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Homepage / Library / An Interview with Debbie Weissman Part 1

An Interview With Debbie Weissman Part 1

This two-part interview with Israeli Orthodox Jewish feminist Dr. Debbie Weissman reveals the contribution of Israeli Jewish society and politics to some of the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, the presumed lines between left-wing secular and right-wing religious are infinitely more complicated, and there are Orthodox Jews like her who support Palestinian rights, gay rights and gender equality.

At the same time, many aspects of the inter-play between religion and politics among Jews in Israel will be familiar to rights activists from other contexts. Racism and nationalism are now features of Jewish religious extremism, just as they are for example among Hindu fundamentalists in India. Meanwhile, through organizations such as Kolech: Religious Women’s Forum, Orthodox Jewish women are reclaiming their religion and resisting fundamentalisms, just as for example Catolicas por el derecho a decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide) in Latin America and Sisters in Islam in Malaysia.

In Part 1 Dr. Weissman assesses diverse political trends among Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and in Part 2 she describes the impact of these trends on Orthodox Jewish women and their resistance to some of these gender discriminatory, racist and authoritarian tendencies.

See also the Article on Open Democracy Jewish. Orthodox. Feminist. Israeli.

How would you define religious fundamentalisms and which groups would this be in Israel?

Since Jews never take scripture literally, on the contrary we pile on layers and layers of commentaries and interpretation, in that sense this term is not applicable. But certainly many of the other features such as patriarchy, the attempt to use religion to manipulate people, to have power over them, intolerance, not making room for the Other, etc., unfortunately we do have movements in Judaism that embody those characteristics.

We don’t have any group that is comparable to the Amish, in the sense that nobody rejects the technological aspect of modernity. Even the Ultra-Orthodox fly in planes and use the Internet. But they definitely reject academic education. They reject feminism; the Ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel would not have a woman running for any public office. In the Ultra-Orthodox community, the ideal is for the men to sit and study all the time and not go to the army. The women work because they have to support the men; they may have 12 or 14 children and they also have to work, it is incredible. For many people, the army is the symbol of everything that is wrong, but up until recently for most of us being in the army was a way of showing that you are part of the civil life of the state.

They definitely reject Zionism as a modern political expression of Jewish identity. They use democracy the way many movements throughout the world use it: to get elected but they don’t embrace the content of democracy which is human rights, which is equality before the law…, so I think they are very undemocratic. One group of Ultra-Orthodox are so extreme they will not participate in the political process in Israel at all. The ones who do participate today I think are called United Torah Judaism (one of the issues of naming names is that they keep changing). The main party behind it is Agudat Israel, which began in Poland in the early 20th century. A friend wrote his PhD on the aspect of Agudat Israel ideology which says that you go to rabbis not only for specific Jewish legal questions, but also for any political or social question. He says that arose at the same time as the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility so there is even a connection there with a kind of Catholic fundamentalism if you will.

So, they use technological aspects of modernity and reject ideological structural aspects of modernity. Of course, I am creating an ideal type and there is variation…

There is another group that can be called the religious Zionist community. Not only do the men do army service but many of the women do the army or at least do two years of national service. They have large families but large might be six or seven children, not 12 or 14 like the Ultra-Orthodox. Up until recently they thought that it was fine to study secular subjects and go to university and participate in the cultural life of the country. There is a modern Orthodox film school, there are poetry journals, and they have art exhibits.

The ‘advantage’ of the Ultra-Orthodox is that they didn’t do the army, they weren’t violent, they didn’t have guns… In other words, they prayed but didn’t do anything terribly active to impose their views. Occasionally may have a demonstration in their neighborhood. So you can live with that.

In contrast, the religious Zionist community is so involved. The party which for many years represented them was called the National Religious Party. In the 2006 election, they formed an alliance with a very right-wing kind-of secular party so they no longer exist as a separate religious party. Called the National Union, it includes both religious and secular Knesset members. Obviously, the Zionist part of their ideology could be perceived as problematic, especially when it was in a very right-wing direction, the settlement movement, a kind of disregard for Palestinian human rights.

