Tribal classrooms lead to a tribal society

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 12/15/16

Israel’s population is a mishmash of Jewish communities from around the globe with a healthy dash of the local Arab population. Like any society, Israel struggles to find a way to create a healthy shared society between the disparate parts of the community that came to the land with their own customs, cultures, emotional baggage and expectations.

The conflicting nature of the tribes of Israel- the secular, the national religious, the ultra-orthodox and the Arabs- has best been captured by President Rivlin who has made his presidency about promoting true community cohesion and anti-racism.

In most societies, the place where a sense of civic identity is created is in the public school system. Coming from different backgrounds, the children of a nation are socialized together learning common themes and values, helping to overcome the differences that make up part of their home life.

In Israel however, the segmented nature of the education system means that public schooling is the foundation of the walls between the tribes, rather than the melting pot to mix them up. Israel has separate tracks for secular, religious, Arab and ultra-orthodox education. Though the Education Ministry is the second largest government department (after defense), the Minister finds it hard to affect the classrooms of children not from his constituency. Just ask Minister Bennett about the teaching of english and mathematics in the Ultra-Orthodox schools at the moment.

The divided nature of the school system means that there is no place where Israelis from different religious, and in some cases ethnic, backgrounds meet one another. Instead, the fulcrum of civic patriotism moves from the classroom to the battlefield with universal conscription being the birthplace of a unified society.

There are two obvious problems however. First, Ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens don’t serve in the military, meaning that they miss the access point to civic-national identity that bonds the nation across socio-economic, religious and ethnic boundaries. Second, unlike the classroom, where free expression and critical thought are the backbone of educational instruction, the Army is a place for order, authority and militarism. The national values of Israeli society are not coming from the public school, but from the IDF, which further divides society within the context of the ongoing conflict.

The exclusionary nature of conscription within an ever-diversifying state of Israel means that citizens are finding less and less common cause with one another. The divided nature of public education leads to a social anxiety for each segment, each believing themselves a minority within a system where the other tribes have advantages or are burdens upon them.

There are some phenomenal efforts to try and mitigate the worst aspects of the systemic educational separation. Groups like Givat Haviva try and ensure that pupils from the different schools meet, the Abraham Fund ensures that each school sector prioritizes the others’ language, Merchavim look to place Arab teachers in Jewish schools. The biggest challenge to the separation of the schooling system is the Hand in Hand school system, whose national network of seven schools looks to create a true bilingual environment for its students.

Yet despite these efforts, the root cause of the continuation of the tribes of Israel are the divided schools of Israel. As Israel becomes more religious and more Arab each passing year, how much longer can the divided school system prop up a society with such deep fissures within it?

As Israeli patriots like President Rivlin look to try and create a truly integrated, inclusive society, a radical idea might be to start re-examining the anachronistic nature of public education in Israel, find ways to try and change it root and branch.

Advertisements

Hope is not a strategy

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post on Oct 9th 2016 and is co-authored with Jeremy Saltan 

When asked about the future of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the White House press pool, Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had just returned from the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will happen at some point because the young people in the region will demand it.

The assessment made by Clinton has been made by countless others in the past and is a mainstream position among policy makers –young Israelis will be our saviors. However, if one looks at the data, statistics, and polling of young people in Israel, it is quite clear that the next generation in Israel has a different view than many policy wonks.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2016, found among the 18-29 demographic only 35% supported the principle of ‘two states for two nations’ as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 53% against it. The youngest voters were the least supportive of the two state solution. The poll results countered Clinton’s argument and found that the older the voter the more likely was voter support of a two state solution.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on the August 31, 2016, found a majority (54%) among the 18-29 demographic considered Haredi control over religion and state issues acceptable compared to a minority (43%) among the 50+ demographic.

