Archive for the ‘Religious Pluralism’ Category

Field Report From Israel: Things Are Changing, Watch Events at the Western Wall

It’s different this time.  Why?  Because in Israel the reality of demographics is catching up with those who previously believed that wishful thinking makes for sound public policy.

AO5A3900It’s hard to distill into a sound bite what’s going on in Israel and the West Bank.  Knowledgeable pundits are fond of prefacing their answers to meaningful questions about the region with, “It’s complicated…”  And it’s true.  In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, everything is complicated, because politics permeate every crevice, from issues of local real estate to childhood education.

I’ve just returned from a week in Israel, including visits to Tel Aviv, Herzliya, East Jerusalem, and the fascinating work-in-progress at the ambitious construction project of Rawabi City, as well as other sites in the West Bank.

While I have been to Israel many times since my first trip in 2002, I was fortunate join an outstanding program sponsored by the Philanthropy Workshop West for this trip.  Among the highlights of our trip, we visited a wide range of community outreach programs for ethnic groups at risk (Israeli Arabs, the Ethiopian Jews, the Bedouins) sponsored by groups including the Portland Trust, the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

What struck me most about this visit was that Israel finally appears to be acting more introspectively to address its painful social and political contradictions, acknowledging that these can no longer be left to fester from salutary neglect.

Chief among these contradictions is the discrimination of Jews against other Jews, particularly by the ultra orthodox against Jewish women who seek the right to pray at the Western Wall, and by the State of Israel against Reform and Conservative Judaism (which define Judaism in the United States) by denying these branches of Judaism official recognition and fiscal support in Israel.

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I was not expecting to hear from multiple individuals what I have felt since I first visited Israel 11 years ago: that the country cannot allow the ultra orthodox to be exempt from military service and from carrying their economic share of public services.  And there is a sense of urgency that also surprised me, a sense that this must be addressed by the legislature now.  To wit, the newly formed government majority in the Knesset, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, excludes the ultra orthodox block, effectively taking the keys to the religious car away from these intolerant and uncompromising constituencies.

The release of the Women of the Wall from arrest, without consequence, on April 11 brings this new political reality home.  The courts overruled the police and squarely placed the blame for public disturbance on the haredim at the scene.  This is a big deal! As reported by the New York Times:

“The judge said the people disturbing public order on Thursday were a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters who were demonstrating against the women. The police said an ultra-Orthodox man was also arrested after he grabbed a book from one of the women and burned it.”

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Job training centers for the ultra orthodox are springing up, supported by U.S. NGO’s and the Israeli government, and there are waiting lists because of excess demand from haredim who wish to change their lives to consist of more than Torah study.  I view continued progress or renewed failure to achieve change in this area as a canary in the coal mine in terms of handicapping Israel’s prospective trajectory toward broader achievements with the Palestinians.

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Major Victory for Jewish Religious Pluralism in Israel: Reform and Conservative Conversions Will Finally Be Recognized by The State of Israel

Congratulations to the Israel Religious Action Center for their tireless efforts!  This is a big deal! I am the product of an inter-faith marriage, and my mother completed a Reform conversion in Canada over 50 years ago; I grew up in a Conservative congregation in Puerto Rico; and I have been a leader in the Jewish Reform community in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 17 years. I am very gratified to see this day.

From the press release:

On Tuesday, May 19, 2009, the Israeli High Court of Justice, in a ground-breaking case, awarded equal funding to Reform and Conservative Jewish conversion programs. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, originally filed this petition in 2005 against the Immigration Absorption Ministry for discrimination and today the Supreme Court agreed.

To date, the State of Israel funds privately-run conversion centers alongside state centers; however, only Orthodox centers are recognized and therefore only Orthodox centers received state funding.

The State defended its position in court based on the fact that Reform and Conservative conversions are not recognized in Israel.

The Court noted that most converts in Israel immigrated by the Law of Return, but are not Jewish according to halacha, traditional Jewish law. They wish to convert in order to embrace their Jewish identity and to become more integrated into Israeli society, a goal achieved in conversion programs of all Jewish streams.

