by Mike Sarason
Two weeks ago, I was able to attend an event called "Israel Up to the Minute." The program, the result of a partnership between the Israel Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and the Mayerson JCC, is part of a new, monthly series that features discussions on current issues affecting Israel, the U.S. and more. The discussions are led by Yair Cohen, Cincinnati's community shaliach (emissary) from Israel.
I wasn't totally sure what to expect, given that this was the first session of the series, but I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a full room of people. I had to struggle to find myself a seat and when I did, I was interested to see where the evening would take us. This month's "Up to the Minute" issue revolved around women in Israel, but more specifically women in the army. A few recent events in Israel have shoved this issue into the national and international spotlight.
On that night, we focused on a particular story that involved religious (male) soldiers in the IDF who, depending on where you read the story, either boycotted or simply removed themselves from an official IDF ceremony, against the commands of their supervising officer. The group of soldiers stood up and walked out upon hearing women singing at the event, something that is forbidden by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) law. Obviously, this version of what happened is slimmed down; there are many other slightly tangential factors and follow-up actions that could be mentioned but for the sake of this article and the discussion we had, we’ll focus on this incident and its implications.
Yair Cohen did a masterful job of framing the issue in terms of its context within Israeli society. He explained how Israel has been set up as a country that is both “Jewish and Democratic,” two ideas that mean different things to different people. After this, he opened up the topic for discussion and made sure to give as many people as possible a chance to speak….and that’s where things got interesting.
Throughout the course of the night I was encouraged to see many different people pitching in their thoughts and questions about why this happened and how Israel moves forward. Participants for the night included community members young and old and their comments ranged from, “How can Israel maintain its army if soldiers regularly disregard the orders of their officers?” to “we need to be able to maintain a way for oberservant Jews to serve in the army, even if it means separate brigades."
Another surprising aspect of the conversation was the sheer diversity of backgrounds and opinions people brought to the table. If the attendees at this event were a representative micro-sample of our larger community, we must have one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the country, at least in terms of how people think.
Members of our Orthodox community offered up their thoughts on the IDF’s handling (or mishandling) of the touchy issue and brought up some good points about dati (observant) brigades that have been crucial in maintaining Israel’s safety. A younger woman who is a Jewish song leader in the community voiced her frustrations over the fact that she and others like her would lose out on opportunities to sing publicly at Jewish events simply because of their gender. An older gentleman, as a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, mentioned that something like this would be unacceptable in our country. A younger rabbi explained where the laws of modesty for women (and men) come from in Jewish tradition and why they are in place. A young woman who just moved to Cincinnati gave her opinions about her own experience serving in the Israeli army, noting that it works much differently than things in the U.S.
One of the chaverim M’Israel (friends from Israel), Danielle Flicker, spoke beautifully about how this conflict is just one of the many things Israelis learn to deal with every day. Each day there are new and different problems to address, many with increasingly serious implications for the country. Despite this, Danielle lovingly spoke about her country as one that she knows is doing the very best it can. She explained that part of the reason for the conflicts in Israel is that there are so many intelligent leaders with strong, differing opinions on how Israel can best move forward. However, she made sure to note that what each of these leaders wants more than anything else is to see Israel succeed as a Democratic, forward-thinking Jewish state.
I made a few comments here and there, but for me, as interesting as it was to think about the issue itself and its implications for the state of Israel, it was just as fascinating to sit back and marvel at the unique mixture of ideas coming from all of the different people who were there.
The next “Israel Up to the Minute” program is Tuesday, March 20th at the Mayerson JCC, I hope to see you there.