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Stories of equality (for the women of our nation)

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Wow-TakingOurPlace-Nov2013-salsaOn Friday, the liberal Zionist organization, the New Israel Fund, published a magazine titled “Taking Our Place: Stories for Equality” in Israeli newspapers, in order to mark the 25th anniversary of a historic organization, Women of the Wall, which has led the fight for women to be able to pray at the western wall. As NIF put it:

Tucked [into Israeli newspapers] will be a 16-page magazine filled with stories, written by NIF supporters, about how the move to greater gender equality in American Judaism has strengthened their commitment to Judaism.

While Women of the Wall have obviously waged a worthy struggle, I was struck in reading the testimonials, almost all by Americans, by how limited the idea of equality is. There is not a mention of Palestinians in the long document, even though the wall is of course in occupied East Jerusalem.

Below, I have produced some excerpts of these testimonials, focusing on stirring descriptions of the fight women waged to be treated equally. I don’t wish to diminish that fight in any way, except to say that as a Jew, I find the narrowness of the vision upsetting. These ideals obviously also apply to Palestinians under occupation and second-class Palestinian citizens of Israel– but those folks just aren’t in the frame. Many of them have no right to go to the Muslim holy site they can see from their rooftops, the Al Aqsa mosque– or for that matter to the beach and the sea, which they can also see from their villages.

NIF has done excellent work against discrimination against Palestinians. But shouldn’t NIF have mentioned their Palestinian brothers and sisters in a document about East Jerusalem?

Here are excerpts:

Alexandra Stein: Gender equality is not just about individual empowerment (important though that is). When I think of the impact that gender equality in American Progressive Judaism has had on my community, I mostly think of people—my childhood Rabbi and Cantor, another female Cantorial Soloist, and many lay leaders in the congregation—who quite simply would not have been there in another generation. These women had a profound impact on my life, shaping how I think and how I pray and how I live, and I know that many others in my congregation, men and women, feel the same way.

Charles Weiss: The struggle that [Women of the Wall] fought and won was a victory for women’s rights in every area in Israel. It has ramifications on the shameful practice of agunot, husbands who simply refuse to grant a divorce to a wife who wants out of the marriage. Essentially, it is a breach in the Haredi monopoly over what women can and cannot do…
Amiee C. Kushner: AS A YOUNG WOMAN WHO GREW UP IN THE ‘80S WITH A FEMINIST MOTHER IN THE BAY AREA, DISCRIMINATION WAS ALWAYS SOMETHING THAT WAS TO BE STRIVED AGAINST, BUT RARELY DID I ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE IT… This past July I embarked on my long delayed first trip to Israel. Through my involvement in NIF I knew of the institutionalized gender discrimination that occurred in Israel, but I was thoroughly unprepared for the pain of experiencing it first-hand. People talk of their “ah-ha” Israel moments and mine began the minute I stepped up to the entrance of the Kotel for Kabbalat Shabbat and saw the signs indicating separate entrances for women and men. The bold, black lettering over the gates began a profound, almost physical, shock at the realization that a significant portion of the Jewish men I was surrounded by saw me aslesser and unworthy of same level of spirituality connectedness to my faith as they.

Rabbi David Rosenn: The 25-year struggle of Women at the Wall stands out as a powerful, determined rejection of the idea that women can or should be knocked out from participating in life’s most significant moments. Here’s to the inspiring example they provide to all of us—men and women, religious and secular—of the importance of (in the words of one of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s great speeches) “remaining awake during a great revolution”

Leanne Gale: As I looked around me, my mind flashed to the image of the Israeli police officer reaching out to touch the woman who had led us in prayer at the Western Wall. To the screaming. To the prison. I slowly leaned back in my seat, feeling relieved to be back in Philadelphia rather than Jerusalem. I felt safe and loved in the American Jewish community. Before Women of the Wall, I had never realized how vulnerable women can be to the patriarchal practices of many religious authorities. The experience jolted me to examine the religious experiences of other women, Jewish and otherwise, and to more deeply explore the implications of feminist thinking for all of our immediate lives. Today, despite the rapid changes that have taken place, I still feel unsafe as a Reform Jewish woman at the Kotel. I sincerely hope that I can live out my Judaism in Israel just as intentionally and fully as I can in the United States. But even more importantly, I hope that more of us can open our eyes to the patriarchal legacies that remain alive and well today in our tradition.

