Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thank God it's Thursday

Today is the last Thursday in June, which means another White Night in Tel Aviv.

Like Paris, Rome, Madrid and a few other European capitals, our little Tel Aviv mounts a White Night festival once a year. Many of the city's cultural institutions and entertainment places will stay open all or most of the night. Among events scheduled for my neighborhood are dancing, jazz performances, and a post-midnight field trip to places connected with the unsolved 1933 murder of Zionist leader Haim Arlosoroff.

Tel Aviv's White Night festival began as a celebration of the city's selection in 2004 as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Actually, UNESCO didn't select all of Tel Aviv but only the socalled "White City" of 1930s Bauhaus architecture.

To make the White Night festival legal, the city government amended its laws and allowed places of business to stay open beyond regular closing hours. This put the White Night festival on the same footing as Israel's two big celebration holidays, Independence Eve and Purim.

In its wisdom, the city government determined that the White Night festival will always take place on a Thursday night. The choice of Thursday night reflects a change that has come over the Israeli workplace in the last couple of decades. For many Israelis, there is no longer a need to get up for work on Friday morning. Friday, which used to be a day for working until early afternoon, has become the first half of the weekend for many, and an errand-running time for others.

With notable exceptions, such as people who work in stores and essential public services, Israel's work week ends on Thursday. Even the army went on a Sunday-to-Thursday work week years ago for many of its components. Thursday night has become a time for going out, or even for going away for the weekend. It is Israel's counterpart of Friday night in the western workplace.

The Sunday-Thursday week does not please everyone, and it puts Israel out of synch with other countries. A bill to make Sunday a full day of rest, giving Israel a western-style Monday-Friday workweek, has passed its first reading in the Knesset. To become law, it would have to pass second and third readings.

Powerful interests oppose a Monday-Friday week. Eli Yishai, the leader of the Shas party, says it would be better to make Friday a full day off for everyone. Heads of business organizations say the economy can't afford a Monday-Friday week. They say a five-day week would actually be more like a four-day or four-and-one-half-day week.

This is reminiscent of a joke that used to be heard when the Israel economy was on the six-day week. There were proposals to go to a five-day workweek. Someone said that a five-day week would be too drastic a change for the Israeli worker, and that this should be approached gradually -- first, Israelis should try working one day a week, then two days a week, then three days etc. etc.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Friday, June 22, 2007

A question remembered from 1967

Another analysis of the Six Day War? Not at all. Now that the flood of 40th-anniversary analyses by just about everyone else has abated, here is something entirely different --- a little recollection of a comment which someone uttered one night in Washington, D.C., not long before the fighting started. Although this post starts with a 1967 event, it is mainly about attitudes that endure today.

The 1967 event: With tension growing from day to day, hundreds of local Jews gathered in one of Washington's largest synagogues to hear a briefing on the situation in the Middle East. Egypt had expelled United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai and closed the Tiran Straits. An analyst just back from Israel brought a chilling report to the assembled crowd: War seemed inevitable, and this meant that Israelis would soon be dying in a struggle for national survival.

A member of the audience stood up and asked a question that probably was on others' minds.

Why, she wanted to know, can't we solve everything by bringing "them" (the Jews of Israel) to live in the United States? Then they would be safe.

Attitudes: The notion that Jews would be better off somewhere other than here is as old as the Bible. See the majority report of the 12 spies in Numbers 13-14.

Nonetheless, despite all claims that Israel was a mistake or isn't necessary, more than five million Jews are making our lives here in this land that is said to devour its inhabitants.

M.J. Rosenberg, who directs the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, reminisced in his June 8 column about a great-aunt, a Holocaust survivor. Many years ago, she surprised her only living relatives by refusing to give up life in Israel to join them in the United States. Tel Aviv was her home.

Rosenberg contends that a Diaspora view of Israel as "always on the brink of destruction, all pain and tears, is a myth calculated for direct mail organizational fund-raising and to rally 'support' from the masses and from Congress."

