Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Ex ...

From The New York Times:

Israeli Girl, 8, at Center of Tension Over Religious Extremism

By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: December 27, 2011
 

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — The latest battleground in Israel’s struggle over religious extremism covers little more than a square mile of this Jewish city situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it has the unexpected public face of a blond, bespectacled second-grade girl.

Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of observant Orthodox Jews, has been spat on and otherwise insulted by ultra-Orthodox men and boys on her way to school because her modest dress did not adhere to their standards.

She is Naama Margolese, 8, the daughter of American immigrants who are observant modern Orthodox Jews. An Israeli weekend television program told the story of how Naama had become terrified of walking to her elementary school here after ultra-Orthodox men spit on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.

The country was outraged. Naama’s picture has appeared on the front pages of all the major Israeli newspapers. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Sunday that “Israel is a democratic, Western, liberal state” and pledged that “the public sphere in Israel will be open and safe for all,” there have been days of confrontation at focal points of friction here.

Ultra-Orthodox men and boys from the most stringent sects have hurled rocks and eggs at the police and journalists, shouting “Nazis” at the security forces and assailing female reporters with epithets like “shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman or girl, and “whore.” Jews of varying degrees of orthodoxy and secularity headed to Beit Shemesh on Tuesday evening to join local residents in a protest numbering in the thousands against religious violence and fanaticism.

For many Israelis, this is not a fight over one little girl’s walk to school. It is a struggle that could shape the future character and soul of the country, against ultra-Orthodox zealots who have been increasingly encroaching on the public sphere with their strict interpretation of modesty rules, enforcing gender segregation and the exclusion of women.

The battle has broadened and grown increasingly visible in recent weeks and months. Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony where female soldiers were singing, adhering to what they consider to be a religious prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice; women have been challenging the seating arrangements on strictly “kosher” buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and some inter-city routes, where female passengers are expected to sit at the back.

The virulent coercion in Beit Shemesh has been attributed mainly to a group of several hundred ultra-Orthodox extremists who came here from Jerusalem, known as the Sicarii, or daggermen, after a violent and stealthy faction of Jews who tried to expel the Romans in the decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Religious extremism is hardly new to Israel, but the Sicarii and their bullying ilk push with a bold vigor that has yet to be fully explained. Certainly, Israel’s coalition politics have allowed the ultra-Orthodox parties to wield disproportionate power beyond the roughly 10 percent of the population they currently represent.

The ultra-Orthodox community’s rapidly increasing numbers — thanks to extraordinarily high birthrates — may also have emboldened the hard core, as may have their insular neighborhoods. And their leadership appears to lack moderating brakes.

In any case, the extremists have provoked an outpouring of opposition from all those who are more flexible, be they ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, mainstream or secular. In fact, it was an ultra-Orthodox-led group that claimed at least part of the credit for making Naama’s story public.

“We are working to save our city and to save our homes,” said Dov Lipman, 40, a local activist, rabbi and self-defined modern ultra-Orthodox, who moved to Beit Shemesh from Silver Spring, Md., seven years ago. Seizing on the public mood of rejecting ultra-Orthodox bullying, Mr. Lipman and a group of supporters have been lobbying the Israeli Parliament, organizing protests and recently hired a media consultant. He said that is how Naama’s story came out.

Built near the ruins of an ancient city of that name mentioned in the Bible, Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, first drawing mostly poor immigrants from North Africa, then immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia and English-speaking countries. With the construction of the new neighborhoods of Ramat Beit Shemesh A and B in the 1990s, the ultra-Orthodox population boomed. Residents say 20,000 more planned housing units are earmarked for the ultra-Orthodox.

In Ramat Beit Shemesh B, signs on the walls of buildings call for modesty, exhorting women and girls to dress in buttoned-up, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. Outside a synagogue on Hazon Ish Street in the Kirya ha-Haredit quarter, a sign requested that females should cross to the opposite sidewalk and certainly not tarry outside the building.

Naama’s school, Orot, opened in September in an area with a large community of English-speaking observant Jews that borders on the strictest ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. She quickly found she had to run a miserable gantlet to get to school, even dressed in long sleeves and long skirts.

Riots broke out on Monday when the police accompanied media crews into Hazon Ish Street, the area where Naama’s tormentors are believed to have come from. Hundreds of black-garbed men and boys poured out of the synagogue and an adjacent seminary holding handwritten signs calling for the exclusion of women, illustrated with the male and female symbols used for public washrooms. One policeman was injured after being hit in the head with a rock and several arrests were made before the crowds dispersed at dusk.

Many of the ultra-Orthodox agitators blamed the news media for the unrest, saying they had come into the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sow hatred and to persecute the residents for their religious beliefs.