The Court called the State’s practice of favoring only one Jewish stream discriminatory and contradictory to the State’s responsibility of ensuring freedom of religion: “The duty of the State to pluralism is not only a passive duty, but an active one as well.” They also sited their previous ruling (Naamat and IRAC in 2002) that “Jews in Israel cannot be seen as only one religious sect.”

The verdict in this case calls for all private non-Orthodox conversion programs to be reimbursed retroactively for the years 2006-2009 and for all future funding to be given equally to conversion programs of all Jewish streams.

Attorney Einat Hurvitz, IRAC’s Legal Department Director, responded to the Court’s ruling: “Today's verdict reaffirms the fundamental right to equality and religious freedom by ruling that the State may not discriminate between people based on their choice of Jewish stream. Today, the Court set a precedent, mandating State-funding for religious services of the Reform Movement and other non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. We hope that this clear message from the court leads to a change in government policy and puts an end to the exclusion of the Reform movement by the State."

Irshad Manji from the Aspen Ideas Festival on Ijtihad and Interfaith Marriage in Islam

Irshad Manji comments on the positive power of Ijtihad, the ancient tradition of critical thinking in Islam, and the importance of contemporary Muslim imams in justifying Muslim interfaith marriage.





Democracy in America Revisited– Defining America’s Current Political Identity [Seventh of a Series]

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You can’t stretch a shared political identity so far that it becomes overly abstract and therefore impossible for people to articulate in a way that everyone can easily understand it.

Think of this statement in the context of the Presidential debates in the current election. Why is the media obsessively focused on candidate mis-statements regarding their exposure to ‘sniper fire’ or commenting on how social alienation can lead to ‘clinging to guns and religion’. Why does it take 43 minutes into a debate for George Stephanopolous to ask the Democratic Party candidates the first substantive question on the economy, which he acknowledges as the most important issue in the election? Should candidate gaffes be defining elements of campaign momentum and qualifications for Presidential leadership? Not in my view.

American citizens span the spectrum from evangelical Christians to ardent atheists; from observant Muslims to secular and orthodox Jews. Ethnically, American citizens include Mexican Americans, African Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, European Americans, Russian Americans, and many other ethnicities. The definition of family in America now includes traditional marriages, same sex marriages, and no marriages. It is uneasy for societies to live with a complex narrative of citizenship forged from the richness of diversity that has made the melting pot of America historically great.

The rise of Evangelical Christian religious fundamentalism in America and Muslim fundamentalism in the rapidly modernizing societies of the Third World each share a reactive thread in opposition to the forced acknowledgement of diversity highlighted to all of us by the Internet. These movements, which are organized attempts to re-assert a single identity and to fight social complexity, trigger equally negative reactions form those that are left out of the picture. A complex world where differences are heightened because everyone is aware of everyone else requires nations to grapple with a complex narrative of citizenship. America’s great historical achievement as a pluralistic society stems from its immigrant melting pot roots and from the strong democratic institutions that have evolved over 232 years to embrace this complexity. Let’s not forget this in the 21st century.

Blaise Pascal On Man’s Ability to do Evil in the Name of Faith

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‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction’.
Blaise Pascal
French mathematician, physicist (1623 – 1662)

My namesake is also known for Pascal’s wager, a pragmatic or decision theory-based approach to faith– resolving that it is better to have faith in God because if you don’t and God does, indeed, exist, you would have considerable downside in being wrong.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ — it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as "Pascal’s Wager". We find in it the extraordinary confluence of several important strands of thought: the justification of theism; probability theory and decision theory, used here for almost the first time in history; pragmatism; voluntarism (the thesis that belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.

Unaffiliated But Not Agnostic– The Number of Americans Outside of Organized Religion Continues to Swell

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The New York Times reported today on the latest Pew Research Center demographic survey on religion in America

Highlights from the report–

* Over 16 percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest "religious group."

