The shocking use of Holocaust imagery by extremists from within the ultra-Orthodox population last Saturday night provided a unique backdrop for a week of fact-finding and close consultations with Israeli leaders and social activists by The Jewish Federations of North America. Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of JFNA, joined JFNA Israel office staff and members of the local Federation community in a series of meetings and field visits designed both to convey growing concern about worrying trends within Israeli society and to reinforce the North American Jewish community’s abiding commitment to the Jewish State.
As we’ve already come to understand, what happens in Beit Shemesh doesn’t stay just in Beit Shemesh. And, it’s far too easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what’s happening in that troubled city. So it was obvious that this past week needed to include a solid block of time dedicated to listening and learning from a wide variety of residents, including leading activists, top-level municipal employees and the city's mayor. Karen Katzman, director of the Israel Office of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which is partnered with Beit Shemesh through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2Gether framework, was instrumental in arranging and facilitating these discussions.
Without question, a small group of fanatics living in their own world have crossed the lines of decency and abandoned Jewish values. Nothing else can explain their actions – actions that have rocked Israel down to its core. It is heartening that leaders from across the country – including from within the mainstream Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community – are now speaking out strongly against these acts and the extremists who perpetrate them. While we might have wished to see this happen sooner, we applaud that those who may have been at first too passive in their responses are now taking proactive and public positions against the disgraceful behavior of the zealot minority.
Much of the tension that has led to the current crisis seems almost unavoidable. The rapid population growth within the ultra-Orthodox community is compelling them to integrate more fully into the general community than many might wish. A severe housing shortage and lack of public facilities means that those who would rather live apart are being forced to vie for assets and live together. This situation is very threatening to their highly traditional way of life, and they are deeply worried about the impact that this intermingling may have on their society.
In addition, there are political aspects to the situation on the ground that flow from the current coalition agreement. Promises were made by national leaders that are playing out on the local stage, particularly with regard to the allocation of some 30,000 housing units planned for the city. Recent attempts to intimidate the modern Orthodox community in the city may in fact lead to them gaining ground in their efforts to ensure that new construction takes into account the needs of all sectors of the population.
Yet, despite all of the complexity surrounding today’s challenges, the love and pride that residents feel in their city is unmistakable. It was extremely encouraging to hear the commitment of leadership from across the spectrum sharing a common point of view: Beit Shemesh is a great city, and this crisis must serve as a stimulus to get everyone working even harder to realize its full potential. Rather than becoming enshrined as a symbol of intolerance and hatred, Beit Shemesh can and must become a model for successful integration and coexistence. Steve Rakitt, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, arrives in Israel next week and will be devoting significant time and energy to working with their sister city to help lead this effort.
Concerns about Beit Shemesh, “anti-democratic” legislation under discussion in the Knesset and other worrying trends impacting the very fabric of Israel’s civil society provided key themes for JFNA meetings with representatives from Israel’s top political and business echelons. From these discussions, it seems we may be nearing a tipping point – where the magnitude of the challenges is forging a common agenda across the political spectrum focused on reinforcing the values at the heart of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel. A key session exploring these issues, featuring Member of Knesset Nachman Shai, has been scheduled during JFNA’s upcoming Board of Trustees meeting Jan. 22-23 in Orlando.
One of the last stops on this whirlwind tour was to the Yitzhak Rabin Center, Israel’s national institute commemorating the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which promotes dialogue and tolerance and seeks to instill democratic values within Israel’s diverse society. Perhaps no place could have brought home more painfully or more clearly the lurking danger of failing to actualize this vision.
Meanwhile, Federations are working to nurture a more diverse and inclusive society in Israel. Collective Federation funding via JFNA does not fund ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, but does promote greater diversity and inclusion though grants to the religious streams via the work of the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Their efforts include facilitating the integration of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community into both the army and the work force.
Reflecting on his week in Israel Jerry Silverman said, “As the North American Jewish community, we know full well that Jewish and democratic values can be combined successfully. At Federation after Federation, we make decisions to come together in ways that honor one another and our diversity as a people. Now, we must do more to share this model with our Israeli family and demonstrate our faith in the underlying capacity that Israeli society possesses to tolerate and celebrate its own diversity. We should look to create and harvest critical opportunities for dialogue that will advance this goal when traveling to Israel on missions and in small groups, and working through our partnership projects with cities and towns across the country.”