Friday, June 29, 2012

Israel to Draft Ultra-Religious and Arab Israelis

The debate over universal, mandatory military conscription in Israel is heating up.  It is a very important debate, which may change the character of the country quite significantly.

Israel has in place universal military conscription for its citizens, men and women, at the age of 18.  Until now, there have been a number of categories of exemptions.  Military service in Israel is of great importance.  Aside from the existential threats that Israel faces on a continual basis, the military plays an important rule in developing networking, leadership skills and employment opportunities for many of Israel's young adults, across class lines.  This is discussed at length in Start Up Nation, which I reviewed recently.  Those who do not serve in the military or some other form of national service likely face reduced employment prospects and opportunities in Israel.  Hence, the development of greater equality in Israeli society, across various lines, is hindered by the large scale exemptions, which have existed until now.

One category has been the ultra-religious ("Haredi") community.  At Israel's inception, Israel's founding government agreed to provide an exemption from military service for a limited number of ultra-religious Yeshiva (a Jewish seminary) students, who would devote all of their time to the study of Torah. There was some basis in Jewish law for the institution of this type of arrangement on a limited scale.

However, over the years, the exemption became broader and broader as the Haredi community grew and came to be viewed as a general exemption from military service for all young Haredim who attend a yeshiva.  Over time, the effects of this exemption have been dramatic and extremely harmful to Israeli society.  The exempt Haredim who choose to study full-time rather than perform national or military service have wound up with significantly limited employment opportunities.  This is not only a result of their exemption from national service but also because of the lack of a general studies curriculum in the schools at which they attend.  This combination of non-integration with Israeli society and the failure to develop employable skills has led to toxic levels of poverty in the Haredi community.  Yet Israeli governments have continued to fund this system due to the nature of Israeli coalition politics and, particularly, the fear of alienating the Ultra-Religious parties. 

Recently, Israel's High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting the Haredim and held that equality in Israel would require a completely different apporach.  A committee was formed, the Plesner Committee, to institute a replacement law and conscript the Ultra-Orthodox.  Yet the religious parties have continued to hold substantial power in Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very reluctant to upset the Haredim by changing the conscription law to include the Ultra-Orthodox community.  The media has been filled with reports of extreme statements from members of the Haredi community about intended civil disobedience in the event of mandatory conscription.  On-line news channels, such as Ynet News - Op-Ed have printed guest editorials attacking the idea of forcing this change on the Haredi community.

Yet, there is nothing in the Torah, the Talmud or other Jewish sources that would exempt all observant Jews from serving in the military.  To the contrary, Jewish sources, historical and biblical, are filled with stories of military events and of the necessity of defending the people and the nation.  As the Haredi population continues to grow, its members simply must recognize that they are as responsible for national defence as any other Israelis.  They are also responsible for economic self-sustainment and these goals will intertwine. Haredi veterans of the Israeli Defence Forces are almost certainly going to be much more employable than those who are exempt.  This will benefit the Haredim and the rest of Israel.

The other broad category of exemption has been Israeli Arabs.  Israel has historically recognized an exemption for its Arab citizens due to security concerns and other related issues.  But this is also a matter that must be reexamined.

The discussion here is about Arab Israelis, that is Arabs who are citizens of Israel. These Israeli Arabs enjoy the right to vote, access to full health care, education, freedom of speech, religious freedom and all of the other aspects of a free, open, democratic country that is far ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbours by any measure in any of these areas.  There are Arab Members of Knesset (MKs - members of Israel's Parliament), Arab judges  and Arab Israelis in high level positions across the country.

To be sure, many Arab Israelis have certain grievances and concerns, many of which are legitimate.  They would like to see equality of funding for health care, education, housing and other areas.  They would like to see employment prospects improve. They would not want to be forced to fight against their cousins  or family members in Gaza or the West Bank.

These are all legitimate concerns and should be addressed as mandatory universal military or national service conscription is instituted.  But for the same reasons that apply to the Haredi community, Israeli Arabs who are citizens should face the same obligations as other citizens.  Military service will improve relations between young Israelis and young Arabs.  It will improve employment prospects and will lead to greater equality.

This week, it was Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who led the charge to institute full conscription for everyone including Haredim and Arabs. Though he has dragged Prime Minister Netanyahu towards this goal kicking and screaming, it is Lieberman who has taken a principled, equality-oriented approach, regardless of the political intentions that Lieberman may have.