* In the 1980s, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center indicated that from 5 percent to 8 percent of the population described itself as unaffiliated with a particular religion.

* In the Pew survey 7.3 percent of the adult population said they were unaffiliated with a faith as children. That segment increases to 16.1 percent of the population in adulthood, the survey found.

* The unaffiliated are largely under 50 and male. "Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13 percent of women," the survey said.

*Protestantism has been declining, from two thirds of the U.S. population in the ’70′s to about 51% today– with evangelicals accounting for a slim majority of Protestants.

*Catholics have remained steady at 25% of the population, but the influx of Catholic Latin Americans into the U.S. is largely responsible for what looks like stability in this group.

*Affiliated Jews have declined slightly to 1.7% from 1.9%

So what does this mean?  The New York Times article quotes a Pew researcher who concludes that these religious affiliation changes do not mean that Americans are becoming less religious: "Contrary to assumptions that most of the unaffiliated are atheists or agnostics, most described their religion "as nothing in particular."  I’m sure that the new-new atheists will conclude differently. 

Religious Pluralism Scores a Major Victory in Israel– For Jews

Over the past three years, I have posted multiple times on the subject of religious discrimination and intolerance BETWEEN JEWS in Israel.  In America, this is a widely under-reported problem which, in my view, strikes at the heart of the socio-religious problems in the State of Israel and also threatens the future of Judaism in mainstream society.  In America, where tolerance and pluralism are central pillars of our society, it is a given that there is more than one way to be a Jew.  In Israel, which heretofore has only recognized Orthodox Judaism, there are the Orthodox and Ultra-Othrodox (which account for roughly 15% of the country’s Jews vs. 6% of Jews in America), there are emerging Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations that receive no State support, and then, of course, there is the vast majority of unaffiliated or so-called ‘secular’ Israeli Jews.

I suport a vibrant Jewish State of Israel that embraces religious pluralism– and we can now score a major victory for the forces of pluralism in Israel, thanks to the Israel Religious Action Center ("IRAC").  The following excerpts are from IRAC’s most recent weekly newsletter:

"In Israel, where there is no separation between religion and State, the government cultivates and supports Jewish life and Jewish institutions. From the beginning of the State, and in fact up until last month, the government of Israel had granted land and buildings to hundreds of Orthodox synagogues, but never to a Reform or Conservative congregation. Kehilat YOZMA, a vibrant and rapidly growing community in the modern suburban city of Modi’in, is the first in a group of young Reform congregations who will now, thanks to IRAC, receive synagogue buildings from the State.

The year 2008 marks the beginning of a change in the attitudes of the National Authority of Religious Services, the Ministry of Construction and Housing, and several municipalities with respect to the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. …  In 2008, at least four non-Orthodox congregations will proudly erect their synagogues with the help of governmental funds. This is the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, that the State is funding the construction of non-Orthodox synagogues. This is a groundbreaking accomplishment which sets a precedent for future cases of similar background. Public funding is an irrefutable sign of recognition by the State, which indicates a desire, however restrained, to move forward towards reconciliation between the various streams of Judaism in Israel.

The importance of this event can not be underestimated – the transportable synagogue in Kehilat YOZMA is the very first non-Orthodox synagogue being subsidized by the state in all of Israel’s history."

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Why We Need to Find Common Ground With Islam Through Education

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Babar Ahmed is a talented up-and-coming movie director ("Royal Kill") and the son of Professor Akbar Ahmed, who first taught me about the history of Islam at the Aspen Institute‘s Socrates Society.  Babar recently spoke about Islam at a gathering in Palm Beach.  The Palm Beach Post reported on his remarks:

"And so why are we seeing suicide bombings if Muslim history is so good?" he asked.

Because Islam is divided into three groups, Ahmed theorized, the conservative, the moderate and the extremist, the latter of which is "growing every single day."

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, Ahmed said, orphans were driven over the border to Pakistan, where they were taken in and educated by the most primitive tribal schools, run by illiterates who could not read or properly interpret the Koran.

