“Ruthi” belongs to an ultra-Orthodox Israeli community. After suffering for eight years with an abusive husband, she turned to a 24-hour hotline serving the country’s most vulnerable people.
It was an act of desperation, not without huge consequences, including the possible loss of custody of her children, Orit Sarfaty told 90 people at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom last month. Sarfaty is executive director of the New Israel Fund Canada.
Ruthi feared the consequences, since “a rabbi might interpret a women’s shelter that does not follow Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) religious edicts as taking those children away from a Jewish lifestyle,”
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Thanks to the information she received, Ruthi was put in touch with a shelter that accommodates the Haredi lifestyle. The location of the shelter is strictly confidential.
The hotline Ruthi called is among the services the New Israel Fund of Canada supports. It is available to all sub-cultures and responds in more than half a dozen languages, including Yiddish, in partnership with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
It is among 800 Israeli organizations promoting Jewish and democratic values that have received $200 million in support over the years.
The first speaker of the evening, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, called on progressive Jews who support pluralism to de-emphasize conflict and strive for “common Jewish values” that can accommodate ultra-Orthodox concerns.
Demographics is emerging as a challenge as Israel continues to define itself as a Jewish state. In the background of this issue is the fact that the Arab population almost equals the number of Jews, when residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza are included with Arabs and other minorities.
Gruschcow says another demographic concern is the exponential growth of the ultra-Orthodox population in towns like Beth Shemesh, which was built as a modern Orthodox community. A teenage girl was recently harassed by the ultra-Orthodox because they alleged she was dressed immodestly.
Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, reminded the audience that the minority in Israel is “the Palestinians, and they have their own fears about the future.”
Panelist Mira Sucharov, a Carleton University political science professor, cited the case of the town of Upper Nazareth, where Mayor Shimon Gaspo, running for re-election, refuses to build an Arab school for the 20 per cent of the town who are not Jewish. They have to travel to Nazareth below, the largest Arab town in Israel.
He then wrote in Ha’aretz, “Yes—I’m not afraid to say it out loud, to write it and add my signature, or declare it in front of the cameras—Upper Nazareth is a Jewish city and it’s important that it remains so.”
El-Ad countered that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948 does not absolve its political leaders of responsibility toward fair and equal treatment of minorities.
“You can no longer keep conducting business as if you only care for one group of citizens and not for another.”
His civil rights group assisted in pursuing anti-Arab discrimination against a housing developer in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Acre, El-Ad noted. As a result “there is a clause in all future tenders that if the land is marketed in a discriminatory fashion, that will be sufficient grounds without having to go to court to cancel the entire tender and for the developer being liable for damages of 15 per cent of its value.”
“We should celebrate that,” El-Ad said, adding his regret that such issues are still on the civil-rights agenda.
On the treatment of African asylum seekers in Israel, Grushcow said that the commandment repeated most often in the Torah is to care for strangers, to love them because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
El-Ad noted that the Supreme Court of Israel recently struck down part of an anti-infiltration law authorizing the prolonged detention of asylum seekers.
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