The reaction from the Israeli Arab community has been as shrill and rejectionist as the reaction from the Haredi community.  According to Ynet News, One MK, Jamal Zahaka, called the attempt to force compulsory service on Arab youth a "declaration of war on the Arab sector."  MK Ahmed Tibi urged the government to talk about "equal infrastructure, education, land allocation and employment" rather than military service.  To which Netanyahu responded that this is all "solvable."  There should be little doubt that universal military or national service conscription would lead to greater equality for Israeli Arabs who would come to be viewed as partners in Israeli society (like the Druze community currently) rather than as a potential fifth column.

Since the Kadima party, now lead by Shaul Mofaz, joined the current coaltion government, there has been a sense that some changes can be made to Israeli law in a number of areas.  One of these key changes, is a more equal approach to military and national service for all Israelis.  This is something that Lieberman is pushing very hard and that Mofaz seems bound to support (with his Kadima party).  Once it is addressed properly, the government can begin to address the even trickier issues of religion and the state, the electoral system - and of revised economic priorities.  These kinds of changes will only be possible with a broad governing coaltion in which the constituent members are all willing to stand up to the pressure from minority Haredi and Arab parties and to act for the benefit of all Israelis.  We will soon see if Prime Minister Netanyahu's current government can meet that test.

Postscript (Added July 3, 2012):  Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday announced that he was dissolving the Plesner Committee - and essentially caving in to the pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox.  It is unclear what will happen as a result of the High Court's decision, which mandated a change to the Tal Law.  However, it has become clear that Netanyahu will not readily support, at this time, a universal conscription bill that would include Ultra-Orthodox and Arab recruits.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jamri/Jumri Party in Kiryat Eqron, Israel

I went to a different kind of party last night - a "jamri" party.  What is jamri? (or pronounced "jumri?").  It is a yemenite food, similar to a pita.  It is made differently though.  The dough is much thicker.  The pita is cooked in a pan over a wood/charcoal fire - and it is also smoked from above.  The result is a very thick pita that is quite hard on the outside but chewy on the inside.  Because of the density, people only eat a small piece of it - along with other salads, appetizers and side dishes.  But at a jamri party, the jamri is certainly the main attraction.

The first step is to prepare the fire - which can take a while.  You need lots of wood, some dry palm branches and the right type of unit for containing the fire, and preparing the jamri.  Here is a photo of a special "jamri maker," prepared for these occasions.  Getting the fire to the right stage can take an hour or more.  So if you are invited to a jamri party, don't count on eating some fresh jamri right away...unless it has been made in advance...

The next step is the cooking process.  The dough should be made in advance.  Unfortunately, I don't have the recipe to add to this blog, though I can try to get hold of it.  But the dough is placed in pans which are set on the fire.  The palm branches are used to smoke the jamri from above and harden it on the top.

 After that, the jamri cooks for a while, hardening on the outside and cooking to a chewable dough on the inside.  This can take a while, perhaps as much 20-25 minutes to get to the proper texture and consistency.

Finally it is ready - to be served with scramled eggs, zhoug (Yemenite hot sauce), tehina, salads and other side dishes.  Jamri is typically viewed as something to be served with dairy so there are no meat products at this type of event.

I was skeptical at first since the jamri was so hard on the outside and so dense.  But the inside really was quite tasty and well worth the wait.

Here is a photo of the final product - just before it is served...

There are not many places in Israel where you can eat authentic jamri.  Though this was a traditional food eaten by Yemenite Jews who arrived in Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only a small number of the next generation have learned how to make it.

So a jamri party is not only an opportunity to taste a unique dish that is not very common - it is also a chance to enjoy a rare Yemenite tradition that only some Yemenite immigrants have retained and transmitted.  Other Yemenite dishes, such as Jachnoon and Melawach are much more prevelant - even sold in frozen form in supermarkets across Israel and are likely to be available for quite some time.  But jamri requires special expertise and conditions to prepare.  Its future in Israel is much less certain unless some members of the younger generation pay careful attention and learn how to prepare it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Woman Arrested for Wearing Tallit at Kotel

 A woman was arrested yesterday at the Kotel (the Western Wall) in Jerusalem and questioned for wearing a Tallit (a prayer shawl) in the women's section of the Kotel.  According to a Jerusalem Post report, the woman was fingerprinted, photographed and detained for three hours for wearing a men's Tallit.

The incident occurred during a monthly Rosh Hodesh (New Month) prayer service organized by the group Women of the Wall, an organization in Israel dedicated to fighting for religious equality of women and in particular, the right of women to conduct a Torah service at the Kotel.

According to an Israeli law from 2001, it is illegal for women to perform practices at the Kotel that are normally performed by Orthodox men.  This is includes wearing a men's style Tallit or putting Tefillin (phylacteries) and it also includes a ban on women reading from the Torah.

As part of a "compromise" the Israeli government has allowed mixed events including mixed prayer and Torah reading at the Davidson Centre - at the south wall of the Kotel.

