By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM –Currently the most pressing religious war in these surroundings is not between Jews and Muslims or Christians, but among the Jews.
As is typical of this recurring conflict, the weapons involved are not explosives. This round of conflict has not escalated beyond nastiness and disinformation. But those are sufficient to heat up the combatants, and to attract the attention of us outsiders, i.e., secular Jews without a dog in the fight.
Prominent participants are the Reform and Conservative Movements, strong in the United States and using their clout to affect things here. It looks like a community with fewer than 14 million people, and beset with serious hostility from others, can afford its own world war.
There are several armies on the battlefield, and their slogans do not always convince us that those, indeed, are at the center of their concerns. In other words, demands about religion may be masking something else, more important to the participants. To Reform and Conservative activists, it is an occasion to get some media exposure in Israel, and bolster their organizations. To one of the prominent other actors, it may be leverage to stay out of jail.
One contender is Knesset Member David Rotem. He is affiliated with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, and is currently chair of the Knesset Committee on Constitution, Law and Justice. Rotem is promoting a bill to concentrate the conversion to Judaism in Israel under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. The Chief Rabbinate is at the peak of organizations that deal with marriage, divorce, and kashrut for most Israeli Jews, as well as conversion to Judaism in Israel. It is Orthodox, but always looking over its shoulder to ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have their own religious courts and inspectors of kashrut. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis decide issues for members of their own congregations. They tangle with institutions of the Israeli State and accuse Orthodox rabbis of not being sufficiently observant.
It is common to estimate that ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews each represent about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Both have political representation in the Knesset and are usually involved in government coalitions. Israel Beitenu is the principal party of Russian speaking Israelis. They amount to about one million people who have arrived since the late 1980s. They are equivalent to about 20 percent of the Jewish population, but perhaps as many as one-third of them do not pass muster with the Rabbinate as halachic Jews. Israel Beitenu, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties SHAS and Torah Judaism are important members of the current government. Without them, Prime Minister Netanyahu would be in trouble.
Among the issues that Israel Beitenu has promoted is a smoothing of what are often horrendous and unsuccessful efforts at conversion to Judaism.
Outside of the Israeli milieu of Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Russian immigrants are rabbis and other activists of liberal Judaism, mostly Reform and Conservative. These movements are dominant among American Jews, but are small enough to be overlooked in surveys of Israeli Jews. The Conservative Movement claims 50,000 members of its Israeli congregations. The Reform Movement provides no estimate of its adherents in Israel, but it has only about one-half the number of congregations as the Conservative. Neither the Reform nor the Conservative movements have a party to represent them in Israeli politics, and may hear only an occasional comment of support from an individual Knesset Member.
Both Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel have spoken forcefully against the proposal of David Rotem, and have energized their American allies to join the fray. Among the wildest of comments that have come to my mailbox from overseas are claims that the proposal would “disenfranchise” the majority of American Jews, and delegitimize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Orthodox activists are neither more accurate nor polite. The Chief Sephardi Rabbi appeared on Israel radio, and did not soil his diction with the word, “Reform.” Instead he spoke about a cult that sought to change Judaism, and thereby introduce a dangerous schism in the midst of the Jewish people. To prevent that, he sees the enactment of Rotem’s proposal as essential.
It is far from clear that Rotem’s proposal would weaken the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, but that is what they are saying. And at a time when the Israeli government is being squeezed by the United States government on matters that have no direct connection to religious wars among the Jews, non-Orthodox activists have more power than their numbers in the Israeli electorate or the Knesset. The prime minister is taking a course dictated by international politics, and saying that he will work to prevent the passage of Rotem’s proposal, which he says would introduce a dangerous schism among the Jews of the world.
Commentators are speculating that conversion is not all that important to the head of Israel Beitenu. Lieberman is an insider-outsider, or a man with enough votes to receive a senior position in the government, but not enough personal stature to move beyond the fringe of Israeli politics. He has acquired a reputation as an outspoken righist, and is the subject of a long-running police investigation dealing with various forms of corruption. A Russian speaking friend who says that Leiberman is correct on most things also admits that Lieberman is a thug. Lieberman gained the distinguished title of Foreign Minister, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak go to the most important places and speak for Israel to the key leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain. Lieberman deals with capitals in Latin America, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, and visits Moscow to obtain what he can from a government that appears unfriendly. His deputy, Knesset Member and former career diplomat Daniel Ayalon, sometimes appears to be dealing with more important issues than Lieberman.