"Don't cry for Israel," he advises. "Celebrate it."

Amen, but here are two Israel-centered comments.

1) Life in Israel impels us to do both. Crying and celebrating are both essential. Problems abound here, and complaining is a national pastime. A survey released this week by the Israel Democracy Institute, titled "Cohesiveness in a Divided Society," found that 79 percent of us are troubled by the country's current situation and almost the same number are proud to be Israeli citizens. A survey last week from the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that more than four in five of us are satisfied with our lives.

Currently, some Israelis are gnashing their teeth over comments by Avraham Burg, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency. Burg is promoting a book he wrote and has caused a small sensation by stating that Israelis should get foreign passports if they can. The other night at a ceremony at the Kibbutz Seminar College, a speaker denounced this advice while making a point of refusing to mention Burg's name. The speaker could be pretty sure the audience knew whom he had in mind.

Over the years, while we have been busy alternating between shedding tears and celebrating the miracle that is Israel, hundreds of thousands of our friends and families have left the country. Israelis leave for many reasons. Generally, they seek economic or social opportunity, or both. No one knows the exact count. It has been estimated at 10 to 15 percent of the country's population. For all we know, this Jewish emigration comes close to the United Nations' estimate of 711,000 Palestinian Arabs who fled or were expelled in 1947-49.

Last week some neighbors moved out. The family comprises a six-year-old boy, his mother, and her mother. For the past seven years, they rented an apartment in the Tel Aviv building where I live. The mother and son are off to a new life in Eilat, Israel's Red Sea resort city. The grandmother is returning to Russia. She never learned Hebrew, and she sees no future here.

2) The other comment is that we in Israel cannot ignore the question of our vulnerability. The columnist Richard Reeves put the question bluntly last year: "Speaking the Unspeakable: Can Israel Survive?" Reeves quoted another distinguished U.S. journalist, Peter Osnos, on the Israel-Palestinian conflict: "Aside from more catastrophic violence, no one can any longer say what the outcome of the struggle will be or which side will prevail."

Is it really that bad? If so, this does not necessarily mean that the danger of living here as a Jew is greater today than it was in 1967 or 1948 or 1929 or 1921. It does mean that security remains essential.

Daily life in Israel cannot be led according to apocalyptic analyses. You have to cope with the here-and-now. This creates a bias in favor of taking small steps, improvising, and living with interim solutions. A lot of the time this seems to work, and we are still here.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Loneliness, religion and the Central Bureau of Statistics

Thirty percent of Israelis say they feel lonely sometimes. This includes 59 percent of widowed Israelis, 49 percent of divorced Israelis, 38 percent of Arab Israelis, and 29 percent of Jewish Israelis.

Sixty-nine percent of Israelis who don't live with their families see their families at least once a week.

Thirteen percent of Israelis say they have no friends, and 11 percent don't have anyone on whom they can depend in a crisis.

These are among highlights of a survey which Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics released June 12.

A couple of months ago this weblog cited a polling firm's survey which found that 50 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as secular, 30 percent as traditional and 20 percent as religious or haredi.

The newly released government survey shows that 69 percent of the Jews in Israel identify themselves as nonreligious vs. 31 percent religious. The survey refines the definitions by breaking the "traditional" category into religious and nonreligious. Here are some highlights.

How Jews in Israel identify themselves religiously
haredi (ultra-orthodox), 7 percent
religious, 10 percent
traditional, religious, 14 percent
[total Jews identifying themselves as religious, 31 percent]

traditional, non-religious, 25 percent
secular, 44 percent.
[total Jews identifying themselves as non-religious, 69 percent].

How Arabs in Israel identify themselves religiously
very religious, 6 percent
religious, 44 percent
not so religious, 25 percent
nonreligious, 25 percent.

Satisfaction with life

(percent satisfied or very satisfied)
haredi Jews, 97 percent
religious Jews, 86 percent
secular Jews, 85 percent
all Jews, 85 percent
traditional Jews, 83 percent

very religious Arabs, 83 percent
religious Arabs, 79 percent
all Arabs, 78 percent
nonreligious Arabs, 74 percent

all Israelis, 83 percent satisfied or very satisfied with life.

