Monday, March 18, 2013

The New Israeli Government and Obama Ba! (Obama comes!)

It is an exciting week with the new Knesset being sworn in and Obama coming for his first presidential visit to Israel.

If you are already in the loop on the ins and outs of the new government, pardon all the details.

From the start, many anticipated that Likud-Beiteinu, Netanyahu's party, would partner with Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid's party, and Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett's party. Yesh Atid is in the left-center and Habayit Hayehudi claims it is solidly on the right. They heavily disagree when it comes to issues of settlements and the peace process. Yesh Atid actually didn't focus on these issues too much on the election, but Bennett is the one who said that he fully supports the creation of a Palestinian State, just not in the middle of the Jewish one. Yet, they agree about the economy and reforming the government. Bennett and Lapid's biggest similarity, however, is that they both believe it is time to end the Ultra-Orthodox stronghold on all issues of religion, that some of the wealth that has thus far been directed solely to Ultra-Orthodox schools and institutions be shared and that the Ultra-Orthodox must be obligated to national military service. This last similarity was enough for them to tell Netanyahu that they would only join the government together. And, together, they have 30 seats.

But, the partnership potential looked a little shaky for a while. Israeli media reported that Lapid had some outrageous demands, in particular that Yesh Atid get the Ministry of the Interior and Education and that the number of ministers shrink from 30 to 18. In addition, he refused to be in a government with any Ultra-Orthodox parties; a significant demand as Shas, and Ultra-Orthodox party, had been a part of Netanyahu's last coalition. Those issues lead Netanyahu to try to form a majority with some of the Ultra-Orthodox parties.

And then, almost as an aside, the first deal was struck between Likud-Beiteinu and Tzipi Livni's party, Hatnua. She wound up with two departments, Justice and the Environment, the latter of which is most fitting as she ran as the "green party." Following that announcement, there were reports that Shas was to join Netanyahu's government any day.

Then, late last week, it was announced that the government had been formed with Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnua (68 seats). After going back and forth, both Netanyahu and Lapid compromised on a number of things and the coalition was formed. Yesh Atid got the Ministries of Finance and Education among others. A key assignment for Lapid's party was the Ministry of Education which controls the money that goes to all educational institutions, including the Ultra-Orthodox ones. They did not get the Ministry of the Interior and the government did not shrink to 18 ministers as Lapid wanted, but, apparently it was enough. In addition, Lapid got a majority with no Ultra-Orthodox party, and the agreement states that new legislation on enlistment of Haredim will come before the Knesset within 45 days.

The biggest victor in all this, however, may well be Habayit Hayehudi and Naftali Bennett, who somehow made himself indispensable to both Netanyahu and Lapid. Bennett is credited with being the bridge between the two. It was reported in the papers that he told Lapid that if he didn't take this deal, he would go into negotiations with Netanyahu and the Ultra-Orthodox parties. The same sources said that he told Netanyahu that if Netanyahu didn't agree to this, Bennett would maintain his agreement with Lapid and stay out of Netanyahu's government.

Habayit Hayehudi will head five ministries: Economy and Trade, Diaspora and Jerusalem, Religious Affairs, Housing, and Pension Affairs. As head of Religious Affairs, they could bring about reform to laws of conversion and could create civil marriages, which would take control from the Ultra-Orthodox. As head of the Housing Ministry, Bennett's party oversees construction of new settlements and, as you can read in Habayit Hayehudi's platform, they wish to make settling in the entire current State of Israel a national priority.

That Naftali Bennett is quite a politician.

As you can imagine, the Ultra-Orthodox parties are not happy. Shas in particular is furious. The media reports that they now vow to form a solid bond with Labor as a part of the opposition to bring this new government down.

Yet in many other parts of Israeli society, there is definitely a sense of excitement that there is a real possibility for change. If nothing else, not having a single Ultra-Orthodox party in the coalition will seriously alter the conversations. And for us, that has the potential to change the status of all non-Orthodox religious movements in Israel, which is, of course, a very big deal.

For those of us on the outside, it feels like the topic of peace should be the most crucial issue facing Israel. Yet, for Israelis, their biggest concerns are those of their daily lives, just like other "normal" countries. To help understand that, Anat Wilf, a former member of Parliment, stated that the real issue with the peace process is not identifying the borders, but the fact that there is no one on the other side who is really willing to negotiate any kind of peace. When that opportunity comes, she said, it doesn't matter who is in power, they will take the opportunity to make peace. Left, right or center, Israel will make peace when peace is an actual option. However, that opportunity has not come. Thus, the government will focus on its internal issues to better the lives and affairs of its people. 

All this happens just days before President Obama arrives in Israel. Jerusalem is covered in American, Israeli and Jerusalem flags. The official logo of the visit "Unbreakable Alliance, Obama in Israel 2013" is displayed on posters throughout the city. Whole sections of the city will shut down for security purposes. Different organizations have all kinds of activities planned, some about the relationship between the countries and others just for entertainment. It is similar to a holiday celebration. Being here, you know how important the United States is to Israelis. It feels like the king is coming to visit our small village.