The latest Pew poll conducted in Israel, arguably the most comprehensive polling ever conducted in Israel, found the younger age bracket (in this case 18-49) was more religiously observant and less supportive of two states than their elders. The younger demographic is more inclined to be supportive of settlements, believe that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, believe that security is Israel’s biggest threat, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d, favor gender segregation on public transportation, favor Halachah as a basis of law in Israel, and view the US as not supportive enough of Israel.

The policy positions of young Israelis trickle down to party affiliation and Prime Minister preference. A Midgam poll broadcast by Army Radio in 2015 found 18-29 year olds were the most likely to choose Netanyahu as Prime Minister (57%) and least likely to choose Herzog (19%). Midgam found the older the voter the more likely was support of Herzog over Netanyahu. A Teleseker poll published by Walla in 2013 found 67.6% of Bayit Yehudi voters were between the ages of 18-49, compared to 32.4% over the age of 50.

There is a clear trend that the younger generation is more religious and more right-wing than previous generations. While in most countries the younger population represents a more left wing and socially open constituency, in Israel the trend is actually the opposite.

It is our belief that this is due to at least two factors.

The changing demographics in Israel mean that the next generation is more religious. The official Israeli Social Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics found the 18-29 demographic is more religious than the older demographics. The Haredi share of the 18-29 population is 12%. The national religious share is 13%, and the traditional share is 31%. Although secular Israelis make up a majority of the 50+ demographic (52%), they make up 44% of the 18-29 demographic. This trend is set to continue in the coming years as 28% of Haredim aged 40 or older have 7 or more children compared to less than 1% of secular Israelis.

These long term demographic changes adjust the make up of the younger generation and, given the separation within the Israeli education system, carries forward their communities’ belief systems in separate tracks.

While the demographics can help explain the religiosity of the younger cohort, their support for the right is not mere biological determinism. This is a generation that came of age during the second Intifada and its aftermath. The hope and promise of the 1990s means little to nothing to young Israelis. The political horizon of young Israelis has been one of stunted visions and conflict management. Given that reality, young Israelis’ skepticism of everything other than what they have experienced is understandable.

The purpose of this snapshot is to ground in reality the current situation of young people in Israel today. To believe young Israelis will demand a future that is different from their current experience, with all things being equal, does not bear out in the data. As time goes on the demographic realities of young Israelis manifest in overall poll numbers, such as a Panels poll in May that found 53% of Israelis in favor of applying Israeli law to at least some settlements in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.

Israeli youth differ from the progressive left wing wave of change that we see elsewhere in the world. The majority of young Israelis resemble and identify more with the governing right-wing religious coalition of Israel, not the left-wing secular opposition.

The hope of a rising youth that will demand the change President Clinton hopes to see coming from Israel is against all trends in the data. Rather than trusting gut feelings and being disappointed when the results don’t bare out, a realistic assessment of the current state of play should drive policy making and strategic considerations. Only with an eyes open approach can those who wish for a change in the status quo begin to build a strategy to achieve it.

What I learnt from a speech in Lakewood NJ

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 2/6/16

On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.

In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.

Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”

As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.

I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.

As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.

Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.

In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.

Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.

The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.

As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.

 

A sleepless night could be the key to Jewish unity

This article first appeared in Haaretz 

With the ultra-Orthodox back in Israel’s new coalition, the small gains made by the previous government in the area of religious pluralism have already started to roll back. What little hope had been nurtured for more cooperation between different streams of Judaism has been crushed for the time being. Outside the legislative realm however, there is hope that the various streams of Judaism might be able to join together, at least on one night.

There is a custom dating back to the 1500s that today has the potential to truly begin the healing process between Jewish denominations. On the first night of Shavuot it is customary to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night session of Torah study. This tradition finds its roots in the Midrash, which states that the night before the Israelites received the Torah they went to bed early to be well rested, but they overslept and arrived late at Mt. Sinai. To fix this (“Tikkun” means rectification) we stay up all night on Shavuot and learn Torah.

