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In Israel, where abortion hasn’t been the wedge issue it has in the United States, tensions are building between secular traditions and religious groups, which want to increase the Jewish birthrate

Simone Gorrindo
July 18, 2011
"Unwanted pregnancy?" reads a flyer from Efrat posted in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.(Yossi Gurvitz/Flickr)
"Unwanted pregnancy?" reads a flyer from Efrat posted in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.(Yossi Gurvitz/Flickr)

Mali Aharon’s enormous family has just finished a feast at her sister’s home in the coastal Israeli city of Netanya. Stacks of dirty plates cover the long dinner table, and children scamper up and down a spiral staircase in the center of the house. Aharon, 35, sweeps back her thick brown hair and smiles. “My dad wants to tell you a story,” she says in perfect English as she places a hand on her father’s knee. “And he wants me to translate it.”

Leaning back in an armchair, Aharon’s father begins in Hebrew, and Aharon quickly follows in English.

“Before I was born, my mother got pregnant and decided to have an abortion,” she says, rewording the story as though she were the one telling it. “They were young and didn’t have any money.” One afternoon, on their way to an abortion clinic, the couple sat waiting at a bus stop, full of apprehension. An old Moroccan woman sat down next to Aharon’s mother and knew instinctively that something was wrong. “You are not God,” the woman told Aharon’s mother after she found out what was troubling the couple. “Go, go home, for your own good.” As Aharon’s father tells the anecdote, he mimes the old woman, waving his arm as if shooing away a dog.

“They took it as an omen,” Aharon says. The couple never got on the bus.

Years later, when Aharon became pregnant in 2005, she stood at the same way station as her parents, figuratively speaking, paralyzed by fear. But she had no husband and no wise old woman to make her decision for her. She was broke, alone, and didn’t know what to do. A friend told her about an organization called Efrat, a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem that seeks to prevent Jewish women from having abortions. Started by Holocaust survivors shortly after World War II, Efrat is founded on the belief that no Jewish woman should have to abort a child because of money troubles. The organization will help a needy mother like Aharon financially for the first year of her child’s life. To many Israelis, Efrat’s mission sounds suspiciously pro-life, but Efrat likes to see itself as “pro-choice,” more an instrument of education than coercion.

But the Efrat approach is a hard sell, not unlike the efforts of anti-abortion groups in the United States. Images of developing fetuses line the inside of pamphlets that Efrat distributes to women who are seeking help. One cover pictures a stork dangling a blanketed baby from its beak. A question in big, black letters stands out above the bird: Mommy, why won’t you let me live?

“We show [the woman] information, show her she has a human being,” says Eli Schussheim, who took over the organization in 1978, when abortion first became legal in Israel. “The fourth week, the baby has a heart, the sixth a brain, the eighth, it has all of its organs. It awakes a natural feeling in a mother.”

While abortion in Israel is usually not the hot-button issue it is in America, it has lately become a focus of political controversy. At the start of March, a liberal member of the Knesset put forth a bill to abolish Israel’s abortion committees, made up of doctors and social workers who review individual cases and approve legal abortions. The bill did not pass. Efforts to change the status quo have also come from the right. At the end of 2009, Israel’s chief rabbis sent letters to every rabbi in the country, asking them to forbid their congregants from aborting a child.

Schussheim of Efrat goes even further. He sees abortion in Israel as a kind of Holocaust of Jews’ own making—a plague, he says, that causes more loss of life than wars or natural disasters. In his view Efrat is a vital effort to preserve and multiply a diminished population and to ensure that Israel remains fundamentally Jewish. “After we lost millions of people, I think we should do more to encourage the birthrate,” he says. “We should do more to save the lives we have already started.”

While Schussheim argues that what Efrat offers is education, Irit Rosenblum, the head of an Israeli family-rights organization called New Family, thinks the group’s agenda is a lot more insidious. One of Efrat’s most virulent critics, Rosenblum advocates for civil marriage and women’s rights in Israel. According to her, Efrat is invading women’s privacy and cajoling them into a decision. In 2004, a member of the Knesset attempted to outlaw Efrat’s existence, calling its work equal to harassment. “They are trying to tempt [the woman], to pay her,” Rosenblum says. “The temptation around it is very ugly, I think.”

