In some ways, living in Israel makes me feel like I have stepped back in time in the United States. My first stop on the blast to the past shuttle is World War II/Post – World War II America. Ellis Island was receiving an influx of new immigrants, many coming from Eastern Europe. When a lot of these people arrived they had a hard time acclimating to the American culture. Many of the Jews were happy to come to the U.S. to finally live in freedom. But that did not necessarily mean they all wanted to change their lifestyle so dramatically.
Many of the elders secluded themselves and changed very little. Their children however, began to immerse themselves more. And this caused some tension within the family because the children and parents simply could not understand each others sides.
Similar to this is todays Israel. There is an influx of new immigrants, and much like during the World War II era, they are being kicked out of their country for being Jewish. The same internal family problems are occurring here. I can observe this firsthand living in an immigrant absorption center with hundreds of Ethiopians. But I want to touch upon my personal experience here after I’ve already moved out.
I just re-entered the shuttle to travel ahead to 1950s/1960s America when segregation problems were coming to front. Schools were segregated, buses were segregated, and even some streets were segregated. In Israel today? The Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) would like to see this happen. In some ways, it already has.
The Haredi would like to see a separation of women and men outside the home. Many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox people will not so much as touch the other sex until they are married. This is fine by me because it is their personal decision, and to each his own. But it bothers me when these beliefs start effecting others.
Our third and final speaker of the day works at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which is the second largest human rights organization in Israel. They are representing non-Orthodox Judaism, so the majority of Israelis. Keep in mind that everyone else here is considered secular, Conservative and Reform Judaism only legally exists in the states.
Because Judaism is the law of the land here, only Orthodox Judaism is paid and endorsed for by the state. In 1948 Ben Gurion gave the Orthodox power over the life-cycle laws (birth, marriage, death), assuming it would eventually die out. Sixty-two years later and the laws remain the same.
50% of the Haredi Jews don’t work, none serve in the army, and none of them pay taxes. Everyone else here has to. When they study in the Yeshiva (Torah learning center), they receive a stipend of 1,000 shekels a month. When a poor Israeli studies in University they get paid … if they have a job.
The problem here is that the Ultra-Orthodox do not think people like myself are Jewish because I do not live my life abiding by the Halacha. If I wanted to marry in Israel I would have to prove I was Jewish by showing evidence of three generations back. Too bad my dad converted, now I am automatically not Jewish. To show evidence for those who have two Jewish parents, one must go so far as showing pictures of their great-great grandparents grave in a Jewish cemetery. Or they have to show paperwork proving it, the problem here is that a lot of this paperwork was destroyed during the Holocaust and Stalin era. So technically, if you are not Haredi you are, Jew”ISH” – ha ha, like my pun?
According to Hitler and the Nazi’s we’re all Jewish, and that in itself is horrifying enough that not all Jewish feel like we are a part of the same family. To tell me I am not really Jewish is just completely asinine.
There are also 300,000 people (mainly from Russia) who have no religion. But to go through the conversion process is not easy. These people do not necessarily want to be Ultra-Orthodox, but then they won’t have certain rights here. This has created a major issue in Israel right now, and a better conversion bill will hopefully one day be enacted.
Back to the topic of segregation, if it were up to the Haredi’s, buses, trains, and streets would separate men and women. Already, some places are separate. The buses taking you from Jerusalem to Tzfat is. You must also dress appropriately to get on. Jeans won’t work, they may cover your knees, but a full-length skirt is the only thing that will do.
The Kotel (Wailing/Western Wall) is a more well-known place that is not only segregated, but women have a smaller area to walk up to and pray at the Wall. In the IDF choir, women can not sing at the wall. No woman can pray out loud or hold a torah there. An activist group seeking equal rights, “Women of the Wall,” started recently and hopefully will make changes soon.
After our evening ended there was a rally in Jerusalem where 10,000+ people came to fight against the Ultra-Orthodox. I want to make a note that not all Haredi Jews feel this way. Our speaker told us some have anonymously called the IRAC thanking them for helping and working hard to fix this. Unfortunately those in power all feel this way.
I want to think positive and hope this will change soon. But, much like anything else, I know that these things take time. Time. Time is of the essence.