I must say that I have never been so excited for the President to visit the city where I live. I never once considered standing in line for hours just to get a glimpse of him when he has visited the Bay Area in the past. However, here, we are watching his schedule closely and hope to be a part of the excitement. He will visit the residences of both President Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday the 20th, and both of those locations are within a ten minute walk from where we live. So, if you happen to be looking for us on that day, we will be walking the streets of Jerusalem waving our American and Israeli flags with pride.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More with The Women of the Wall

Happy Nisan!

The participants of the WRJ Convention and three Ministers of the Knesset joined the Woman of the Wall for the Rosh Chodesh service this morning. The number of women wearing tallitot seemed to have quadrupled since last month. There were also at least two women wearing tefillin.

The vibe, starting from the approach to the Wall, was very different from last month. There were four soldiers standing on the plaza in front of the women's side. When we (my mom and I; my dad stayed in the plaza and peered over the back wall with the other male supporters) joined the group, it looked like the police, who were warning people that they would be arrested last month, had gathered in a protective circle around the women. I looked over the machitza (the separator between the men's and women's sections) and saw soldiers lined up along the barrier facing the men on the men's side. Last month, there was a feeling of being vulnerable. This time, I felt very protected.

And yet, there was far more protest this time. There was a woman who was yelling almost throughout the entire service, reading passages from her prayerbook as evidence that we were doing something wrong. Another woman yelled that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Another, I imagine at a loss for words in her discomfort, just yelled.

The men's side had even more "excitement." There was a man blowing shofar to drown out the sounds of the women (and men who were with us) praying. Others were shouting that we weren't really Jewish. Others who said that we didn't know what we were doing and should have the men teach us the real way to pray. At one point, a number of older haredi men joined hands and together tried to approach the mechitza and were stopped from getting too close by the soldiers and police.

It was during Hallel, the special prayers in praise of God that you say on Rosh Chodesh (as well as other holidays), that the biggest group of men seemed to join together to sing as loudly as possible in an attempt to overpower the singing from the women's side.

But, none of the protesters could stop us from praying in the way we wanted.

I found I was less distracted today and was more able to actually pray. The service was very moving. And so, I sang my heart out. I sang my heart out to proclaim my legitimacy as a human being and as a Jew. I sang my heart out in support of all people who feel oppressed and constrained by others who wish to impose a particular lifestyle on them. I sang my heart out today because it felt so good, and I am positive that the universe was affected by the sounds of our prayer.

And, in all honesty, I sang my heart out to sing louder than the Jews on the other side. Jews who live differently, but who cherish our tradition as much as I do. It was us against them. All of us using the sacred words of our people as weapons of our protest.

Singing Oseh Shalom this morning was a new experience for me. The words of the song are magnificent (May the one who makes peace above, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen) but I admit that I have wished at times that our ancestors were a bit more inclusive and added the whole world into this prayer for peace. But, today, looking at everything that was happening, I understood why the prayer is written the way that it is. Within our people, we need a prayer that urges us recognize each other, understand each other and accept each other.

Please, please God, make peace within Israel.

There were no arrests made today. We were told that the morning started as it usually does, with tallitot being confiscated and people being warned that they are breaking the law of holy sites and they could be arrested and serve up to six months in prison. However, then one of the officers got a call from the chief of police who said no arrests today. Why? The group suggested that maybe it was because of Obama's visit. Anat Hoffman fantasized that Michael Oren called the chief and asked him, as a favor, not to arrest anyone because he's had it with all the irate American Jews on his back for this. Someone else thought maybe it was because the government is trying desperately to build its coalition. Others suggested it might have because of the three MKs (members of the Knesset), all of whom were wearing tallitot, who could not be arrested. Ultimately, we don't know why. But, it meant that we had a lovely Torah service near Robinson's Arch (the Southern Wall). My mom even had an aliyah. Everyone departed feeling good.

 Me and Anat Hoffman after the Torah service near Robinson's Arch

I will remember this morning, from now on, every time I sing Oseh Shalom. It expresses for me two truths. The first is the uplifting power and thrill of praying with the Women of the Wall. The second, is the heartache of praying with the Women of the Wall, for its monthly service highlights the ongoing strife Jews have with each other. Those truths must be held together. On the one hand, I am so grateful to Anat Hoffman and all those who, for over twenty years, have led this struggle on my behalf and on the behalf of all Jews around the world who live and pray in ways that are not respected by other Jews. I am grateful to the Women of the Wall for allowing me to be a part of one of the most moving services in which I have ever participated. And, I am desperately grieved by the fact that the Women of the Wall needs to exist to fight for my rights against other Jews who would deny them.

And so, for all people, for my people and for myself, I pray for peace. May the ordering principle of the universe, the One that guides the very flow of existence that extends far beyond us on earth, help us find peace; peace within us, peace between us and peace in the world around us.

Kein yihi ratzon, may this be God's will.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Negev and the Kibbutzim of the Arava


I have always loved the desert. I love the landscape, the terrain, the mountains, the shapes and colors of the rocks; I even like the weather. So, of course, time in the desert was guaranteed to be a part of our Israel adventure.

