Israeli Life: The Religious Left
January 17. Every Friday, young Jews converge on Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Participants in the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, they are rallying to protest the eviction of Palestinian families from the neighborhood. Many Fridays, the activists listen in as Shabbat is welcomed and Kiddush is recited by a religious member of the group.
Ten percent of the male protestors wear kippot, notes Hillel Cohen, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who attends the protest every Friday. “The Jewish message is definitely present. Take the day chosen for demonstrations: Friday instead of Saturday, as protests used to take place.”
Part of a small, loosely affiliated but active group of left-wing Jews from religious backgrounds, these young men and women are defying stereotypes—that of the far-right Orthodox settlers or haredi men who do not serve in the Israeli Army. Many are in their twenties and thirties, live in or around Jerusalem, and some have roots in the United States. A number hold prominent positions in human rights organizations. For example, Mikhael Manekin, 31, who sports a trim beard and akippa, is codirector of Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence), which reports on abuse of Arabs by Israeli soldiers. Dyonna Ginsburg, 29, who made aliya from New York in 2002, is head of Bema’aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice), which seeks just labor practices.
“Once I saw the faces of the people being evicted in Sheikh Jarrah, it was impossible to stay [home and do nothing],” says Hillel Ben Sasson, 30, grandson of the late Yosef Burg, who once headed the National Religious Party.
“Attendance at the Friday demonstrations…in Sheikh Jarrah has become like going to shul—a mitzvah and testimony to our belief that the Torah must be a source of life and morality,” wrote Ben Sasson in a November 2010 article in the Jewish Quarterly magazine. “We stand alongside our secular left-wing friends, integrating traditional methods of protest with our own religious activities in a process that culminates in a uniquely Jewish expression of political and religious belief.”
Strikingly, the new activists are energizing a moribund Israeli left, in crisis since the second intifada. In recent months, for example, the Sheikh Jarrah movement has morphed into a national campaign called Solidarity, which has staged events in other Arab neighborhoods. (The Sheikh Jarrah evacuations and more recent demolition of older properties are part of a complicated legal issue that touches on property claims and Jewish building rights in annexed parts of the Israeli capital.)
At the same time, many of the newly involved eschew the more ideological ethos of the political left, which perceives everything through the Israeli-Palestinian prism. Hate campaigns against Israeli Arabs—rabbinic authorities ruling that Jews should not sell or rent apartments to Arabs—has led them to focus more generally on human rights. “The problem is no longer the Israeli-Palestinian issue. All possibilities for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue are on the table, and we must choose one,” says Ben Sasson. “But the important thing today is to confront the ethnocentrism and discrimination that has increased. There is a new kind of right wing, and the aggressiveness felt toward Palestinians in Nablus is being applied to Arabs in Jerusalem and Israel in general.”
Bema’aglei tzedek was founded six years ago by religious Jerusalem professionals. “We felt,” says Ginsburg, “that we were involved in hesed, but that we must address the larger social issues, Israel’s growing gap between the rich and poor.” One of its programs is the Tav Chevrati, a certificate awarded to restaurants that uphold fair labor laws, for example paying their workers at least minimum wage. The certificate also addresses accessibility for the handicapped. Today, a third of all Jerusalem restaurants have the Tav Chevrati.
“This impacts kitchen staff, security guards and cleaning help,” notes Ginsburg, “who are often Arabs, Ethiopians and minority groups and have no one to advocate for them.”
Bema’aglei Tzedek took on manpower companies that hire out school custodians and security guards. Since these contract workers are not employees of the institutions where they work, they have nowhere to turn if there are workplace issues. In 2007, Bema’aglei Tzedek spearheaded a process in the Jerusalem school system whereby additional money is alloted to contract personnel; an accounting and law firm are overseeing the process. The Tel Aviv municipality is considering implementing a similar rate increase and oversight.
Ginsburg points out that it is not coincidental that human rights activism is a trend within the religious circles of her generation. “We have not lived through the Holocaust and early statehood, the existential threat of ’67,” she says. “We do not feel ourselves an oppressed minority. Instead, we feel we must address the relationship of the Jewish majority to minorities under Israeli sovereignty.”
Bema’aglei Tzedek has nonreligious volunteers, she adds, “but staff training sessions begin with study of a Jewish text on social justice. This is the anchor of our work.”
It was his time in the Israel Defense Forces that brought Manekin to social action. The son of liberal American academics, Manekin was educated in open-minded Israeli religious institutions. “I entered the Army in 1998 and became an officer in 2000,” he says. “[After] the second intifada broke out…I was involved with house arrests, checkpoints and controlling a population that didn’t want us there. The situation I and my soldiers were put in often made us aggressive. Yet, most of the soldiers are good people.