But the actually Western Wall is overseen by  Orthodox religious authorities.  This means that the Kotel is divided so that it has a women's section and a men's section.  Women are not allowed to bring  a Torah scroll into the women's section or to pray or sing out loud.  Effectively, in a society in which only a minority of the population are Orthodox Jews, the Israeli government has ceded control of a site that is holy to all Jews to a minority Orthodox population exclusively.

It is time that the Israeli government reviewed the way it oversees religious affairs in Israel.  Perhaps this new governing coalition (with the addition of the centrist Kadima party led by Shaul Mofaz) will try to address some of these issues.  After announcing last month that it would begin funding Conservative and Reform Rabbis (to a limited extent and with limited roles - while still not recognizing their rights to perform weddings or funerals), the time has come for the Israeli government to review the rules pertaining to the Kotel along with a range of other rules and laws relating to religious affairs in the country..

For starters, the government should implement a three section solution at the main wall instead of the current two section division  - the Kotel should have men's, women's and mixed sections;   The government should also overturn all of the laws relating to women's prayer at the Kotel - in the mixed or women's sections - whether out loud, in groups, while wearing a Tallith or Tefillin.  As a compromise, the Orthdox and ultra-Orthodox should be able to continue to control part of the Western Wall area and to conduct prayer as they see fit in that area.

Some Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox have argued that this is a holy place and that, as the most rigorous adherents of Orthodox Judaism, they should be able to oversee the Kotel and should have the right to bar practices that they view as inappropriate and otherwise dictate the site rules.  They argue that the Women of the Wall are simply being "provocative" by wearing their prayer shawls in public and that women should not be able to pray out loud anywhere near the Kotel.  But the Kotel does not and should not  belong to the Ultra-Orthodox or even the Orthodox.  It belongs to Jews of all denominations and of both genders. And all of these Jewish people should have the right to access the Kotel even without following ultra-Orthodox practices.

The public observance by the Women of the Wall of Rosh Chodesh is not something that should attract police attention, arrests or other forms of public humiliation.  Rather it is those who would prevent women from praying in public who should be monitored.  A Kotel divided into three sections would be the best way of dealing with this as it would be a compromise that all sides could complain about equally.  A pluralistic approach to Judaism at this important symbolic and holy location would be a key message for a more pluralistic approach to Judaism throughout Israel.  This would be a significant step towards improving gender equality in Israel generally.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ra'anana Wine Festival - June 27th/28th, 2012

This picturesque location will be the scene for Ra'anana's 2nd Annual Wine Festival, which will be held on June 27th and 28th, 2012 from 6:30 to 11:00 p.m. According to organizers, the event will feature dozens of Israeli wineries as well as gourmet food vendors (offering a variety of products including olive oil, chocolate and cheese). Here is the Hebrew link for the event Ra'anana Wine Festival 2012

As with most other Israeli wine festivals, there is a set admission price (60 N.I.S. - about $16) (Only 55 N.I.S. for Ra'anana residents). You are given a wine glass which you can keep at the end of the evening. You can wander around the festival and sample wines throughout the evening. After that, you can stumble home if you live in Ra'anana or grab a bus running right along Ahuza Street.

The Israeli wine industry has been growing tremendously over the past few years. There are now close to 300 wineries in Israel producing somewhere between 58 and 60 million bottles of wine annually. Many of these wines have been recognized in international wine competitions.

I have written about a number of different Israeli wineries elsewhere on this blog - including Binyamina Binyamina Winery, Recanati Recanati Winery and Dalton Dalton and Adir Wineries - to name a few. I have also blogged about the Kosher wine festival that was held in Jerusalem in January, 2012 Jerusalem Kosher Wine Festival 2012. Israeli wines have improved greatly over recent years and production levels have increased steadily. There has also been a growth in consumer interest in Israel, sparked by a number of wine store chains that have been trying to educate the Israeli public and grow a broader "wine culture." Of course a great deal of this delicious Israeli wine is also exported.

There are many different annual wine festivals in Israel each year, some of which have been taking place for quite a number of years. The festival at the Israeli Museum in August is usually one of the highlights of the wine calendar. But Park Ra'anana is a great location for a wine festival and this will only be the 2nd year for this event. I'm sure this evening will be lots of fun and the festival will probably continue to grow in size from year to year.

Addendum:  The website "Baligam" -Baligam Coupon Site Baligm Coupon Site has added a coupon for the 2012 Ra'anana Wine Festival - but it is only available on the site until Tuesday June 26, 2012 at 7:00 a.m. (Israel Time).  The coupon is for 36 N.I.S. per person - instead of 60 N.I.S. at the door.  So if you are planning to attend, this is a worthwhile deal.