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This past Sunday the New Israel Fund held a Town Hall in Bnai Jeshurun in New York entitled LEFT AND "RIGHT": VISIONS OF SOCIAL CHANGE IN ISRAEL.  The speakers were Avrum Burg, former speaker of the Knesset; Naomi Chazan, former Meretz MK and president of NIF; Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel; and Daniel Sokatch, new CEO of NIF.  All now serve on the NIF board.  Moderator was Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward.  What follows is from my notes, points that stood out to me, certainly not a full recount of the afternoon.


The discussion was organized into five sections each introduced by a short video clip which introduced at least some part of the subject.  The first section was introduced by a video of a “religious” settler standing at the grate which keeps Palestinians from going out the front of their homes in Hebron, repeatedly calling the women and their children “whores” in Arabic.  The question was, more or less, are the settlers entitled to free speech?   Someone said that it was a matter of making the settlers understand that they have rights but also responsibilities as citizens.  Avrum B said that the settlers feel  they are following a higher authority and have no feeling of responsibility to democratic authority.  Naomi C asked -when does freedom of dissent become subversion or even incitement?

The second subject was the second class status of Arab citizens of Israel, counter posed to the growing Islamitization and radicalization of the Arab population.  AB – This is a shame, a shonde.  We who suffered for centuries as a persecuted minority said we would never do that to others, but we have.  We must recognize their suffering, not make it a competition of suffering.  Rights in Israel must include rights of non-Jews.  Martin Indyk first noted that, on security issues, he is probably more of a hawk than the other members of the panel.  He noted, proudly, that NIF is the group that helps Arab citizens advocate for their own rights.  They want to be citizens of Israel, but the Palestinians across the green line call on their identity.  Equal citizenship and a solution of the Israel/Palestinian conflict go hand in hand.  Naomi C- 93% of Palestinian citizens of Israel would want to remain Israeli citizens if there is a Palestinian state.  The test of any democracy is how it treats its minorities.  BUT- a question never answered in the 60 years of the state – What does it mean to be Israeli?  What is the public space that all Israelis share: Jew and Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, men and women?  David S – some groups that NIF supports use language we find uncomfortable.  This is natural after 60 years of mistreatment.  Avrum B – Can’t Isreali Arabs be like American Jews – one citizenship with a national home elsewhere?

The third was the growing dominion of the Haridi (extreme Orthodox) Jews and the push back – “freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”  Naomi C – noted several recent developments: Anat Hoffman detained and threatened with prosecution as a leader of Women of the Wall;  segregated busses (men in front, women in back) now on 43 bus lines;  also special new state funding for women who decide NOT to get abortions.  The problem is not the religious parties, who have a right to advocate for their interests, but that the main stream parties are kowtowing to them.  She recently got a letter from a religious(Orthodox) woman – “They” are bent on crushing women’s rights, even religious women.  Avrum B – We need to create alternative religious (Jewish) structures.  Also an alternative religious center in Tel Aviv, as opposed to Jerusalem – alternative prayer places, marriage, burial, etc.  He has two children who recently got married.  He officiated in his home – the Rabbanut should not be interfering with their sex lives.  We need to create an alternative progressive Judaism in Israel.

The fourth question – Is there a line between confronting our faults and giving ammunition to our enemies?  This was introduced with noting an article in Ma’ariv, and other right wing groups in Israel, accusing the NIF with being the main source of the Goldstone report and basically undermining Israeli security.  Right wing protesters are holding “investigative hearings” on this.  (This has escalated since Sunday with the possibility of a Knesset investigation)  The ability to criticize is basic to civil society.  (Poster shown with a caricature labeled “Naomi Goldstone Hazan”)  Naomi C – Israel has survived because of its democratic values which means the right to protest wrong doings, even by the IDF.

The fifth question – After the last election, is there a future for the left in Israel?  Avrum B – “We have a very green system, we recycle our prime ministers.”  Not only in Israel, where is the viable left in America, or even in Europe?  Is some ways our rhetoric has taken over – Sharon, Olmert, and even, reluctantly, Bibi talk about a two state solution, but we are not needed, out of any power.  ALSO some of the greatest damage to the cause of peace come from the “left.”  Barak was the first who said “No Partner.”  The settlements also doubled under Rabin and later Barak.  Since the ‘80s there has been a withdrawal of the government from its responsibilities.  In its place “civil society” has moved in.  Activists need to move into politics, with our values, a left with values and new powers.  Naomi – We should admit our failures.  Yet “When I get depressed” over the political situation, I go visit a NIF project.  Then I can believe “Israel has a future.”  We need to celebrate diversity and learn how to live with it.

One thing which struck me, but was not articulated by the speakers, was the political difference in how two minorities are treated in Israel.  Both the Arab population and the “religious” Jewish population are between 15-20% of the population.  To create a majority in the Knesset all the main stream parties depend on the religious parties which gives them tremendous clout.  Yet no party dares include the Arab supported parties in government, which means that the left or even left-center has no hope of forming a government without some religious parties.


The afternoon was full of a combination of problems and determination.  Even with all the frustration, it was good to be in a hall full of people who are committed to a democratic and tolerant Israel which respects its minorities.

Tags: israel, politics, progressive zionism

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