Something interesting is happening to the way that Israelis think about religion. It’s too early to tell what this may mean for Israel’s future, or even what the data actually say, but here are two examples. A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center revealed that more than 80% of Israelis say they believe in God. Many who think of Israel as a largely secular country were surprised at this result. But even more surprising was data in the same poll that showed that nearly as many Israelis identify themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews as those who say they are ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). Observers are trying to sort out the meaning of these results, but whatever the analysis, it seems clear that the way most of us think about religion and Israelis needs to be revised.
That’s certainly true when it comes to the role played in Israeli life by Orthodox Jews. If you follow the English-language media, it’s possible to come away with the impression that there are only two groups of Orthodox Jews: nationalist settler activists and ultra-Orthodox separatists. But like most headlines about Israel, if you read deeper into the story (as we know NIF supporters like to do) you’ll find that the picture is much more complex.
For example, it is well known that Yigal Amir, the man who killed Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin, claimed that he was carrying out a religious mandate endorsed, and even encouraged, by prominent Orthodox rabbis. Less well known is the coalition of Orthodox groups in Israel that works to combat manifestations of racism and violent extremism. Leaders of this coalition, which is an NIF grantee, chose the name 12 Heshvan Forum after the date of Rabin’s assassination. After “price tag” activists burned a mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya in northern Israel, this coalition travelled there. They spoke with the Imam and with the Israeli media about the incident, denouncing the act as a perversion of Jewish values, something that impugns both the Torah and the character of the Israel.
It is also well known that women have been made to sit at the back of the bus on certain “kosher” bus lines that run through religious neighborhoods, presumably in deference to the gender separation practiced by the Orthodox residents of these areas. When met with protests, proponents of the segregated buses claimed that Orthodox women riders wanted these buses as much as anyone.
Less well known is that NIF grantees — including Kolech, an Orthodox women’s rights organization — led the battle to abolish these bus lines using two strategies: they collected evidence from many Orthodox women who said that they did not want or agree with being told where to sit and they appealed to Israel’s High Court. They made the case that segregated buses are a violation of Israeli civil rights law. They also demonstrated to the court that Jewish law does not require gender segregation in public spaces.
12 Heshvan and Kolech are just two examples of a growing field of Israeli Orthodox organizations calling for inclusion, tolerance, and respect for women within the religious community. For years, NIF has worked in Israel to nurture the groups in this field. Believing that their courageous work should be better known in the America, we organized a delegation of activists representing five of these organizations to visit the United States.
The delegates included Dr. Hanah Kehat from Kolech and Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu from 12 Heshvan. Also represented were:
Batya Kanaha-Dror from Mavoi Satum, an organization dedicated to addressing the plight of Jewish women in Israel who are unable to remarry because their husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce. Since there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and since the rabbinical courts are unwilling to act to help these women, Mavoi Satum has become their advocate, representing them before the rabbinical courts, and also trying to solve the problem at its source by introducing legislative initiatives at the national level to break the religious courts monopoly on personal status issues.
Drori Yehoshua, from Mimizrach Shemesh. His group brings the religious heritage of Jewish communities who came to Israel from Muslim countries (who represent more than 50% of the country’s Jewish population) to bear on social and economic issues in Israel.
Yonatan Benarroch, former Board Chair of Neemanei Torah V’Avodah, Israel’s leading Modern orthodox activist organization. This group focuses in part on influencing the educational system for religious youth in Israel, ensuring that resources representing a moderate voice are available in Orthodox schools, summer camps, and youth groups.
Providing audiences with the a broad view of this field, a sharp analysis of the trends within which it operates, and explaining NIFs role as one of the only major funders for these groups was the Director of NIFs Religious Pluralism Grants Pool, Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg. An Orthodox activist herself, Shira directed the Religious Pluralism project for SHATIL before she became a grants officer at NIF.
The delegation reached audiences in Boston, New York and Washington, speaking at synagogues, JCCs, private homes, and meeting with many of the most prominent Modern Orthodox American Jewish thought leaders on the East Coast. The delegates spoke with reporters, donors, fellow activists and rabbinical school deans. Our partners at the Nathan Cummings Foundation arranged a briefing for foundation staff that attracted over 30 participants. Overall, the delegates met with over 1,000 people in person and reached thousands more through media reports. We’re gratified to be able to bring these inspiring activists to the U.S., to raise the profile of their work strengthening moderate voices within Israel’s religious community. It’s one of the less well-known ways that NIF is working to build a more inclusive and democratic Israel.
Rabbi David Rosenn