The real battle behind Israel’s elections
I have a confession. I drive on Shabbat. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s necessary to state here to explain the following story.
A few Friday nights ago, several hundred haredim from the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood in Jerusalem blocked off the streets in the nearby Russian compound as they sometimes do. They shouted “Shabbas! Shabbas!” as they formed human chains to prevent cars from driving through. It’s important to highlight that this isn’t a religious neighbourhood. Unlike Mea Shearim, people who live here drive on Shabbat while circling around Mea Shearim where steel barricades prevent traffic from passing through on the weekend.
Had this happened in Mea Shearim, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. But the ultra-Orthodox had come into a secular neighbourhood to provoke citizens living there.
We were on our way to my partner’s family for Friday night dinner, and were trying to drive through the crowd. Suddenly a young protestor threw a huge rock at our windshield, cracking it almost in half. We were forced into a side street while being pelted with rocks. The protestors then closed the street by placing huge stones in our way, and forcing their children to stand behind them. The whole time, they screamed hysterically at us for breaking Shabbat and, I’m horrified to say, also repeatedly called me a prostitute.
The experience was very upsetting. I visited a friend’s house a few days later who lives in the same neighbourhood. He keeps a plate of eggs near his living room window, ready to throw at ultra-Orthodox demonstrators every time they protest outside his apartment block.
Israel is just weeks away from its third election in a year, and the latest polls suggest yet another political stalemate. The question of the oversized influence of the ultra-Orthodox is again on the agenda. Many Israelis blame the religious establishment for repeated elections because of their refusal to compromise to Yisrael Beiteinu leader and “kingmaker”, Avigdor Lieberman’s, demand to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.
Currently they are exempt from service from the age of 24 and as a result, many learn in yeshivot until then. This week, a committee set up by the Israeli army found that the age of granting draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men should be lowered so as to prevent them from entering the job market only in their mid-twenties. The panel also found that a substantial number of recruits classified as ultra-Orthodox didn’t live a haredi lifestyle while they served in the military.
Increasingly, Israelis are voting less about security and more about questions of identity, Jewishness versus Israeliness, and democracy. The question of Orthodox conscription remains an election hot potato – as does the question of driving on Shabbat.
Since the last election in September, a private Shabbat bus system has gone operational in Tel Aviv and other cities, upending a decades-long blackout of public transport over the weekend. While many religious Jews consider driving on Shabbat profaning of the holy day, more than 70% of Israel’s Jewish citizens favour public transport.
They complain that especially in areas that are almost entirely secular, there should be public transport over the weekend. The issue is the latest in a culture war between religious and secular Israelis that has increasingly dominated national politics.
Benny Gantz, former army chief of staff and the main rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has pledged to permit municipalities to operate public transport on Shabbat. He’s also promised to liberalise marriage laws that are currently controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate.
His followers welcome such views, which is why his party is expected to win the most votes next month – but still fall short of being able to form a coalition majority.
The six new weekend bus lines have proven hugely popular, drawing more than 10 000 passengers each Shabbat. But their popularity has not made the religious parties budge.
For more than 70 years, buses and trains haven’t run in most of Israel from sundown on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. This was a promise by the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to the ultra-Orthodox community and consecutive governments have adhered to it.
Netanyahu relies on the support of the religious right, and for as long as he is in power, it seems unlikely that the government will allow buses to operate on Shabbat.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up just more than 10% of Israel’s population. Recent polls predict that both the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, and its Sephardi counterpart, Shas, will maintain their influence with seven or eight seats each.
If there’s one good thing that came out of that Friday night altercation, it’s that an ultra-Orthodox youngster came to talk to me privately. He wanted me to know that the crowd didn’t represent all haredim in Israel, and that many were against protesting in secular neighbourhoods on Shabbat.
Still, the growing rift between the religious and secular communities shows no sign of diminishing, least of all when it’s used by political leaders for electoral points.
Commonwealth Jewish Council calls for release of ‘Nigeria three’
All Rudy Rochman wanted to do was to shine a light on unknown, disconnected, and re-emerging Jewish communities around the world, but something went horribly wrong.
The charismatic 27-year-old Israeli activist, who has more than 97 000 followers on Instagram, was working on a new documentary series titled, We Were Never Lost, which focused on these “lost tribes”. At the beginning of July, he and his team travelled to Nigeria to film their first episode.
However, Rochman, filmmaker Andrew Noam Leibman, and French-Israeli journalist Edouard David Benaym were arrested by Nigerian security services when the three presented a Torah scroll to a local community. They remain in custody, haven’t been charged, and haven’t been given legal representation. Organisations and individuals around the world are working desperately to get them released.