"In driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan," Ahmed said, "the United States developed relationships with military dictators which continue to this day. That may have worked in the short term, but it left the orphans poor, desperate and angry, without any skills except how to use a gun."

The current movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, makes the same point, he noted.

The solution, Ahmed said, is education, because the majority of Muslims are young. In Pakistan alone, he said, 40 percent of the population is under 16, and more receptive to radicalism.

"One half of the world’s population is Muslim, Christian or Jewish," Ahmed said, "and if we don’t start finding this common ground, we are going to be heading for a very turbulent century."

Babar is right on point.  One of the few successful models of bilingual interfaith educational success in the Middle East is Hand in Hand in Israel– the madrassas have a long way to go, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can act to make sure that it is not on oncoming train…

Hand in Hand Update– New Students, New Campuses, Continued Growth

Amin Khalaf, co-founder of Hand in Hand, the groundbreaking, highly successful, bilingual Jewish-Arab school system that educates close to 1,000 students in Israel, reports on the achievement of several major major milestones:

"*A dream came true on January 13th when students, teachers, and staff moved permanently to our new Max Rayne campus in Jerusalem. The journey has been a long one, and we will take many fond memories of the old campus with us as we settle in at the state-of-the-art Max Rayne School. A two-story library, a large indoor gymnasium, improved computer connectivity, and dedicated spaces for the arts and music are among the many highlights of the new campus. My thanks go to the Jerusalem Foundation for assisting Hand in Hand to construct the multimillion dollar facility.

*Hand in Hand worked with Merchavim and the Abraham Fund to prepare a position paper advocating the strengthening of bilingual education that was presented at a special conference held in Jaffa on December 27, 2007. Among those present was Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who expressed her personal support for expanding bilingual education options in the country.

*In February, Hand in Hand will organize Israel’s third annual conference on bilingual education in the multicultural city of Haifa. The international event, to be realized in cooperation with the University of Haifa, will bring together experts to discuss the mechanics and theory of bilingual education, one of the fundamental pillars of Hand in Hand’s work.

*Hand in Hand’s new fourth school in Beer Sheva has been operating with great success. Our 49 students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are enjoying their studies, and we are currently planning an expansion to the first grade next year. Kudos to the Hagar parents’ group for helping make the Beer Sheva School another Hand in Hand success."

The continued growth of this educational organization in a highly segregated society that experiences emotional stress and turmoil on a daily basis shows the integrity of the vision that inspired it over a decade ago.  Bravo!

Confusing Common Sense with Cultural Sensitivity– Are We Staring into the Orwellian Chasm?

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention an article originally published April 2, 2007 in the The Daily Mail which revealed the following highly disturbing trend among teachers in England:

"Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial. There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. … The study, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, looked into ‘emotive and controversial’ history teaching in primary and secondary schools. It found some teachers are dropping courses covering the Holocaust at the earliest opportunity over fears Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic and anti-Israel reactions in class. "

Every blog comment or follow-on article that I’ve read on this topic condemns this "sidestepping" approach to the unpleasant historical truths that make up the Human Journey as fundamentally flawed.  But it’s not enough.

We need to be outraged at the lack of leadership that allows spineless fear of difficult discussions to bury reality.  We now live in a digital world where anyone with a keyboard can falsify history or advocate hate on the Internet and remain largely unfettered in the name of free speech.  In societies where the Government monitors and controls Internet content, we are more likely to see this control used to suppress dissent, force conformity. and paint a thin veneer of social harmony over underlying currents of instability and unrest.

We are increasingly buried under an avalanche of unverifiable data that can be manipulated to suit unscrupulous ends by groups with wide ranging hidden agendas.

Ignoring the truth of global history condemns us to ignorance and opens our societies to manipulation which, left unchecked, could send us back to the world of Hobbes.

"If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?"

George Orwell, 1984 Stopbush3272b20nov03

To learn more about the truth of the Holocaust, go to http://www.adl.org/education/edu_holocaust/default_holocaust.asp