Efrat’s cramped office is tucked away on a tree-lined street in residential Jerusalem. The floor is covered in industrial gray carpet, and the wooden desks are worn and shabby. But against this colorless background, hundreds of photographs showcased on the walls leap out vibrantly. Photographs of the children that Efrat has “saved,” as it says, are pinned to every inch of every wall, and laminated letters of thanks accompany many of them.

“They showed me more than I wanted to know,” says Aharon. When she came to Efrat, she was 25 and living very hand-to-mouth. She had just moved to Arizona to work in customer relations for an Israeli company, because she had always wanted to live in the United States. She hadn’t had her period in nine weeks, but the women at work said that was normal when transitioning to such a hot, dry place. Eventually, she went to a doctor. Her fears were confirmed.

“I can’t be pregnant,” she recalls telling a friend.

“I’m sorry, Mali, but you are,” the friend said. Aharon was not in a steady relationship, but she knew who the father was: her on-again, off-again flame of seven years—the tumultuous love of her life. They had slept together the night before she left Israel for the United States, but he was living the life of a bachelor. What was she going to do?

Aharon returned to Israel and moved in with her mother. She knew she couldn’t have an abortion—she’d already had one before, when she 22. Three months into that pregnancy, her doctors could not detect a heartbeat, and she’d made the decision to abort. “When he was gone, I was glad he was gone,” says Aharon. “I kind of thought, ‘Good, he doesn’t have a heartbeat. Fine.’ ” But the abortion ultimately caused more emotional fallout than she expected. “A year and a half later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she says. “I felt so sorry.” She wonders now that if maybe she had waited, something might have changed. Maybe the baby would have been healthy.

According to a recent report from Israel’s health ministry, some 20,000 legal abortions occur yearly in Israel. A New Family poll conducted this year estimated that another estimated 25,000 are done illegally. “We have the possibility, every year, to save 45,000 children,” says Schussheim. “And I must tell you—we have not one case of regret.”

Efrat gave her reassurance that everything would be OK, she says. And when she delivered her healthy daughter, Yuval, the organization gave her everything she was promised—a crib, a stroller, a year’s supply of diapers and baby food, and $300 a month. “I needed that money,” Aharon says. “I had nothing left here.”

Tied into Schussheim’s demographic concerns are religious concerns. Schussheim believes Israel’s Chief Rabbinate should be involved in the abortion committees along with doctors and social workers, for the sanctity of life is a fundamentally religious concern. Unless the mother’s life is in danger, abortion is forbidden. “The rabbinate must be involved, like the pope,” says Schussheim. “This is something very serious, and this issue is very important in this religion.”

“According to Judaism, this is an order—to give birth to children,” says Rosenblum. She feels that religion plays too prominent a role in the discussion of abortion in Israel. “Religion is religion and it shouldn’t be involved in the state,” she says. “But unfortunately, in Israel, there is no separation.”

Although Aharon says her decision to keep Yuval wasn’t directly religious—“I just know killing is wrong,” Aharon says—she does say her traditionalist Jewish family raised her to believe that abortion is immoral. The members of the family are religious to varying degrees: Her mother covers her hair, her nephew wears a tall, black hat, and her younger sister wears long skirts. And the sheer size of Aharon’s family exemplifies a value that has long been handed down in Jewish tradition.

As plates are cleared from the table in Aharon’s sister’s home, the children’s energy does not seem to flag. Yuval and her cousins run around the living room in circles. But Aharon brings out dessert, and that does the trick. Yuval stops at her mother’s side, eyeing the chocolate cake. Aharon reaches for her and sits her down at the table. She has big brown eyes, coffee-colored skin, and frizzy hair. She looks more Brazilian than Israeli, Aharon jokes.

After the meal, Aharon sits on the roof deck of her sister’s home, the salty ocean breeze whipping through her hair. “About two weeks ago, on a crazy morning, I thought: I wish I was single—no kids, no husband,” she says with a smile. “I could just pick myself up, pack a bag, and go.” She pauses for a moment and then shakes her head.

“But there is no way I’d live without her,” she says. “It’s just not worth it.”

Simone Gorrindo, an alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is a freelance journalist and editorial assistant at Amazon’s Kindle Singles.

Simone Gorrindo, an alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is a freelance journalist and editorial assistant at Amazon’s Kindle Singles.