“I believe in protecting my country, but I realized that much of what I had to do was not connected with protecting people, but rather with maintaining the political consensus, holding onto the territories.”
After the Army, Manekin wanted to get involved in peace work. “But I saw that I didn’t find a common language with the secular left,” he notes. “As a religious person, I was an exotic anomaly.”
Then Manekin met Yehuda Shaul. Shaul, who was once haredi and is still religious, founded Shovrim Shtika. It began with a photo exhibit and testimonies of soldiers who served in Hebron. “I saw this as a media organization, making people aware of what the government was doing in their name,” notes Manekin.
Shovrim Shtika conducted interviews with soldiers who took part in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Many of their testimonies were included in the controversial Goldstone Report on the war. We are careful, he says. “We interviewed 730 combatants. We don’t publish interviews [if] we don’t trust their credibility. Soldiers are interviewed by people who have been in combat.
“Most soldiers agreed with the war,” he adds, “yet we recorded their testimony, including irregularities. Our role is to present information. We educate youth in high school and pre-Army preparatory academies. I believe in freedom of speech. But I realize what’s done with that information depends on people’s value systems.”
Left-wing religious Jews are not a new phenomenon. In the ’80s, there were the religious peace movements Netivot Shalom and Oz VeShalom, which eventually became one organization. That led to the creation of the moderate left-wing Meimad Party, under the leadership of the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital. Later, Rabbi Michael Melchior took the reins, but the movement has waned. One vestige of Netivot Shalom is the Shabbat Shalom leaflet on the weekly portion of the Bible distributed to synagogues. Edited by Pinchas Leiser, a religious psychologist, it offers a global, humanistic message.
“Today,” notes Ben Sasson, “there is not a religious left, but religious leftists. Religious activists don’t work through organizations that are necessarily religious, but through general Israeli human rights organizations.”
This may be because the character of both the liberal religious and secular communities has changed. In his book, From an Old Hebrew to a New Jew (The Democratic Institute, in Hebrew), Yair Sheleg points out that there has been a renaissance of learning among secular Israelis. This is bridging gaps between religious and non-religious, creating an Israeli Judaism that crosses social and political borders.
At the same time, progressive Orthodox communities are crystallizing around human rights values. “I don’t feel that I can raise these issues in regular Orthodox congregations,” says Shira Ben Sasson, 35 (Hillel’s sister), who heads the religious pluralism division of the New Israel Fund. “Consequently, a group of us founded the Orthodox egalitarian synagogue Hakhel in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem for people sensitive to issues of women’s rights and relationship to the ‘other’….”
There are also a few religious activists who do not fit into the new mold. Some, such as former Meretz Party Member of Knesset Tzvia Greenfield, went into politics. Others grew up in Orthodox homes and, while still attached to their religious roots, have left Orthodoxy.
Hagit Ofran is one example. Ofran, granddaughter of religious thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reports on settlement expansion in the West Bank for Peace Now.
Lea Klibanoff, 34, a religious leftist herself, produced a film on Ofran called And the Messiah Will Always Come. It presents Ofran as a strong woman who cares about her country. She confronts settlers, while at the same time, as heir to her grandfather, is deeply rooted in Jewish sources.
In a May 2010 interview in the Israel National News daily, Klibanoff says her movie aims to stir broad discourse but is not “classic leftist,” words that also describe Klibanoff and her religious colleagues.
An Independent Woman
Tzvia Greenfield, 65, director of the Mifneh Institute for Democracy and Jewish Identity, is an anomaly even among religious left wingers. She lives in the haredi Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, yet is often critical of her community and, in 2008, she became Israel’s first female haredi Member of Knesset (2008-2009). Her five children went to Orthodox nationalist schools, yet as part of the Meretz Party, which focuses on peace and religious pluralism, she often spoke about the necessity of a Palestinian state and Arab rights.
“I wanted to change things in Israel and would work with whatever political device could best do this,” she says. “I identify with the Meretz agenda on human rights. I believe that the most profound element in Judaism, its singular contribution to world history, is that every man is born in the image of God. Therefore, everyone deserves rights.”
Greenfield, who came from a haredi home, has a doctorate in political philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she “discovered intriguing layers of human rights within Judaism,” she says. She discusses the ultra-Orthodox in her 2001 book They’re Afraid: How the Religious and Ultra-Religious Right Became Leading Factors in Israel, but feels accepted in her community because, she says, “They know me as a religious and halakhic person.” Greenfield is now working on two books, one on the failure of the left, the other on ethical approaches to Judaism. “Right-wing ideas are irrelevant to the modern world, where the human being is at the center,” she says. “We owe it to our own morality to take the other into