When I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, my Modern Orthodox community joined with all the other congregations, big and small, to celebrate Tikkun Leil together. Congregation Beth Elohim, one of the key Reform synagogues in America, would host the event and groups from the Conservative, Modern Orthodox and non-affiliated streams of Judaism would attend to learn from each other’s educators.

This is my first year celebrating Shavuot in Chicago, and I am happy that in Lakeview, the community in which I live, this cross-communal gathering on Tikkun Leil also takes place. All three major synagogues in the community, as well as wondering minyans (prayer quorums) and Jewish schools from every denomination are coming together to celebrate a night of learning together.

This cross-communal learning appears this year to be finding a place in Israel, as the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv and the Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar hold an all-night Shavuot study session in which Conservative and Reform rabbis can take part. The Tzohar rabbis, who do not recognize non-Orthodox denominations, will reportedly skip the session, evidencing a lack of complete acceptance among the denominations. Yet, we should see this as a first step toward a foundation on which to build.

Collective learning, in which all the different – and often antagonistic – streams of Judaism take place, finds its roots in the Limmud movement that began in the United Kingdom. Often described as Anglo Jewry’s greatest export, the Limmud movement is a global phenomenon and has normalized the concept of cross-communal learning. Today, even the Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Mirvis, has taught at Limmud, something that his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks never did. Lord Sacks had been prevented from going by the long-held opposition to normalizing the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities on matters to do with Jewish religious practice. The times are clearly changing; Rabbi Mirvis’ landmark lecture indicated that the Orthodox establishment is starting to acknowledge the benefits of cross-communal learning.

We must not be naïve. There is still a long way to go. In Israel, it is Tzohar that is participating in the Tikkun Leil, rather than the ultra-Orthodox, to whom the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are anathema. And in the United States, I am yet to find Haredi communities who are willing to participate in cross-communal learning.

Yet, it is a start.

Shavuot might just be the festival that can begin bring us back together as a people, around our collective heritage and love of learning. As Maimonides (the Rambam) states, the greatest crown of all is that of the Torah, as anyone who desires it shall come and take it.

Never trust the exit polls – Israeli Election 2015

Now with final results

Likud 30

Zionist Union 24

The Joint List 13

Yesh Atid 11

Kulanu 10

Bayit Yehudi 8

Shas 7

UJT 6

Yisrael Beytanu 6

Meretz 5

So what is the story of this election?

If we split the parties into the right, left, center, ultra orthodox and arab + Hadash parties we can see who took from who in this election.

Right – (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu) 44 (+1) – The right managed to pick up a seat on this election.

Left – (Zionist Union, Meretz) – 29 (+8) – looking at the results it might surprise people that the left got 7 more seats. 6 of these are because Livni moved from the center directly into the left camp, but the left also managed to win an additional mandate.

Ultra Orthodox – (Shas, UJT) 13 (-5) – With Yachad still under the threshold (and they may pass it as the solider votes are counted) you can see the ultra orthodox losing almost a 3rd of their strength due to the wasted votes and infighting by Deri and Yishai

Center – (Yesh Atid, Kulanu) 21 (-6) – the six went to the left with Livni joining the Zionist Camp. The center actually held with Kulanu taking Yesh Atid and Kadmia’s votes

The Joint List – 13 (+2) – the joining of the parties and the GOTV campaign led to arab turn out of 67% (up from 54% in 2013) this led to more votes and mandates.

Looking at the bloc votes what we can see is that the religious right bloc actually went down by 4 seats from 2013. Bibi left the Ultra Orthodox out last time (he was forced to by the Bennett Lapid union) so his traditional right-religous bloc of 61 was not the foundation of the coalition. This time the right-religious bloc is not a majority, its only 57 – therefore the need to get Kulanu to join from the center to put him over the top.

Kahlon will do what ever he will, though I find it nearly impossible that he won’t recommend Bibi given his 6 seat win over Hertzog.