Meanwhile, some residents insisted that Beit Shemesh was a tolerant city, but defended at least some gender separation and modesty on religious grounds.

“I think women are very poorly treated in Western society,” said Cindy Feder, 57, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh A, who came to Israel from New York in 1970, and who defines herself as an “open haredi,” the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox. She said that the objectification of women on some billboards made her feel sick.

In the more austere Ramat Beit Shemesh B, a 32-year-old mother of four defended the gender separation on public transportation, saying that it was necessary to preserve women’s honor on crowded buses that squeezed people like “tomato puree.”

But the woman, who gave only her first name, Rivka, for fear of provoking the disapproval of her neighbors, also told a story that revealed the costs of separation: one night, the extremists came and removed all the public benches from the neighborhood, so that the women could no longer sit outside with their children in the street.

Gay Marriage – A Civil Right Or Just Not Right?

Wedding BandsIt seems so long ago, ancient practically to most Americans, that interracial relationships were forbidden.  Back in June 1958, a black woman named Mildred Jeter and a white man named Richard Loving went to the District of Columbia to get married.  The decision to do so was spurred by the need to circumvent a Virginia law, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.  When they returned to Virginia, they were arrested, charged, and found guilty.  Cue to March 17, 1994, where Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriages.  Thousands flocked to Massachusetts to submit applications for marriage licenses.  Within a year, 6,200 gay couples had been married.  Despite that, the federal government refused to recognize those marriages, despite the fact that most states recognized those out of state marriages.

There is a similarity in both events.  In both cases, couples were denied a fundamental right, the right to marriage.  In both cases, the perceptions of the nation were not supportive of a marriage that differed from the traditional view of marriage.  In 1958, the view of marriage was one between couples of the same racial backgrounds, although there were interracial relationships in existence, unheard of only decades earlier.  And yet, the notion of traditional marriages was being challenged.  The idea of a black woman and white man marrying was shocking to a conservative southern state like Virginia.  Jeter and Loving decided to challenge that view, and in June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court issued the following decision:

“There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy.  We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

Now over 50 years later, the nation faces the same question, and possibly the same turning point, that faced the nation when Jeter and Loving challenged the traditional values of marriage.  The “traditional” value and perceptions of marriage are no longer based on race, but based on the idea that marriage occurs only between a man and a woman.   That view is now being challenged, even though that definition was only legally defined fourteen years ago, on September 21, 1996, when the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) defined marriage:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word “marriage” means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday, February 24th, reported:

An Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll conducted last August found 52 percent of Americans saying the federal government should give legal recognition to marriages between couples of the same sex, while 46 percent said it should not.

In polling by ABC News and The Washington Post, support for the legalization of gay marriage climbed from 37 percent in 2003 to 47 percent in February 2010.  A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in September found 43 percent of those surveyed favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 47 percent opposed it — the highest support for same-sex marriage in the center’s polling back to 1996. The poll showed wide partisan divisions: 55 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents favored same-sex marriage, but only 21 percent of Republicans.

It was only on December 15, 2010, that President Barack Obama signed a bill repealing the military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  For the first time in nearly two decades, the servicemen and women of the Unite States military would no longer need to hide their sexual orientation.  Men and women who put their lives in harm’s way to defend, and die for, our country, would no longer need to do so while denying their identity.  In fact, Dick Polman of NewsWorks suggests that the passing of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shows that the country is not entirely against same sex marriages, as they were nearly fifteen years earlier:

The bottom line is, most Republicans seem to understand that they can no longer get politician traction by going after gays. Some GOP lawmakers even voted with Democrats in December to permit gays to serve openly in the military, and Obama has suffered no backlash since. Indeed, the muted response to the demise of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has clearly emboldened the White House to take the next step and abandon its legal support for DOMA.

And it seems to be happening not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well.  Since Massachusetts passed the law legalizing gay marriages, four more states have passed similar laws, in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  And just last week, Hawaii joined six other states in recognizing civil unions or broad domestic partnerships (California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington).  And only two days ago, Maryland’s State Senate gave preliminary approval for a bill that will allow gay marriages, which would make it the sixth state to legalize gay marriage.

Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker offers some interesting arguments of why Obama’s decision to stop defending DoMA may force courts to review cases involving gay marriage with the same scrutiny once applied to cases involving minority rights:

….It’s very unusual for any Administration to refuse to defend the constitutionality of a law that is already on the books….the letter raises an even more important…position that “classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny.” This may sound like legal mumbo jumbo, but it’s crucial….in 1938, Justice Harlan Stone said that the Courts should give greater scrutiny to one category of laws: those that affect minorities. In real terms, that meant that if a law treated a racial minority differently from other people, the Court would apply what became known as “strict scrutiny” and almost always declare it unconstitutional. In the nineteen-seventies, the Court started ruling on laws that treated women differently. The Court said that these laws wouldn’t receive strict scrutiny (like racial laws), but still “heightened scrutiny” (rather than, in legal lingo, a “rational basis” test). In real terms, that has meant that the Court has now also struck down most laws that treat women differently….Under the heightened-scrutiny test, …there is no justification for DOMA, so it is unconstitutional. (DOMA says that the federal government will not treat gay people who are legally married in their states as married people under federal law. So a married same-sex couple in Massachusetts is not treated as married under, for example, the Internal Revenue Code.)….if a Court would apply heightened scrutiny to the ban on same-sex marriage, there is no way that it would be upheld…

 All in all, Obama’s decision creates an interesting dilemma for the conservatives, as the foundations of federal and state law against gay marriage are slowly eroding.  It may very well mean that the one of the final groups of “minorities will finally gain recognition of their identity and their rights.  Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘”In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  And yet, it seems he forgot to add a third certainty… change.  And yet, the arguments against change, and gay marriage, are that it destroys the foundation of marriage, family values, and religious freedoms.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization, states on their website:

The homosexual legal agenda is one of the greatest threats to religious freedom in America today. For decades, radical activists, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its allies, have tried to divorce America from its Christian heritage and values. Their strategy is twofold: dilute moral values so that homosexual behavior is thought to be normal, natural, and good, while suppressing the religious and free speech rights of those who disagree. If they successfully impose their radical legal agenda, then all people especially Christians who do not affirm homosexual behavior could be silenced, punished, and possibly even jailed for so-called discrimination and intolerance.

Christians know that marriage was created by God as the union between one man and one woman. And from this sacred institution comes the natural family, which is the building block of society and the most favorable environment for children. In spite of this, advocates for same-sex “marriage” demand that their behavior be normalized, treated the same as a marriage, and promoted by law. Should such laws take effect across the nation, then religious liberty as Ms. Feldblum points out must give way to the new laws protecting same-sex “marriages.” This is not merely a theory. For example, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court fabricated a right to same-sex “marriage,” Catholic Charities was presented with the choice: either allow same-sex couples to adopt, or close their doors. Rather than compromise its core beliefs, that organization chose the latter.

As many ADF cases show, Christian views on marriage and human sexuality will be challenged if same-sex “marriage” is accepted by law. If this happens and God’s plan for marriage is dismantled, then your religious freedom and the God-given, constitutionally protected rights that enable you to freely live out your faith will virtually collapse….In a dangerous decision that could ultimately threaten your religious freedom, the federal judge ruled that California’s voter-approved constitutional amendment protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman was unconstitutional. But, despite this disappointing ruling, the battle is far from over….the final outcome could have serious implications for marriage and religious freedom not only in California, but in all 50 states. This is exactly what these radical activists want to take away the people’s right to express their will regarding the future of marriage. The greatest risk will be to the 45 states where citizens have already established laws or constitutional amendments that preserve religious freedom by keeping the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Who is right?  Are the conservative arguments for the protection of the institution of marriage valid, or do gay couples deserve the same rights as heterosexual couples?  Will a decision like Loving v. Virginia come to be, and make gay marriages a normal part of our lives in time?  Or will it lead to greater erosion of family values and the further redefining of what marriage is?

Islamic Mosque To Open Near Ground Zero on 9/11

 

I heard some interesting news on the radio on my way to work today, about an 13-story Islamic mosque being build near Ground Zero, that was to be commemorated on September 11th this year.  As a New Yorker and an American, my initial reaction was of anger, confusion, and bewilderment.  Anger that anyone would suggest putting an Islamic mosque near the site where close to 3,000 people died at the hands of Islamic extremists.  Confusion that any city official would allow it to be built, much less approve commemorating it on the new day of infamy.  And bewilderment that the Muslim community would even think it was a good idea, and how they could think Americans would look at this as nothing more than a celebration of victory for Islamic extremists.

And as expected, the response from New Yorkers has been of outrage, despite the explanation “[w]e want to create a platform by which the voices of the mainstream and silent majority of Muslims will be amplified…. We feel it’s an obligation as Muslims and Americans to be part of the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan.”  However, some questioned this explanation, since there is no large resident Muslim population in downtown Manhattan.  Who would this mosque serve?  And is it a symbol of the fight against extremism, or a tribute to the short lived victory of the Islamic extremists who hijacked the planes that smashed into the World Trade Center towers.  It is almost ten years after the attack, and yet the wounds are still fresh for many.  Is commemorating the opening of an Islamic center on the ten year anniversary a tribute or insult to those who died in the tower?

