate this blitz of legislation to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.

This is a moral emergency for the State of Israel. 

Complacency cannot be an option.

We must refuse to normalize remarks like Smotrich’s.

We must make it clear with our actions as Americans and as American Jews that we side always with democracy, with human rights, and with basic dignity. 

We just left the holiday of Purim–in which we followed the leadership of women to fight back against genocide and hate. And now we begin our preparations for the holiday of Passover, where we will see hero after hero in the Exodus story–many of whom are women–take a stand, at great personal risk, for everyone’s safety and freedom.

We must be in solidarity with our Israeli siblings, and shout out loud together with them: DEMOKRATIA!

The arc of the moral universe is long — and it doesn’t bend towards justice on its own. WE bend it — together.

Sheila Katz
National Council of Jewish Women

Recent remarks from a new NCJW team member

Rachel Faulkner, community organizer, social justice advocate, and anti-racist educator, joined the National Council of Jewish Women staff as its director of national campaigns and partnerships in January 2023. She recently joined Sixth&I for their MLK Shabbat to deliver a touching sermon on identity, interpersonal racism, and antisemitism. We’ve shared the recording and full transcript below.

Thank you for being here. I just feel so grateful to be in this space, honoring and remembering the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King.

I want to start by telling you a little bit about myself. I’m doing this because, by the time I finish, I will have posed a challenge to you. I’m about to ask you to move a little differently in the world, to make a change. And as you ponder that change, I want you to remember my face, my story, my life. I’m doing this because the stakes are high, so high, in fact, that I believe that our collective lives as Jews, as black people, as women, as queer people, and as people with all marginalized identities, our actual lives depend on this challenge I’m going to pose to you in a moment.

So, I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, raised by a dad that was active in the Civil Rights movement in his youth, so active, in fact, that he took this picture of Dr. King on a Sunday morning after a softball game on the south side of Chicago. I actually have never shown this to anyone. It sits right next to my desk, and I use this opportunity to show the world. I don’t know if that was for me or for you, but I hope we both enjoy. Back to my story. I went to a school that many would consider to be failing. It was predominantly black students who lived below the poverty line. And then, in the afternoons, I would go to my synagogue. My synagogue’s membership was almost exclusively white.

I grew up in one of the wealthiest states, and the membership also included some of the wealthiest families in that state. Because of that experience of just walking, day-to-day from my synagogue to my school, from my school to my synagogue, I experienced systemic racism firsthand. I know what it’s like to walk from a community that has little resources, little opportunity, and is struggling to meet their basic needs, to a community where there is an opportunity for everyone, where privilege abounds. I lived that, day-to-day.

I also experienced my share of interpersonal racism and antisemitism earlier than most. I know what it’s like to have black folks assume my level of wealth based on my religion. I know what it’s like to be told I’m going to hell because I refuse to be saved. I know what it’s like to be kicked out of class in first grade for refusing to make a Christmas ornament. I know what it’s like for a teacher, who’s teaching physics, of all things, to call Jews, “Dirty” as a part of the lesson. I know what it’s like to be held accountable for the actions of Israel in black social justice spaces. Similarly, I know what it’s like to be at a Jewish sleepover and to be told that black people will name their kids anything. That I am, “Different” than the rest of the black people because I can speak like I’m speaking to you today. That I can’t really be Jewish or that I have to go through extra security measures to be Jewish, or that as a Jew of color, I don’t even exist, because how could Jews of color exist?

And while this has been my day-to-day experience, basically since I was born, all of a sudden, we’re seeing much of this confusion, ignorance, intolerance, anger, distrust, and maybe it’s not too far to call some of it hate, in the public eye and in the media, from Kanye West to Kyrie Irving, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump. The list could go on and on, but I’m not sure there’s a point in letting it. I don’t actually want to spend much time talking about these incidents, except to name that, if anything, I see them as a call for coalition, for unity, because white supremacy is frighteningly influential in all of them. I see them as a call to build relationship across difference, potentially across challenge, to get past the way in which white supremacy teaches us that there are puppets and puppet masters, to see that this theory that there is someone just pulling the strings, puts the puppets and puppet masters at odd, while the theater owner sits back and collects money from the tickets people are buying to watch the show.

As black folks, as Jews, as folks with other marginalized identities, our ability to stand in coalition, in partnership, in relationship, and in unity, is essential to taking down the entire theater, the system itself. So it’s simple, in some ways, actually, my challenge to you. One way we can all, regardless of our identity, honor Dr. King, is by building more relationships across difference. Real relationships. Not where you are the boss or the customer or the landlord or the teacher, or where there is some other power difference. I also don’t mean necessarily finding the person who has the most opposite voting record from you, or who you see as the most ideologically different. Who are your allies? Who can you call the next time an antisemitic or racist headline is in the news? And do you even actually know them? Do you know their story?

One thing that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was remarkable at was pressing pause and being deeply in the moment, whether it was while riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, or crossing the bridge into Selma on Bloody Sunday, our world moved so fast. Paycheck to paycheck, task to task, bill to bill. I want us to build these relationships and press pause. I want us to be deeply present in them, listening, learning, sharing. I want you to know this person’s story, dreams, challenges. Another thing that Dr. King was remarkable at was sticking with it through challenge. When you inevitably disagree, when you are offended, when you get uncomfortable, when you are challenged, stick with it. I want you to stay in that challenge and listen and take it as a chance to grow and to deepen.

I begin with a little bit about myself so that you would remember my face and my story as you go into the world and build relationships across difference. The other reason I shared a bit about myself is that I know from personal experience that not enough of these relationships exist. If my Jewish friend, who told me that black people would name their kids anything, had spent more time in black communities, she would’ve known that we don’t just name our kids anything, but we do give our kids unique, beautiful, cultural names, many of which, at least in my family, have roots back to Africa that we could not even trace.