By one view, Lieberman is obsessed with staying in the limelight and demonstrating his political importance. Promoting what he claims is an easier road to conversion is one way of doing this, and advancing what may be his principal goal of claiming to be indispensable. The purpose of that would be to gain help with the police and other judicial authorities.
All this is happening while we approach the 9th of Av. The day has increased in importance in recent years. More institutions will be closed than in the past. The media is providing commentary about destruction and salvation, along with advice on who should avoid fasting for reasons of health.
According to the Passover story, we survived slavery in Egypt. According to the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we overcame one disaster that occurred on the 9th of Av, and returned from Exile in Babylon. Josephus describes another rough time among the Jews that facilitated the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem on another 9th of Av. We all know what happened a generation ago in Germany and Eastern Europe. Now it’s up to Benyamin Netanyahu to maneuver between excitable Jews from Russia and America, while President Obama and several of Obama’s allies want him to do something unpleasant. .
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following is the transcript of remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a reception for Hannah Rosenthal, the special envoy to combat worldwide anti-Semitism.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I don’t think I need to say a word. (Laughter.) It is such a great pleasure for me to welcome all of you here to the eighth floor of the State Department, to the Ben Franklin Room, for this wonderful occasion to really honor our special envoy, a friend, a longtime public servant, a prominent activist, someone who has everywhere she’s gone and everything she’s done not only been extremely effective but have left people smiling and happier than before she arrived. And that’s not always easy, but that is one of Hannah’s great gifts.
I want to welcome each and every one of you, and I particularly thank the members of Congress who are here. I thank you, Eliot Engel and Jan Schakowsky and there may be others here as well, but I am so grateful for your stalwart support on this mission to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. I welcome, of course, Hanna’s daughters Shira and Francie, and her entire family. I know how much you have meant to her over the years as well.
But I did want to echo what Hannah said about one member in particular who is not here, her father, the late Rabbi Frank Rosenthal. And Frank Rosenthal is here in spirit and very proud of what Hannah is doing.
I also wanted to acknowledge Judy Gross and her family. Is Judy here? Did Judy make it? Judy? Judy? Judy, thank you. Judy’s husband, Alan Gross, has been held in a Cuban jail for the last seven months without being charged with any crime – because he did not commit any crime. He was in Cuba as a humanitarian and development worker and, in fact, was assisting the small Jewish community in Havana that feels very cut off from the world, and Alan was providing information and technology that would assist this community to be better connected. Our government works every single day through every channel for his release and safe return home. But I am really making an appeal to the active Jewish community here in our country to join this cause, and I hope you will have a chance to meet Judy and her sister Gwen and offer them your support, because this family deserves to be reunited and each and every one of us should do everything we can to make it clear to the Cuban Government that Alan Gross needs to come home.
Now, I have known Hannah for more than 20 years and we have worked over those 20 years on issues that are near and dear to both of us. And I can say from firsthand experience, even as well as she talks – and you just heard that – she does more than talk the talk. This is a woman who walks the walk. She is as good as her word. Whether she’s working on behalf of women’s rights or health care or promoting respect and tolerance for all people, she is truly a force for positive change and progress and is a wonderful partner.
Now, I should add that we have many things in common, Hannah and I, but this summer we are MOTBs – Mother of the Brides – together. (Laughter.) And I wish Shira the very best and congratulations and best wishes to all of you. If you can survive being an MOTB, being the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism seems like a relief. (Laughter.)
But when we think about how Hannah ended up doing this really important service, not only for the American Government and not even just for the American Jewish community, but really for the world, to make this mission important in places that may never have thought about it or who, frankly, don’t want to think about it. And there is a direct line from Hanna’s father, because Rabbi Rosenthal was one of tens of thousands of German Jews arrested, imprisoned at Buchenwald for almost a year –the only member of his family to survive – coming to the United States, as so many Holocaust survivors and victims did, to seek a new life for himself, and then to build that life for his daughter and his granddaughters.
So for Hannah, working to end anti-Semitism is not an item on her resume or a good project. This is personal. It is literally in the DNA of this woman and it is grounded in the reality of the Holocaust. It is built on persistent faith, passed on from her father, and it is rooted in the conviction that the world can be a better place, that we all are to be repairers of the breach and we never get the job done, but it is incumbent upon each of us to do our part.