Army service
religious Jewish men, 87 percent
traditional Jewish men, 85 percent
secular Jewish men, 80 percent
all Jewish men, 76 percent
haredi Jewish men, 32 percent

secular Jewish women, 59 percent
all Jewish women, 40 percent
traditional Jewish women, 38 percent
religious Jewish women, 17 percent
haredi Jewish women, 7 percent.

National service in lieu of army
religious Jewish women, 36 percent
haredi Jewish women, 10 percent
traditional Jewish women, 8 percent
all Jewish women, 7 percent
secular Jewish women, 3 percent.

Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. The bureau surveyed 7,300 people representing 4.4 million Israelis aged 20 and above. The study is known as the 2006 Social Survey. The bureau did not announce a margin of error.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Talking about war with Syria

The cartoon above, from the June 5 Haaretz editorial page, is Israel-style black humor.

It is a parody of the standard question that Israelis ask one another before Passover and before the New Year: "Where will you spend the holidays?"

In this cartoon, three couples are enjoying drinks and food in someone's home, and one of them asks, "So, where will you spend the war?"

Israelis in many walks of life are talking about the possibilities that we will have a war with Syria this summer. A day after this cartoon appeared, the main front-page headline of Yedioth Ahronoth, the country's largest-circulation newspaper, was citing the Prime Minister's admonition to cabinet ministers and defense officials: "Olmert: Stop talking about war."

Military and political analyses are available elsewhere. The purpose of this post is to note that the same Israelis who are talking about war are also engrossed in ordinary life---exams, vacation plans, the weather, day-to-day problems of making a living, how to get tickets for Jackson Browne's sunrise performance at Masada with David Broza, who will win the Labor Party runoff, and who will do what to whom in the telenovella Alufa when it returns to the air next week.

A friend who excels at military-political analysis says this concern about small stuff as we stroll through the valley of the shadow of death is a good thing. The possibility of a terrible missile war will not go away, he says, and it is essential that we not let the threat divert us from leading our daily lives.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv


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Sunday, June 3, 2007

The hidden tragedy: the Jews of the CIS (former Soviet Union)