And if my black peers had spent more time in Jewish communities, maybe she wouldn’t have been so surprised to hear that my family didn’t own a house when I was growing up, and that I had to raise money for my softball uniform, just like everyone else on the team. The reality, though, is that this isn’t about me or my lived experience. It’s about changing the entire narrative in our country about who is in relationship with, who is in coalition, who is in unity, and to what end. It’s about shifting the power and changing the whole system. It’s not about getting caught up in what a rapper or professional athlete or a talk show host said.

In close, I want to quote a speech of Dr. King’s. And while he quotes Christ, Jews will be very familiar with the theme. He says, “I’m very glad Christ tells us to love our neighbor and not like our neighbor, because it’s hard to like someone threatening your children and throwing firebombs through your window, but he asked us to love them, and that I can do.” He asks us to love them and that I can do. If Dr. King can love through threats and firebombs, I feel confident every single person in this room can find someone different than them to like, to engage in deep relationship with, across difference. Shabbat Shalom.

Rachel Faulkner
Director of National Campaigns and Partnerships
National Council of Jewish Women

Rachel Faulkner is a community organizer, a social justice advocate, and an anti-racist educator. She most recently served as the Director of Community Investments for SRE Network, where she oversaw learning programs, grantmaking, and research in the Jewish gender justice and harassment space. She has also held roles at Reading Partners, City Year, Community Builders, Match Education, and Citizens of the World Elementary School.

Additionally, Rachel served as the National Organizer for #JWOCMarching, organizing the largest contingent of Jewish Women of Color on record at the Women’s March. She is an alum of Bend the Arc’s Selah program, and is a current Tiyuv Program Evaluators Fellow. Some of her most favorite work includes serving on the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the Jewish Studio Project, and the Jewish Multiracial Network.

Rachel grew up in Hartford, CT and is a proud alum of Hartford Public Schools. She attended college at the University of Connecticut as an Alliance for Academic Achievement Scholar, where she received her Bachelors in Sociology and Human Rights.

A writer by passion, Rachel has been published by Lilith Magazine, Blavity, and in Keshet’s blog. When she’s not working or writing she enjoys taking long walks around our nation’s capital, making expert LEGO builds, and riding the “choo-choo” train with her 2.5 year-old Ori Justice.

NCJW condemns twin terror attacks at Jerusalem bus stops

National Council of Jewish Women is deeply saddened by twin bus stop bombings in Jerusalem today, which killed a 16-year-old Canadian-Israeli boy, Aryeh Shechopek, z”l, and wounded at least 22 others. We are heartbroken by this loss of young life and pray for the speedy recovery of all victims.

These attacks are senseless acts of violence resulting in tragic bloodshed and trauma, and conjure painful memories of similar bombings in the 90s and 2000s, when hundreds of civilians were killed. We are distraught by the escalation of violence in the West Bank and Israel over recent months, leaving another generation of children and teens to reckon with this trauma.

We hope to see more compassionate rhetoric and policy from Israeli and Palestinian leaders that encourages peace and cooperation, not violence and hate. We pray for the safety and security of everyone in the region.

NCJW Statement from Sheila Katz

National Council of Jewish Women thanks our champions in the House of Representatives for once again passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would reestablish and protect access to abortion. After the devastating ruling from the Supreme Court overturning Roe, we must and will continue our work to recognize abortion as essential health care. The Ensuring Women’s Right to Reproductive Freedom Act that the House passed today takes us closer to ensuring that people have access to reproductive health care, including abortion, even if they live in states that are jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of their residents by imposing abortion bans. The Senate must pass both measures by whatever means necessary – lives are at risk. Abortion access is and always will be a Jewish value, and we are determined to keep fighting to ensure that everyone has access to the care they need and the ability to make their own decisions for themselves and their futures.

VP Harris Meets with NCJW Leaders and Other Faith Leaders

On Monday, June 6, Vice President Kamala Harris held an on-the-record roundtable in Los Angeles, California with faith leaders to discuss some of the most urgent challenges facing abortion access and reproductive rights in the United States.

National Council of Jewish Women was proud to send Claire Lipschultz, NCJW board director and NCJW California state policy advocate, and Rabbi Dara Frimmer, NCJW Rabbi for Repro and Temple Isaiah senior rabbi, to this important conversation and make it clear that abortion access is a Jewish value and banning abortion violates religious freedom.

The Supreme Court’s impending decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will be released any day now, and, according to the Vice President, could “undo the very principles and premise of the importance of privacy, the right that Roe v. Wade stands for,” per last month’s leaked draft decision.

“Basically, the premise of Roe and the power of Roe is that it is about saying that people should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies — that women should have that right and have unfettered access to reproductive healthcare.” – Vice President Kamala Harris

Attending the meeting alongside the NCJW representatives named above were faith leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including Sikh, Muslim, and Christian. See the full list here.

The Vice President affirmed that faith leaders are essential partners to the Administration and that she looks forward to continuing to work with them to build coalitions across faiths.

“We want to offer you and our country a new conversation, Rabbi Frimmer said. “One that is actually representative of the majority of faith leaders and our congregants, who believe in dignity, compassion, and access to abortion.”

“Judaism not only permits abortion but, sometimes, to protect the life of the mother, our tradition commands it. This isn’t a new idea. This is from the Torah and the Talmud, sacred scripture, thousands of years old, which continue to inform us and guide us in our modern day lives, helping us to practice our Jewish faith and express our Jewish values.” – Rabbi Dara Frimmer