Herbert Ouida lost his son in the attack on the towers, and has every reason to be against the project, but in contrast to the expected response, he has been supportive of the project,  declaring that to find the entire Islamic faith to be guilty because of the extremist views of a few is unfair and “racist.”  To a degree, I agree, and once my anger subsided, and rationality took over, I discovered that I also could be tolerant, although I am still a bit wary.  Will the center fulfill it’s mission and help the community at large?  Will it educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike of the end result of religious extremism not held in check?  Or would it eventually become a breeding ground for future terrorists like a mosque is allegedly producing in Minneapolis as reported in a video report by CBS News.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in the Huffington Post stated that on his radio show “New Yorkers seem overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, comparing its insensitivity to the German government opening, say, a Bach appreciation museum right outside the Auschwitz death camp, or Toyota opening a car factory by the Arizona Memorial on the island of Oahu.”  On the other hand, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the founder of the mosque project, believes differently, stating “The complaint throughout the years has been: ‘Where’s the voice of the moderate Muslims? Well, here we are.”   Will the mosque bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, or will it make it wider?  Or worst, will it become a recruiting ground for terrorist organizations seeking recruits raised in America, who understand Americans, and can blend in more easily, much like those who attacked the subway systems in London a few years back?

Where do I stand on this?  At first, as I indicated above, I was leaning towards anger, not at the Muslim population as a whole, just at the audacity of someone setting up home to the site of a national tragedy.  An Islamic mosque just two blocks from the site of a crime perpetuated by terrorists murdering people in the name of Islam, to me that was crude, and both an insult, and a jab in the eye of the western world.  A way to stick it to the famlies of the deceased and all Americans, a reminder of the pain and grief caused by a religion that has its origins from the time of the Prophet Mohammed leading the northern nomads in a holy jihad to subdue the cities of the south that he had once lived in, to force them to accept the message of Allah.  But then I began to realize something.  Is Islam so unique in being the only religion to inspire violence?  After all, there are Christians who kill abortion doctors and who called eight Crusades in the Middle East.  Or the Protestants and Catholics who fought a war in Ireland despite being from the same country, and Buddhist extremists who attack Christian churchs in Sri Lanka. Or the Jewish extremists who target Palestinians, and even kill their fellow Jews.

Maybe what they say is true, and there needs to be a place where Muslims can gather to learn that extremism is not the solution. But then again, all things man creates can also destroy as well. Nuclear power can provide a fairly clean source of energy, but it also has the power to destroy the world. The advances in medicine can provide cures, but the same research into genetics and viruses can also give rise to some of the most dangerous types of viruses and biological weapons. A hundred teachers can preach love at the mosque, but all it takes is one message of hate that gives them the false belief of courage and that they are doing something we all strive to find, a greater purpose, although in this case, it would be the illusion of serving their god. But if they are true to their word and purpose, maybe they can help guide Muslims on the right path, towards the tolerance that Muslims were once famous for when the rest of the world’s religions were prejudiced towards other religions.

But despite this hope and desire for a positive end result, one thing still doesn’t sit right with me me. Why commemorate the Islamic mosque on the tenth anniversary of the tragegy? Why not choose another day, even the day before or the day after, the commemorate the mosque? Why do it on the day of mourning? How would the Japanese react if the United States were to establish a church near the site where it dropped the nuclear bombs in World War II, to show Christian charity and for American? If it’s purpose is to unite us, why is it dividing the world instead in debate over its intentions? If you want unity, why is it a Muslim mosque and not a multi-functional place of worship, with representative spiritual leaders of each of the major religions, Muslim Imans, Buddhist monks, Jewish Rabbis, Catholic Priests, and so on. Unity is derived from differing peoples pursuing a common goal, and what greater goal could there be than all the major religions sharing a house of worship, to show that they stand united against the extremists of the world, be they Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, etc.

Then again, perhaps we should take Rabbi Boteach’s suggested solution instead:  “Let the Islamic Cultural Center be built. Let the mosque be included. But, the Muslim organizations building it should commit right now to making the principal focus of the building a museum depicting the rise of Islamic extremism, its hate-based agenda, and how it is an abomination to Islam. The museum would feature exhibits showing the major fomenters of Islamic hatred worldwide and the cultural and religious factors that have gained them so wide a following. It would have exhibitions on some of the terrible atrocities committed by these Islamic fundamentalists, focusing specifically on the slaughter at Ground Zero on 9/11. The Islamic Center would have a major exhibition on the evil of Osama bin Laden, detailing his crimes against humanity and the number of innocent people he has killed. Most importantly, the museum would repudiate these haters by showing how their actions are an abomination to authentic Islamic teaching and how every G-d-fearing Muslim has a responsibility to spit them out.”

That’s not too much to ask, is it?