So what was the story of this election, we saw a shrinkage of the religious right bloc but a domination by Netanyahu over the bloc. In the last days of the election he moved the Likud to the right and in doing so took votes from within the bloc on solidified his position as the undisputed leader of the right and returned Likud back to a major power without the need of a unity list.

On the left – Livni crossing from the center to the left has the same effect on Hertzog – making him the first Labour leader in years to get more then 20 mandates. The left did grow by a seat, by the 4.1% boost in turn out clearly did not only go to the Zionist Camp. The left did grow by 2 (excluding Livni) so there were some votes that came into bloc that it had not captured before.

The Left Arab bloc in 2015 is 42 (+10) a ten seat gain. Now this is not the same bloc as the religious right as the current Zionist Left and Joint list have not worked a way to work better together. However if the left is ever to hold a stable coalition, they are going to need to find a way to work together.

With 2015 – I find it very hard to believe that anyone but Bibi will be PM. Like everyone else I think that Kahlon will join the religious right coalition and Bibi will have a government of 67 (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytanu, Shas, UJT, Kulanu). He will want others to join so that it is not so ideologically right (given how the outside world will see it) but I predict he will fail to attract anyone else to it.

Bibi will have a much stronger government then the one he formed in 2013 – and given his abandonment of the 2 state solution and the aggressive stance he took on the election day against the arab minority, he is the right prime minster to lead a coalition that wishes to annex land and pass loyalty tests to citizens.

Whether it was the woe is me (Gevalt!) campaign or the scare tactics that Bibi used, he won this election, hands down. What we all need to understand with clear eyes, is that his fear tactics worked. He also demonstrated that the entire right wing bloc is his base vote. That says a lot about where Israeli society is up to. It also demonstrates the depth of the challenge that those of us who wish to see a less fear driven Israel, face.

From the Lapid-Haredi battle to the Boston bombings, Lag Ba’omer is all around us

Ha’aretz 4/29/13

Lag Ba’omer is a day of vivid memories for me. It was the only day that my primary school in London would go on an outing, full of packed lunches and adventures, to celebrate and learn about the Bar Kochba uprising. We would shoot toy bows and arrows and generally have a good time.

As I grew older I learned about other themes of the day. The death of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, who were the greatest Talmudic scholars of their generation, but were stuck down by a plague as they were disrespectful of each other. Lag Ba’omer was the day that the plague stopped.

There are many different explanations of this event in rabbinical teaching and many different lectures have highlighted how the small passage in Sefer Yevamot is packed with multiple meanings.

Historians point to the fact that the students were not killed by a divine plague, but in the Bar Kochba uprising. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students died and he fled to the south where he rebuilt the study of the oral traditions through five students.

In my yeshiva days there was always a stress on the concept of “derech eretz kedma la’tora,” roughly translated as “manners comes before religious observance.” It was the ideology of the German Orthodox Jews in the late 1800s. The historical narrative was not as important as the lesson embedded in the text; your learning is for naught if you cannot be a mensch.

If you are in Israel, you will know that Lag Ba’omer is a day that turns Orthodox Jews into pyromaniacs with bonfires marking the death of Shimon Bar Yochai with many making a pilgrimage up north to Meron where he is buried.

Lag Ba’omer this year can be seen in the events all around us. In Israel, the battles between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Finance Minister Yair Lapid can be seen as an attempt to get Torah students to behave with manners or as an attack on Torah students. The reading of the events depends on your perspective.

In the United States, we see students caring about one another and their communities in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. As someone who lived in-between Cambridge and Watertown last year it is amazing to see how the community has come together to support one another during this awful time. The U.S. equivalent of Rabbi Akiva’s students, the brightest of the bright, cared about each other and those around them during their tragic time. They did not see themselves as above the moral code of society, but rather steeped in it.

The messages and themes of Lag Ba’omer are rich and wonderful. It’s sad that it is one of the lesser-known Jewish holidays. There are so many different themes throughout the day, the activities are so much more fun then the more well known festivals, it’s a shame that it is unknown to so many.