On the very fringes of that community, there was back in the late 60’s, a man called [C1] Meir Kahana, who certainly considered himself a Zionist; he did not consider himself Ultra-Orthodox, he went to university and came from a New York background. The man was a racist and an extremist and an embarrassment to many of us. Since his death (he was assassinated by a Palestinian in 1990), an interesting thing has happened - he is one factor, I don’t want to say he is the only factor. There has been a convergence of some, not all, but some of the religious Zionist right-wing and some of the Ultra-Orthodox. There is now a new phenomenon that is called Ultra-Orthodox nationalist, and in my opinion they combine the worst features of the two groups because religiously they are very similar to the Ultra-Orthodox. They have all the anti-modernist, anti-democratic, to some extent anti-feminist features of Ultra-Orthodox but they have the army, they have guns, they have a racist ideology. I am very worried about them.

The movement really started to develop in the last 10-15 years. One of the things that gave it a big push was the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which I personally thought of as a step in the right direction, although not enough. For many of my Orthodox colleagues in Israel that was a total disaster, it was a betrayal. They are being exiled from their homes. How could a Jewish government exile Jews? Even people who were more moderate got pushed to the right. Also many of the people who were uprooted from their homes, have not really re-settled properly. They are still living in temporary conditions and haven’t found appropriate work. On a human level, I can to some extent sympathize although that it is nowhere near the plight of the Palestinians.

What is the aim behind the Ultra-Orthodox entry into politics? Is it to capture the state and make Israel Ultra-Orthodox or is it just to protect their own right to exist?

Shas is a Sephardi or Mizrahi party and it is very strange because traditionally the Oriental Jews did not have all these Ultra-, modern, Conservative, Reformist [trends]; they were Jews, some were more observant, some were less observant, and because they didn’t have a Reform, they didn’t have a backlash against them for wanting them to be Orthodox. They had a very high level of tolerance. A strange thing happened after World War II: many of the talented Sephardi boys became educated in Lithuanian yeshivas, and they took on all the trappings of Lithuanian Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy but they found that they were being discriminated against because they were Sephardi. It was like a glass ceiling. So in the early 80s, they formed their own political party. It is a fascinating sociological phenomenon: most of the Shas voters were not Ultra-Orthodox themselves but voted an Ultra-Orthodox party into existence.


Because I think the party stood for ethnic pride and this is legitimate: they were being discriminated against. The party said “You can now reclaim your heritage, be proud of who you are, you can go back to your roots.” The weird thing is that their roots are not in Lithuania, so exactly what ‘roots’ are they talking about? They have a very charismatic leader called Ovadia Yossef. I waver as to whether I can call him a fundamentalist because on the one hand he has come up with some of the most outrageously racist and offensive remarks about Arabs, non-Jews, secular Jews, about left-wing. On the other hand, his daughter is a bit of a feminist who recently began a college for Ultra-Orthodox women to get a good education and get out into the work place. She cooperated with Kolech and with secular feminist groups. Also when he gives rulings on Jewish law, they are not necessarily strict: they are more liberal.

They have a tradition of being involved in politics in order to gain budgets and recognition for their own community. They do that in Poland, they do that in Israel. They have observers in the UN, lobbyists in Washington. Up until now they mainly cared about protecting their own interest, but now some of them are more activist and would like to turn Israel into a more religious state. I think it paradoxically shows that they are becoming integrated into Israeli society because they now care about the rest of the society.

I’ll give you the best example. Jerusalem for the first time in its history has an Ultra-Orthodox mayor. When he first came in, I thought “Wow, he is great” and that had to do with the gay rights march. The first year he said “I am the mayor of all the citizens of Jerusalem, and these people live in Jerusalem. I am not going to march with them but if they want to march that’s okay.” But he got so much pressure from his friends that he has retreated from that position, although we did have a gay rights march in Jerusalem heavily protected by the police. Maybe part of this conversion within the Ultra-Orthodox community is because there are more people going to work, more people chatting on the Internet under made-up names, exploring all kinds of possibilities. I mean there have been very interesting developments.

How far are these groups representative of the Jewish community in Israel?

All of these groups are still a minority. At least half of all Israeli Jews are committed to territorial compromise in the direction of a Palestinian state. In all the elections and all the opinion polls that is evident. Another thing is that - as a religious Jew maybe I should not be happy about this but I am happy - most Jews in Israel are not Orthodox. All together, all of these Orthodox that I am talking about are probably about 20% of the Jewish community in Israel. Fortunately, most Jews in Israel are either secular or traditional but not Orthodox. There is also a small group that is like me: modern Orthodox, left-wing politically and feminist.