An article in Ha'aretz draws attention to an all but forgotten corner and neglected tragedy of Jewish history. It is history that is happening right now, history that we can change. It is, in my opinion, as a largely ignorant bystander, a failure of the Zionist movement, the Israeli government, and the Jews of the United States and Western Europe.
The Jewish community of Greater Russia, which became the USSR and is now the C.I.S. (Confederation of (not-very) Independent States) was once the heart of the Jewish world, and the original mainspring of Zionism. At one time, it numbered over 5 million. Its people were the engine of the Zionist revival. Achad Ha'am, Ben-Gurion, Bialik, A.D. Gordon, Jabotinsky, Pinsker, Weizmann... the list is endless. This is the world that my grandparents and my great grand-parents, and those of many other Israelis left behind to come to "Eretz Yisroel" as it was known before 1917. These were the people who clamored most insistently for a Jewish National Home, and who were most insistent that that home had to be the land of Israel. Unlike the Jews of Germany or France, they had few illusions about a rosy future for Jews in the Diaspora, except for the communists among them. Confined to the pale of settlement, living in abject poverty, they knew that time was running out for them. Large numbers emigrated to the United States and a smaller number to Palestine, but most of the Jews of Russia were trapped inside the Soviet Union soon after 1917.
Constant persecution, successively under Tsarism and Communism, with a big assist from Nazism, reduced the numbers of the Jewish community. By the eve of World War II, there were about 3.5 million Jews left in the Soviet Union, and about 2.6 million remained after World War II (See here ). By 1959, the Jewish community there numbered only about 2,300,000 and by 1989, there were supposedly less than 1.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union, apparently counting only "Halachic" Jews, whose mothers were Jewish. Of these about a million emigrated. Actually, about  1.5 million Jews emigrated, including those who were not halachically Jewish. 1.5 million minus 1.5 million should be zero, yet there are still Jews in Greater Russia, because the statistics always under-estimate the actual number of Jews. That is perhaps the most hopeful sign. Scattered communities remain throughout the former Soviet Union.  In Tadjikistan there are 900 Jews ,12,000 aged Jews in the Stalinist fiasco Birobidjan Jewish republic, 112,000 to 500,000 in the Ukraine, 25,000 to 50,000 in Belarus, 16,000 in the three Baltic states, 275,000 to 650,000 in Russia (figures are from here  and here). . The larger estimates count those who hide their nationality and those who have only a Jewish father and are not halachically Jewish, and there may be even more counting those who remember that a great grandfather was Jewish. Former Soviet Union is just part of the story. In Hungary for example, there are about 100,000 Jews or maybe as many as 500,000. In Poland, there are perhaps 10,000 Jews.  
The article in Haaretz describes a Chabad movement teachers' training college in Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine, one of many such efforts that sends its female students all across Russia. The school, supported by the Jewish agency and the State of Israel, accepts students who are not formally Jewish. The once great Russian Jewish community, almost destroyed by Nazism and Communism, is flickering to life, but what we see may just be embers. The school itself is a tiny effort. It was founded in 1995. In the twelve years of its existence, three hundred students in all have completed the course of studies. A drop in the bucket. But it is one of the more successful efforts.  
Rabbi Stambler, who heads the school, explains:
... "The Zionists argued that all the Jews should be taken to Israel. However, we understand that the Jews will remain in the Diaspora until the Messiah comes, and hence it is necessary to invest in infrastructures here, to see to the existing community and to nurture it, for example though schools and the teachers college." Even if it remains unofficial, some of the Jewish Agency people have now adopted this outlook as well. "In recent years we have had a paradigm change in policy," says the Jewish Agency education emissary in the city, Haim Levitzky, "a transition from educational activities for purposes of immigration to Israel, to education for its own sake. We are supporting local development and the community does not relate to us as though we are 'stealing' the children."
Until the Messiah does come (don't hold your breath) along with "Yiddishkeit" of course, the Chabad school is also teaching Chabadism.  Chabad is not a Zionist movement, and has some strange beliefs. Among other things, at least some of its members believe that their late Rabbi was the Messiah, and the Rabbi himself believed that the Holocaust was a just punishment of the Jews. If God did it, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, He knew what He was doing.  
But Chabad nonetheless does excellent practical work, and, at least, Chabad is doing something and so are some others. They have produced a bit of hope for Jewish life in the FSU.  The revival is usually described in somewhat hyperbolic terms. For example:
Jewish life is, once again, on the upswing. Since 1993, the Jewish population has expanded its organizational numbers to roughly 250 organizations, located in more than 80 cities. Some of these organizations include the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Council of Ukraine, and the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The state now recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions, including 14 Jewish day schools, 10 Yeshivot, and 70 Hebrew and Sunday schools.
And from here:
 These FSU countries have seen an enormous influx of manpower and financial resources in the attempt to rebuild Russian Jewry. An astonishing number of Jewish organizations, religious and secular, have participated in this effort and continue to do so.   Some organizations, like Chabad (Feori) and Keroor (the umbrella body for non-Chabad communities), have engaged in local community building, while others, like Migdal Ohr, have until recently engaged in interesting Russians in their Judaism and then getting them to schools and yeshivas elsewhere as quickly as possible. As of 2001, Keroor, the umbrella of communities related to REK (the Russian Jewish Congress), registered 71 communities, while FJC (FEOR of Chabad) registered 73 communities. The Reform registered 30 communities. (However, some of these communities are registered more than once). In Moscow alone, there are 2 Jewish universities, 3 yeshivas, 2 girls seminaries and 2 kollelim. Besides Moscow and St Petersburg, there are several cities which, together with their satellite towns, number Jewish populations between 5 and 20 thousand. Amongst these are Yekaternburg, Saratov, Samara, Novosibirsk, Rostov and Tchelabinsk.
      The Hillel organization has, for the past four years, trained hundreds of Jewish students in the FSU to lead Pesach seders in far-flung communities, often in partnership with visiting Hillel students from North America and Israel. The Conservative movement has virtually no presence in Russia.
      The Reform movement has a training program to train para-professional leaders to work in Reform congregations throughout the FSU, as does Migdal Ohr, an Orthodox organization together with the Joint... 
It sounds impressive, but is it really enough? Look closely. "Hundreds" trained to lead Pesach seders in four years, schools that may graduate 25 students a year like the Chabad college, do not seem to me so much, compared to the huge work that is needed to save the remnants of these communities.
The article in Ha'aretz describes one exceptional young lady at the Chabad college, whose great grand-parent was Jewish, and who opted to study in the college, to convert and to become orthodox. The article tells us:
Moreover, at the college, they prefer to downplay the fact, perhaps for fear of how it would be greeted in Israel, that under rabbinical law, some of the students are not Jewish at all. According to some of the teachers, the extent of this phenomenon amounts to about 20 percent.  
 How, indeed is it greeted with Israel? With horror, to be sure, but not for the reasons that Chabad may fear. Statistically, most of the Russian Jews may not be halachically Jewish by now. Yet this school, and others like it, may reach only a small percent of them.
In fifty years, there may be nothing left at all of Russian Jewry. If that was because all the Jews of the former Soviet Union emigrated to Israel or found new lives in the United States, it would not be a cause for sorrow. But what if they are all lost because of our negligence?  Our children and grandchildren will be wondering, "What were they thinking? How did Zionism fail the Jews of Greater Russia? How did American Judaism fail them?
The effort should be reaching out not only to those who are Jewish, and to those who "know" they are Jewish, but to those who hardly know, those who are afraid to know, and those who do not want to know. Somehow, the Zionist movement in Israel, and the Jews of the United States, Zionist and otherwise, have to understand the magnitude of the tragedy that befell the Jews of the FSU as a community. Because it was so very hard, almost impossible, to be Jewish for so long, it must now be made easy to be Jewish and easy to become Jewish again.
With all due respect to the work of Chabad and of the reform movement, we have to understand that many of the Jews of Russia may see themselves as members of the Jewish people, but do not necessarily identify with the Jewish religion. Many come to Israel, only to find that they are ostracized because they are Jewish only because of their father. "In Russia I was Jewish, here I am Russian," one complained to me. One complained, many others are silent, and many leave in frustration.  We must give the forgotten Jews of the C.I.S. a road back to secular Judaism. Are we going to abandon all of these Jews because most of them, like Ben-Gurion, Berdichevsky and Borochov before them, have little or no use for religion?
Ami Isseroff

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

West side story comes to us

Gang wars on our door step. A teen age kid was stabbed in a brawl a couple of blocks away from our apartment, in a "good" neighborhood. This is not Netanya or Yaffo. It was apparently a racial fight. This was once more or less unthinkable in Israel.  Someone should be thinking about the implications....  

Last update - 12:09 02/06/2007  

17-year-old Rehovot teen stabbed to death in brawl
By Roni Singer-Heruti, Haaretz Correspondent

A 17-year-old Rehovot teen was stabbed to death overnight Saturday in a brawl between two groups of youths in the city.

Police have arrested three suspects in connection with the murder, and said they expect more arrests to follow.

At approximately 3:00 A.M., police received reports of a brawl that had broken out at Ben Yehuda street in Rehovot.

A Magen David Adom emergency medical services team arrived on the scene to find the 17-year-old, Adama Teriko, seriously injured from stab wounds in the chest.

He was taken to Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot where he underwent an operation, but the teen succumbed to his wounds Saturday morning.

Police said an initial investigation has found that the brawl was part of an ongoing conflict between the two groups, which had met in order to settle accounts.

Continued (Permanent Link)

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