Now, in the nearly seven months that Hannah has been our special envoy, she has traveled the world devising new strategies and engaging governments and people to confront anti-Semitism and to promote tolerance and non-discrimination. In fact, a few weeks ago, she was in Kazakhstan with Farah Pandith, our Special Envoy to Muslim Communities. Together they launched the Acceptance, Respect and Tolerance Initiative to promote inter-faith and inter-ethnic understanding. And then Hannah and I, just about 10 days ago, were at the Community of Democracies Forum in Krakow and we also did tour the Schindler Factory Museum, which I highly recommend to you. Now, she will soon be heading back to Poland with a group of American imams under the auspices of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Center for Interreligious Understanding.
Now, this level of dedication is not new. She has worked for years to build bridges between faiths and to bring people of different experiences together to take a stand against hatred and intolerance. The battle against hate never ends. It must go on. And as Hannah very eloquently pointed out, the forms of anti-Semitism continue to evolve. So you think you’ve got one in a box, and another, unfortunately, appears.
And in today’s world, there are too many places where we see fear of the other promoting gender-based violence, ethnic cleansing, religious extremism. And it requires us to be vigilant and proactive and to always be addressing the disturbing indications that anti-Semitism is on rise again.
President Obama and I are determined to curb anti-Semitism and to work to prevent the isolation of Israel internationally. So we are sending Hannah all over the world. (Laughter.) She’s available for bar and bat mitzvahs. (Laughter.) But seriously, she is pressing our case everywhere where two or more gather, it seems. And she needs your help. I look around. I see many friends here. I see people who have been active in Jewish organizations and civic organizations who understand the importance of this mission. I need your help, Hannah needs your help, because we constantly are looking for good new ideas to support, organizations that deserve the American Government’s backing. And we will continue to speak out against anti-Semitism, as we’ve done in the Human Rights Report and elsewhere, because we don’t want this to be a special effort, we want it to be integrated and rooted in everything we do so that it is part of the woof and warp of the work of the United States State Department and the United States Government.
I have been very struck by how much fear there is in the world today and Hannah rightly pointed to that: economic fear that often causes people to say and do things that are not in keeping with our values; fear that the modern world is going to disrupt the kind of family culture and experience that people have traditionally held onto. So we know we have a big challenge ahead of us, but I was thrilled when Hannah agreed to take this position because she is someone who is indefatigable. If you have hints on jet lag, share them with her – (laughter) – because she is on the move all the time. But she’s bringing a lot of creativity as well as commitment to this effort, and I could not be more grateful. So I’m hoping you will have a chance to see her, visit with her, encourage her, come up with ideas and suggestions for her, and know that we are constantly looking to do better at what we do every day. I see my friend Ben Cardin back there. I acknowledged members of the – anybody else before I – oh, Shelley Berkley.
PARTICIPANT: Jerry Nadler.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jerry. Where’s Jerry?
PARTICIPANT: Right here.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Jerry, my New York friend. He and I walked a lot of miles together. Who else? Thank you for coming, congressmen. Thank you very much. Thank you all. But we need your help. This is not just to salute and thank Hannah for taking on this important task, but to stand with her, stand behind her, provide some guidance about what we can do and how we can do it better.
So let me end where I started, by thanking you all for being here and for thanking – and thanking Hannah for taking on this awesome responsibility at a time in our history and the world’s history when her voice is desperately needed. So join yours with her. Don’t forget Alan Gross. Please meet the Grosses because they need your help too. And let’s go out and recommit ourselves to ending anti-Semitism and bringing people into a better world together. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
If you would, Hannah’s going to go down and stand here. Please come by and say hello to her. And she probably knows every one of you, plus your husband, your wife, your brother, your sister. But in the event she doesn’t, come and introduce yourself as well.
Preceding provided by U.S. State Department
(WJC)–At the invitation of the Government of Kazakhstan, Rabbi Marc Schneier, Chairman of the WJC United States presented a keynote address on Islamophobia on 29 June at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Permanent Council’s Plenary in Astana. At OSCE, the world’s largest regional security forum with 56 participating members, Rabbi Schneier led the panel discussion on Islamophobia and was the first rabbi to ever address this subject at this prestigious forum.