Susi Brieger: Without equal representation in communal power structures, the fight for equality is far from over. To facilitate the rise of women as leaders a communal register could be established along the lines of “appoint women” an initiative of the Australian government designed to give women opportunities to be considered for appointment to a variety of decision making bodies.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe: Women’s rights is not an American import—authentic exploration that is steeped in tradition is a timeless Torah value that inspires and strengthens each of us as we quest for meaning and community before God. I stand with those who support gender equality to further Jewish life that is based in curiosity, purpose, and love of regular ritual.

Faye Moskowitz: It took me a while to understand that my gender “sat in the back of the bus” in Orthodox Judaism, and I rebelled. I joined the Labor Zionist Movement in my teens and reveled in their philosophy of a single standard. In the movement it was possible to be a Jewish woman and not feel part of an underclass. Much later my daughter and I trained for our b’nai mitzvot under Rabbi Avis Miller, a rite my Orthodox background would have deemed unacceptable. Think of it! A woman rabbi and a bat mitzvah for me, the little girl in the balcony…  Perhaps one day all Jewish women regardless of affiliation will be granted first class citizenship


Rabbi Susan Silverman: I realized something much deeper and more existential. Judaism was at stake for women and men. For all our children. For the Jewish future. I had always felt that the centuries of missing women’s voices had created a skewed Judaism – like a tree that had been deprived the right balance of sustenance. Now a narrow, idolatrous view of God and covenant was being codified in civil law! Mitzvot were more and more the jurisdiction of Hareidi Jews, becoming ends in themselves, not building blocks for a society in which the prophets could rejoice. With WoW, I realized that my feminist, progressive fight was for the deepest purposes of our nation.

Rabbi Marla Feldman: For a hundred years, WRJ [Women of Reform Judaism] women have worked to bring women fully and equally into religious life. Each ‘first’ cracked that door open a little wider: the first woman to step onto her congregation’s bima, the first woman to lead worship in her community, the first to chant from the Torah, the first to create liturgy with a woman’s voice. They bravely ‘leaned in’ and secured a place for women in congregational life that would eventually lead to my ordination. They were stalwart advocates for women’s ordination and they did not relent until women had full access to every aspect of congregational life and leadership.

Virginia Avniel Spatz: In my youth there was a riddle involving a surgeon who stated, “I am not this boy’s father, but I unable to operate on him, because he is my son.” This was truly puzzling in its day. I have tried to explain this to my children and their friends. But their instant response was always: “You mean she’s the mom, right?” May Israel move—in 25 years, if not sooner and in our day—to a society where any suggestion of limiting women’s roles is greeted with the same befuddled expression that my kids gave that riddle.

Barbara Ford: I dream that Israel will fulfil its promise as stated in the Declaration of Independence and that this will ensure that Israel becomes a truly democratic and inclusive society. I dream that Israel will respect the way I want to be Jewish and will allow me to be legally married by a Pluralistic Rabbi; that either all or no Rabbis will be paid by the state; and that land will be given to the Reform movement to build its synagogues as it does to other groups.I dream that I can go to the Kotel with my family and be able to wear a tallit, if I choose, and to pray as a family at the Wall together. I dream that Israel will acknowledge and embrace the fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

About Philip Weiss

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3 Responses

  1. ritzl
    November 10, 2013, 2:32 pm

    I can never tell whether the avoidance of the inclusion of the obvious universal aspects of Palestinian equality in subjects Israel/Jewish are a tactical precursor to eventual inclusion, or a deliberate/entrained/immutable disregard.

    #Occupy… went through this same selectivity process wrt Palestine and Palestinians, and decided against the universal aspect, under duress from Jewish supporters, iirc (Fracturing!; but “Why fracturing?” was never answered, or even asked, again iirc. Maybe it was and I missed it.). #Occupy… didn’t have the durability (because of that fragility/selectivity/hypocrisy??) to shed light on this very same question.

  2. jon s
    jon s
    November 10, 2013, 4:37 pm

    The NIF is constantly villified by the Israeli Right as being treasonous “Arab -lovers”. Now Phil criticizes the NIF from the other side for not mentioning the Palestinians in a magazine devoted to another topic.
    The NIF deserves nothing but praise for its consistent support for human rights for all.
    Incidentally, Rabbi Susan Silverman is the sister of comedienne Sarah Silverman.

  3. RoHa
    November 10, 2013, 8:11 pm

    “I was struck in reading the testimonials, almost all by Americans, by how limited the idea of equality is. There is not a mention of Palestinians in the long document”

    It’s equality for the real people, Philip. You can’t have equality between them and the untermenschen.

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