“Our first season is set in Africa, and we are filming our first episode on the Jews of Nigeria,” Rochman’s team wrote on Facebook on 8 July. “There are many Jews in Nigeria, Igbos included, and we are here only to help local practising and observing Jewish communities, to provide them with resources, and to document their lives, experiences, and aspirations. We don’t take any position on political movements as we aren’t here as politicians nor as a part of any government delegation.”
But the next day, they were arrested, supposedly for supporting “separatist activists”. Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC) Chief Executive Clive Lawton is one of the many people working behind the scenes. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in the United Kingdom, he says he is alarmed that the men have been held in detention for more than a week without being charged. “That would indicate it’s only an investigation, but they still have no legal representation, and how can such an investigation take more than a week?”
He says the CJC has written to the Nigerian high commissioner to the Commonwealth, His Excellency Sarafa Tunji Isola, urging him to pressure his government to release them soon. “They are being detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. I’m sure the Nigerian government wouldn’t want to cultivate an image that foreign visitors can be snatched up on spurious accusations,” says Lawton.
He has also written to the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Baroness Patricia Scotland. “In this family of nations, the quality of relationships and expectations of decency carry a lot of weight. It’s shocking that Nigeria might continue to hobnob with other heads of governments while treating foreigners like this. It should be seen as shameful. Yes, they might need to investigate something, but that doesn’t take 10 days. This isn’t just an investigation. It’s intimidation. Acting without due process is against Commonwealth principles,” he says.
He hopes that the less formal relationships between Commonwealth countries will make an impact. “At the very least, they should be released to go home. But more desirable would be that they be allowed to return to their cultural activity of making a documentary.”
Lawton says his organisation seeks to build relationships between Jews from around the world. More than 40 countries, including South Africa, are members.
Although the media reported that “three Israelis” were arrested, it’s unclear if all three have Israeli citizenship.
Lawton says Rochman and Leibman entered Nigeria on their American passports, and Benaym on his French passport. “We knew that they planned to make this documentary and were in the first stages of filming. They went to south-east Nigeria to visit a community. Like anyone making such a visit, they wanted to bring artefacts or objects to present to them. In this instance, they very generously brought a Sefer Torah.”
Two weeks ago, Rochman wrote on Instagram about how his team had “just acquired a beautiful Torah that survived the Holocaust and is believed to have come from an old community in Ukraine about 200 years ago”.
“The scribal experts our team spoke to stated that the ktav [writing] had since gone extinct, and they couldn’t believe their eyes when we sent them pictures of the scroll.
“We will be bringing the Torah and gifting it to the youth movement of Igbo Jewish communities of Nigeria for them to have access to our nation’s holy text.”
“It would seem that some separatist activists wrote Facebook messages along the lines of ‘welcoming this act of solidarity’”, Lawton says. “But in fact the filmmakers categorically stated that they had no interest in political issues and were there for a cultural reason – to make a film.
“They arrived on a Thursday, and visited a synagogue,” he says. “That was when Nigerian security services entered the synagogue and arrested them, taking them to the capital, Abuja. On the Friday, the men’s embassies were alerted, and sought to get involved. Chabad in Abuja has managed to organise provision of kosher food for them, which the security services agreed to allow. They also agreed for Benaym to be transported to the French embassy for medical attention, as long as he was returned to detention, and that is what was done. Israel has no ‘formal locus’ to help as they didn’t enter on Israeli passports, but it has sought to engage government and services.”
He believes that they are being held in some kind of “detention circumstances”, but cannot say what these conditions are like, if they are separated, or if they are being held with others. But he says that the fact that the French embassy was willing to return Benaym suggests it was “probably not extreme”.
A member of the Igbo community, speaking to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity, says, “Our information is that Rudy and co. came here to do a documentary on the connection of the Igbo people to Biblical Israelites. Many Igbos are reviving the practices of their ancestors and returning to Judaism. This is what Rudy and his team wanted to do – to hear our story as told by our people. But sadly, some local people hijacked the original intention of Rudy and began to make political capital out of it. The team was bringing a Sefer Torah to be donated to our community. We were very happy that many Israelis would get to know about our Israelite heritage and know that we are brethren.
“Our people are very saddened by the arrest, but we don’t want to heighten tension by making utterances as the matter is being handled. We keep praying for their safety. We believe they will be released because their visit was for religious reasons. We don’t believe they came here to undermine the security of Nigeria. In our synagogues, we don’t entertain separatist activities. We are very sad about their plight. We see it as someone getting into unforeseen trouble while in search of a long lost brother.”