“It is unfortunate that many individuals only association with the Islamic community is that of terrorism and other horrible acts of injustice and humanity,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier in accepting the OSCE’s invitation to provide a Jewish perspective on Islamophobia. “I believe it is very important for world leaders to know that Islamic terrorists do not speak or act on behalf of the world’s Muslims and that the overwhelming majority of Islamic followers are good human beings who are dedicated to building a stronger community for the future. I am honored to help spread this message of tolerance and understanding at this prestigious forum.”
Rabbi Schneier also met with Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kanat Saudabayez who praised the work of the WJC in reaching out to the Muslim world and building bridges of understanding.
Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.
NEW YORK (Press Release)– Many governments’ policies toward migrants worldwide expose them to human rights abuses including labor exploitation, inadequate access to health care, and prolonged detention in poor, overcrowded conditions, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in advance of International Migrants Day, on December 18, 2009.
A 25-page roundup of Human Rights Watch reporting on violations of migrants’ rights this year, “Slow Movement: Protection of Migrants’ Rights in 2009,” includes coverage of China, Cuba, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
“Governments seem to forget that when men, women, and children migrate, they don’t leave their rights at home,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting people who already are at special risk of abuse, many governments further marginalize migrants, punish them, or push access to services out of reach.”
Research in Greece, Italy, Libya, Egypt, and Israel showed harsh policies toward arriving migrants, including lack of adequate screening to determine who is a refugee, arbitrary and indefinite detention, returning persons to countries where they risk abuse, and detention of children with adults. Aggressive policies to thwart migrants when they try to cross borders can be lethal. Since May, Egyptian border guards have killed at least 17 migrants trying to cross into Israel.
Both documented and undocumented migrants may face abuse or discrimination in their host cities and countries. Human Rights Watch has investigated pervasive mistreatment of migrant domestic workers and construction workers in the Middle East and Russia. Cheated by unscrupulous brokers and employers, these workers often told of excessive hours, unpaid wages, and confiscation of passports. In the worst cases, their situations amounted to forced labor and trafficking.
“Migrants form the backbone of many economies, performing the labor and services that people in their host countries depend on but won’t do themselves,” Varia said. “Instead of getting respect and the freedom and wages they are owed, they are treated as security threats, and in general, as undesirables to be pushed out of sight.”
Those apprehended for immigration offenses often face disproportionate punishments or prolonged detention in poor conditions. Human Rights Watch showed how the United States deports large numbers of documented migrants for nonviolent offenses with serious consequences for family unity and fails to provide adequate health care to migrants in detention. Immigration violations are sometimes treated as serious crimes, as in Malaysia, where punishments include imprisonment and caning. The fear of arrest and deportation also means that migrants may endure exploitative work conditions or avoid approaching authorities to report abuse.
“Governments have a right to control their borders, but they need to do so in a way that protects human rights,” Varia said. “Migrants who are abused are supposed to have access to legal remedies, regardless of their immigration status.”
Government attempts to control migrant populations within their territory often include discriminatory policies that broadly restrict migrants’ freedom of movement for no legitimate purpose, Human Rights Watch said. For example, several provinces in Thailand require migrant workers be confined to their workplaces or homes at night and prohibit them from traveling within the province. In countries such as Malaysia and Italy, governments have condoned vigilante-style monitoring of migrants by civilian groups. Migration can increase the risk of infection with HIV, tuberculosis (TB) or flu, but discrimination against migrants can impede their access to care.
Human Rights Watch called on governments to make stronger commitments to migrants’ rights in 2010, including ratifying the International Covenant on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families. The group also urged governments to:
- Reform immigration policies to facilitate documented migration that protects migrants’ rights, and to clamp down on intermediaries who deceive migrants or charge unlawful fees that leave migrants indebted and more vulnerable to exploitation;
- Screen interdicted migrants, new arrivals, and migrants in detention in accordance with international standards, including identifying asylum seekers, trafficking victims, and other vulnerable people, and ensuring that unaccompanied children are treated according to their best interests;
- Ensure access to a core minimum of health services regardless of citizenship or social origin, and repeal discriminatory provisions mandating automatic deportation of migrants living with HIV;
- Improve labor standards and enforcement in accordance with international standards, including equal protection of domestic workers, and strengthen inspection mechanisms to ensure regular payment of wages and decent working conditions for migrants;
- Investigate abuse and killings of migrants, whether by private citizens or government authorities, and prosecute fully through the relevant national laws while ensuring protection for migrants against retaliation. Investigations into abuse should be carried out irrespective of migrants’ immigration or contractual status.
Preceding provided by Human Rights Watch