Contrary to what some people think, Israel is essentially a secular state and not a theocracy. Where it is approaching a theocracy is in matters of personal status like marriage, divorce, conversion. Those are very important, but most people don’t keep getting married and divorced, so on day-to-day basis, you can live your life as a secular person. When I moved to Jerusalem in 1972, if you were a secular person and wanted to go out and have a good time Friday night, Sabbath, there were no movie theaters, there were no pubs. Now not far from where I live, you can go to the movies, you can hear music, you can eat, you can drink, you can enjoy. As a religious person who will not do any of those things, I am happy the option exists for people who want to do that.

Basically, most Ultra-Orthodox Jews live in their own communities and as long as you don’t drive your car through their streets, if you want to drive your car in another neighborhood they are not going to go out and demonstrate against that. One of the things that is true and here I am going to say also within the Palestinian community, the leaders do not always serve the interest of the people. I have met some more open-minded Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some of them are just regular people who say “You know what, if you want to sin, sin.” People like that I can live with. Also we have become a much more affluent society; not everybody but in major chunks of the population, people have cars. The fact that buses don’t run on Sabbath in Jerusalem does not prevent people who have cars and want to go out, and the beaches are very crowded in Tel Aviv in Sabbath.

If these tendencies only constitute 20%, what do you think it is that makes them so effective?

They are a visible and vocal 20%. They are also very well organized. For example all the children are in the same schools; they cancel classes for that day and bus the kids to a demonstration. They have power partly because they are perceived by some people as “Well we don’t like them, but you know they look like my grandfather did. They are probably the authentic Jews, keeping alive the tradition.”

We have a terrible political system. It gives a great deal of power to small parties. They weigh the balance between who gets to create a coalition and who does not. That not only it makes it difficult to struggle against religious fundamentalisms, it makes it difficult to proceed forward on almost any positive political or social agenda. I was one of the 500,000 or something who signed a petition to change the system but we only made it worse because then we had direct elections for the Prime Minister. It gave the smaller parties paradoxically more power not less. When the Prime Minister’s major concern at any given moment is staying in office because the coalition could fall apart, the government can’t function. Our cabinet is a political cabinet so you can have a minister of education who knows nothing about education and they are also concerned about staying in office.

You have to take into account the presence of two deeply traumatized communities, Israel and Palestine. Kids since they were born have been afraid to go out on the street either because you will get shot by an Israeli tank or blown up by a suicide bomber. I honestly don’t know how we are going to be in the future when we have so many deeply scarred people on both sides. I don’t think we are doing enough to handle that. But it gives me hope: sometimes there are meetings of Palestinian psychologists and Israeli psychologists, social workers, doctors who talk about that.

Is there any deeper questioning of the religious fundamentalists because once they are in power they don’t meet their promises?

Yes, I will give you one example. The Jerusalem Report magazine had a cover story in 2007 about Ultra-Orthodox Sephardi or Mizrahi families whose girls had been denied admission to some of the Ultra-Orthodox schools where they now have quotas for girls from non-Ashkenazi homes. The schools claimed that the non-Ashkenazi homes are less meticulous in their observance and this dilutes the level of the school and so on. These families want their girls in these school because scholastically you can do better, and it enhances your value in the match-making business: you could marry a man who studied at another elite yeshiva. They turned to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and these human rights groups took up the cause. The article reported that all of a sudden these families said “These secular Jews are not so bad, they are like good people, they care.”

Another example: a friend of mine gave birth in a hospital where most of the women are Ultra-Orthodox. She became friendly with a very Ultra-Orthodox in the next bed. At Hadassah Hospital you have Arabs, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and other Jews - whoever is giving birth. So there are places where this meeting going on and I think that is a very interesting phenomenon. It will take time but if we can begin to meet people on a human level then in the long run I think it helps. When you talk to someone it is harder to kill them. The most depressing thing for me is that I spent almost two weeks in Bosnia and I saw that people who were neighbours for 40 years had killed each other. It really challenged my belief in dialogue… but somehow maybe it makes it harder to kill each other.


Dr. Debbie Weissman is a Jewish educator, a founder of the Kehillat Yedidya Synagogue, and is actively involved with feminist and peace activism. She is President of the International Council of Christians and Jews and has lived in Jerusalem since 1972.

 [C1]Jane, pls leave Kahana – with an ‘a’ at the end even though Wiki give him an ‘e’.

Article License: Copyright - Article License Holder: Cassandra Balchin


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