Israel’s Tent Protest Politico
Can activist Mickey Gitzin focus the social justice movement on a political message about synagogue and state?
On May 14, 1948, immediately after David Ben-Gurion read out Israel’s Declaration of Independence—and before “Hatikvah,” the anthem of a brand-new nation, was played—a rabbi said the Shehecheyanu. Looking back, it’s the perfect symbol of just how much power Ben-Gurion and the other founders, almost all devoutly secular, had fatefully given Orthodox rabbis over matters like family law and conversions. In similar deference, the new state also largely exempted the traditionally religious from military conscription.
The dramatic event occurred at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, now known as Independence Hall, at 16 Rothschild Boulevard. At the Rothschild 12 café two doors down and 64 years later, Mickey Gitzin, the head of Yisrael Hofshit (Be Free Israel), a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the separation of religion and state, told me that more than half a century later, this so-called status quo agreement has produced extremely twisted consequences. “It influences our daily life,” he explained. “That my friends, who are completely secular, have to go through rabbinical courts—which are chauvinistic, oppressing of women, not accepting of gay rights, and other things—to get married or, even worse, to get divorced,” he argued, are ridiculous obligations. Many of his friends take a popular end-around by getting married in Cyprus. But even then, he added, “They have to get divorced here!”
Gitzin’s beef with the situation is not merely that it’s inconvenient and onerous, or even that it’s immoral. It’s that it corrupts the very notion of Jewishness in Israel. “The Orthodox monopoly takes Israelis away from Jewish identity,” he argued. “They feel the Shas Party”—the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, which is in the governing coalition—“and these rabbis do not represent them.” And since “this is what represents Judaism for them,” he added, “they go further from that.”
Circumstances have made this a boom time for Gitzin’s organization: Summer’s here, and the time is right for marching in the street. Last summer’s July 14 protests (#j14 in Twitter-speak) galvanized the nation, eventually bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets of Israel’s cities, especially to Rothschild Boulevard, site of a famous “tent city.”
In 2011, the primary grievance was income inequality and the high cost of housing. But this year, the Knesset has been forced to address the issue of synagogue and state in the arena of military conscription. In 1948, exempting the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, from compulsory military service seemed trivial—they constituted about 1 percent of the Israeli population. But now they’re up to 10 percent, and high birthrates mean that figure is rising. In 2002, the Knesset passed the Tal Law, intending to increase Haredi enrollment in the Israel Defense Force. It proved so ineffective, however, that in 2006 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. Various developments led to the law’s extension, but even that delay expires in a few weeks.
Last Saturday, 20,000 marched in Tel Aviv to demand the drafting of all Haredim. This week Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Likud backed an effort to institute drafting substantially more Haredi and Arab citizens for military or civil service (most Arab Israelis may not serve in the IDF). As of this writing, things look tenuous, as things of a political nature tend to do in Israel. Yet it’s still conceivable that this summer’s protests will have a victory to claim not long after July 14.
Some associated with #j14 criticize Yisrael Hofshit and others for focusing on this discrete issue. Danny Gigi, a journalist and Labor Party activist, said in an email, “I do think the Haredim should serve in the army, but I feel we need now to focus on the bigger picture, instead of on creating hate between sectors.” Bambi Sheleg, the editor of the Jerusalem-based magazine Eretz Acheret, told me, “There is no doubt that the majority of the society despise the Chief Rabbinate and also a large part of the rabbis that are in charge these days. But I don’t think the main issue of the protests is this one. The main issue has to do especially with the economic gaps.”
Writing last week in Tablet Magazine, senior writer Liel Leibovitz argued persuasively that mandatory conscription for the Haredim is a “silly insistence,” impractical and counterproductive. These critics also point to reports that the National Student Union, which has helped organize several protests, including the one calling on drafting the Haredim, has recently received funding from some of the very ultra-wealthy tycoonim they are ostensibly defying—arguably confirming that narrower grievances distract from larger issues.
Gitzin disagrees with the criticism. When we met in Tel Aviv, he told me that among last summer’s protesters there was a joke: “העם רוצה כל מיני דברי” he scrawled in my notebook—“the people want all sorts of things.” The people, wanting everything, have so far gotten nothing. Gitzin distinguishes Yisrael Hofshit by insisting that it wants exactly one thing and is unafraid to use politics and compromise to do it. A member of the left-wing Meretz, he sees going into politics one day.
Gitzin certainly doesn’t get his political ambition from his parents, who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s. “They’re opposed to my political involvement,” he told me. Why? “Because they’re Russians! Their thing is, ‘Get around.’ If you have financial problems, you work more. If you have personal problems, you hide them or go around them.” Except for the fact that he doesn’t have the short crew cut that so many seem to keep from their military days, he looks exactly as you’d imagine a young progressive sabra activist to look: handsome and charismatic, smoking a cigarette. He served more than four years as an intelligence officer in the IDF. After studying public policy at University College London, he was hired to take charge of Yisrael Hofshit, which had been founded in 2009.
So, if Gitzin takes neither the broad, arguably antipolitical path of many other Israeli protesters, nor the apolitical path of his parents, then what made him different? My theory: an American intervention. Several years ago, he was a shaliach, an emissary, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, stationed in South Bend, Ind. (Yes, he did attend a Notre Dame football game.) According to local Federation official Debra Barton Grant, South Bend’s 2,000 or so Jews support four synagogues—from Reform to Orthodox—a yeshiva, and a community center. She remembered that “everybody loved” Gitzin.
The experience opened Gitzin’s eyes: “I realized there is Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, that treat people differently,” he explained. “This is something we don’t get here.” He looked like a child who has seen his first movie when he said to me, of Judaism, “You choose it.” He wasn’t just making an argument; he was informing me, the visiting American, of my great privilege.
Last Saturday’s march in Tel Aviv featured unlikely bedfellows: Yisrael Hofshit was a co-sponsor, and so was Im Tirtzu (If You Will It). Yisrael Hofshit is, as Gitzin put it, “proudly funded” by the New Israel Fund, which supports left-wing causes. By contrast, the New Israel Fund is Im Tirtzu’s bête noire (for one example, see here). When I asked Gitzin if this was “strange,” he replied by email, “Im Tirtzu is horrible not strange.” But, he added, acknowledging political realities: “We are not alone in this world.”
You could see the same savvy political strategy last December, when Gitzin organized rallies after an 8-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh was spat on by Haredim over her alleged lack of modesty. Using social media and other organizing tools, Yisrael Hofshit drew many protesters primarily like Gitzin—young, secular, urban—to the relatively remote town in central Israel for rallies. But Gitzin knew that busing in young Tel Avivis wasn’t enough: He needed to work with the locals and eagerly joined forces with Dov Lipman, a Beit Shemesh resident who calls himself “modern Haredi.” Their collaboration enhanced not only their numbers but their effectiveness. The whole country could see that plenty of traditional religious people draw the line at vile harassment and that secular Israelis who don’t want the government imposing religion on them have no problem with other Jews imposing religion on themselves. According to Gitzin, who had recently returned from a trip to the United States where he met with State Department employees, one of these rallies drew the issue to Secretary of State Clinton’s attention; she reportedly raised the Haredi problem in a private forum.
Gitzin understands the role the diaspora has to play in this drama. (Recall the Sturm und Drang in the American Jewish community two years ago when the Rotem Bill, which would have invested further power over conversion in the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, reared its head.) “Israel should be a real home to all Jews around the world, not only those—who I respect—in the Orthodox entity,” he said. The Israel Gitzin proposes sounds like a sort of Jewish America: Give us your tired, your poor, your Hasidic, your Reform.
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