We began our trip to the Negev on a Friday afternoon, right after we had participated in the 4.2 km public race of the Jerusalem Marathon. We spent time in/at Machtesh Ramon, or the Ramon crater, the biggest crater in the world (formed through natural geological processes rather than through an impact).
 Overlooking the Ramon Crater

We visited Avdat, a Nabatean city along the ancient spice route.
 Standing at the ancient wine press in Avdat

We went to Timna National Park which, along with being a beautiful part of the desert, is the site of of the oldest mine in the world. 6,000 years ago, Egyptians mined copper there and, today, you can crawl in and out of those ancient shafts and tunnels.

   One of he 6000 year old copper mine shafts

In front of Soloman's Pillars in Timna National Park

We experienced the natural wildlife in the coral of the Red Sea at the Underwater Observatory in Eilat and we dipped our feet into the Red Sea (still too chilly to swim).

In Eilat with the Red Sea and the Jordanian city of Aqaba in the background

We drove along the Dead Sea, reaching the lowest point on earth. Naturally, we floated in the Sea as well. It was the first time that the kids had been to the Dead Sea. We have two who love it, one who is a little lukewarm and one who may never go into any body of water that contains salt ever again.

Worth special mention are the kibbutzim we visited in the Arava Valley, Kibbutz Ketura, in whose guest house we stayed, and Kibbutz Yotvata. Today's kibbutzim are different from the equalized cooperatives of the past. Most of them are privatized, which means their members receive a salary for their work and they are paid according to their position rather than according to their need. Then, there are the kibbutzim that are called "integrated" wherein people are given the usual stipend and then some percentage of their salary depending on their position. Only around a quarter of the kibbutzim work on the hundred year old model of the Israeli commune. Ketura and Yotvata are two of the few that are essentially traditional kibbutzim.

I say essentially because there still are changes from the original ways kibbutzim did things. For instance, the original model had children in children's houses, whereas the general practice today is for children to reside with their parents. It used to be that you didn't own anything individually. Now, if you own real estate when you join, you would be allowed to keep it. If you are left an inheritance, it is yours, not the property of the kibbutz. It is still the case that anything you make while you are a member belongs to the whole community. The differences in the stipends is entirely based on the number of children you have in your household and not at all on the work you do in the community. If you want to work outside the kibbutz, you would be allowed to do so only if you received a certain salary and then, of course, it would go to the collective rather than to you as an individual.

Ketura's businesses include a dairy, date groves, a solar field, an industrial plant for producing a red algae called astaxanthin, an early childhood education program, and is the location for the the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. They don't independently own all of the operations functioning on their property, but some of the members of the kibbutz work in the various programs. Interestingly, when it comes to the businesses that are entirely theirs, like the date groves, they hire outside employees to do the some of the work (like tree climbing) freeing members who can then choose to work as professionals or on non-Kibbutz businesses instead.

At Ketura, you can also visit a date tree name Methusela. It was sprouted from a nineteen hundred year old seed that was found during excavations at Masada. The botanist (Dr. Elaine Solowey) who sprouted and nurtured it is a member of Kibbutz Ketura.


Yotvata's businesses include a highly successful dairy, date groves, onions, and they house the elementary, middle and high schools for the entire region. Their most successful operation is their dairy which brings in about seventy percent of their annual income. If you have visited Israel in the last few decades, you may know the name Yotvata for its many delicious dairy products. They actually don't produce enough milk to meet their needs and therefore buy the milk from the surrounding kibbutzim. In general, the kibbutzim in the area seem to put a lot of effort into collaboration and working together for the benefit of them all. Unlike Ketura, we got the feeling that most of the members were still encouraged to work for the kibbutz's businesses rather than in outside positions.

What was particularly impressive about these institutions was their innovation, both in the realm of environmental stewardship and in building relationships with people and communities from other countries in the region.

The solar fields at Ketura are becoming the standard that others are looking toward, kibbutzim as well as other cities and institutions in Israel and throughout the world. The Arava Institute is the premier environmental education and research program in the Middle East, bringing Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis together to work cooperatively in addressing the environmental challenges in the region.

Yotvata collects all of the water and waste from the dairy and turns it into methane gas that then powers the operation. Forty percent of the power used by Yotvata's dairy comes from this recycling method. They, too, have been involved in cooperative relationships with other countries.
A few years ago, Yotvata was approached by members of a Jordanian village just across the border who were interested in learning about agriculture, specifically growing dates and onions. A few Jordanians joined the kibbutz for a time, learning what they could from Yotvata's knowledge and experience. That village has now become quite successful in their own agricultural pursuits and that success has given its people many new opportunities.

In many ways, the kibbutzim of today are not the same institutions that they were, yet they are still challenging the rest of the world to take a good look at the way we do things and question whether or not there might be something better. Whether that is pushing ourselves to be more community rather than individually oriented, or to be more mindful about our environment, or to find ways to build partnerships with people who might otherwise be our enemies, the kibbutzim continue to put forth ideals to inspire us all.

All in all, a great desert trip.