The most recent update on the We Were Never Lost Instagram page is that, “Rudy, Noam, and David are still in custody, but are ok. Their spirits remain high. Three embassies are working diligently towards a resolution. No other action is necessary from the community at this stage, but thank you all for the care and support.”
Diaspora minister expresses concern and support after riots
The newly elected Israeli minister of diaspora affairs this week sent a heartfelt message of support to the South African Jewish community following last week’s devastating protests and riots.
Dr Nachman Shai this week expressed his “warmest regards and personal blessing” in a letter to the community.
“All of us in Israel have watched the recent events in the KwaZulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity, and are particularly thinking about the Durban and Johannesburg Jewish communities during this challenging time.”
He said it was also a difficult moment for Jewish communities around the world. “In South Africa, we witnessed the rise of antisemitism following Operation Guardian of the Walls, which challenged your safety and sense of security.”
His ministry is a partner in ensuring the resilience of the community, and engaging actors within Israel to understand how its military actions had a direct impact on the Jewish world, Shai said.
“Our ability as a Jewish people to take on our shared challenges depends on our ability to engage effectively with one another.”
Shai said he was sure that his upcoming meeting with the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and leadership would be the first of many “as we develop an ongoing conversation between us”.
“The secret of Jewish resilience rests in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other. With this frame, I look forward to working hand in hand with all of you to live up to our potential as both a diverse and unified Jewish people.”
He said the South African Jewish community had long been “a thriving epicentre of Jewish life and a true friend of Israel”, and as Israel’s new diaspora affairs minister, he looked forward to finding opportunities to further strengthen the relationship between South African Jewry and the state and people of Israel in the coming months.
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the SAZF, said he appreciated Shai’s heartfelt message.
“The past few months have been an extremely challenging and difficult time for South African Jewry. Our connection as Jews living in the diaspora remains vitally important as a continued source of comfort and strength at all times, but particularly in times of hardship.”
He said the SAZF looked forward to further engagement with the minister on “developing and building upon the crucial relationship and bond between the state of Israel and the South African Jewish community”.
Shai was in South Africa in August 2017, when he led a delegation of five members of the Israeli Knesset to “promote dialogue, understanding, and co-operation”.
The delegation met leaders across the South African political spectrum, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former President Kgalema Motlanthe, former Johannesburg Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, and former Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. It held meetings in parliament, and met members of the DA, Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, and Freedom Front Plus. The delegation, a product of co-operation between the Israeli Knesset, the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, and the Jewish Agency, also met leaders of the Jewish community and engaged with the key figures in the Christian and business communities, where it reiterated Israel’s commitment to sharing expertise and experience in agriculture, water, and hi-tech.
Transforming a rubbish dump into an oasis
After greening the desert with fruit and vegetables, Israelis looked elsewhere to make improvements. The country’s latest environmental achievement is to turn the Hiriya rubbish dump between Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport into a park.
This former dump has been transformed into the largest green area in the Middle East, with more than 8 000 dunams (8km2) of parkland.
The Hiriya dump (Hiriya in Arabic means good in the sense of goodness and blessing in the past) was an eyesore and a rather smelly one at that, accumulating the majority of garbage from the greater Tel Aviv area.
The vision to convert this dumping ground into a green space came from the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was also the general who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, led his soldiers and tanks behind the Egyptian Third Army and surrounded them, cutting them off from mainland Egypt in the heat of the Sinai.
Today, the luscious green park has little lakes, dams, and revitalised rivers, with a huge variety of plants, bushes, and trees. Aptly, it has been named the Ariel Sharon Park. Venture to the edge of it, and you see a spectacular view of Tel Aviv.
The gas released by the landfill is being collected and rerouted underground, past the Shapirim Stream and Route #1 (the main Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway) to a textile plant in Azur, where the gas is converted into green energy.
According to Shlomit Doten Gissin from the department of environment and sustainability at the park, the number of bird species has risen from only 80 to more than 200 species, with bird hides everywhere for visitors to watch birds in silence.
Gissin says the vegetation in the park was specifically planted to encourage low-flying birds so as not to interfere with the flight path to Ben Gurion Airport. Hundreds of indigenous plants, trees, and shrubs have been planted among fresh water ponds.
Some plants have been planted diagonally on the slopes to allow easy movements of butterflies so they don’t hit a “wall” of plants. There are also tiny animals to be found, even jackals and smaller cats.
This park is one of the wonders of unusable space being converted into flourishing public spaces in Israel. Completion should take about another year, but it’s already being enjoyed by many.
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