Thursday, April 18, 2013

Maikel Nabil, Anat Hoffman, and Me

Last night I attended a presentation at my childhood synagogue of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton by Israeli feminist Anat Hoffman.  Temple Beth El is a Reform congregation.  And I have since moved into the Conservative and Orthodox worlds.  I feel most comfortable in the Conservative world because it seeks to combine adherence to halachah or Jewish law with egalitarian values. 
But Temple Beth El was my childhood synagogue, and I was happy to have a reunion with this community.  I saw Robin Eisenberg, who is still the director of religious education at the synagogue as when I was a child.  I enjoyed Rabbi Dan Levin's oustanding introduction to Ms. Hoffman's presentation.  I got a big hug from my childhood rabbi, Merle Singer.  I saw Rabbi Dan Levin and met Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Brockman for the first time.  I also met Steven Beck, a childhood friend who now works with Anat Hoffman at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).  IRAC fights for religious pluralism and against gender discrimination in Israel.  I was surprised to see that Steven was not even wearing a kippah (head covering) because I had heard that he went through a long phase of experimentation with Orthodox Judaism.  He was Orthodox for 7 years but is now secular and lives in Tel Aviv, the secular heartland of Israel.
I listened to Ms. Hoffman’s humorous and thought-provoking presentation.  And she was amused, surprised, and gratified when I told her that she has some followers in Egypt.  I specifically mentioned to her that my dear friend Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian dissident, pacifist, and pro-Israel supporter has spoken out in her defense.  I want to share the following entry from Maikel’s blog with Ms. Hoffman, which confirms his outspoken defense of her. 

>> 08 January 2011

Israel should free Anat Hoffman, the Israeli Activist who was arrested because she prayed in front of the Wailing Wall. Israel shouldn't let Fundamental groups affect secularism in Israel. I'm against any separation between sexes ( in Egypt & Israel ) ... Secular activists in both nations should unite against discrimination we face by fundamentalists.

Maikel is an atheist, and he opposes all forms of gender discrimination and segregation.  He also believes that liberals and secular actiivsts in both Egypt and Israel need to unite against fundamentalist religious fanatics.  Maikel posted this blog entry less than 3 months before the beginning of his own 10 month ordeal in prison.  Maikel was originally sentenced to 3 years in prison for challenging the military.  He was released after ten months following a 4 month hunger strike during which he was in a coma twice thanks primarily to the support of the German people and government. As a pro-Israel supporter and Egyptian peace activist, Maikel understands better than most people the links between the struggle for basic human rights in Egypt and the campaign to improve and strengthen Israel's democracy.

I now want to address some specific elements of Ms. Hoffman’s presentation.  I was outraged to hear that an Israeli radio station refuses to hire women and to allow women, including female members of the Knesset, to speak on the air.  Such gender discrimination is flagrant and unacceptable and needs to end immediately.

She also mentioned that IRAC had challenged gender segregation on public buses in Israel.  Initially I thought that gender separation on public buses was acceptable in haredi (strictly Orthodox) areas because it is in accordance with the customs of these communities.  But once Ms. Hoffman explained how it worked in practice, that women were literally forced to sit in the back of the bus, I understood that this practice was humiliating, discriminatory, and unacceptable.  I am glad that IRAC has helped to end such policies. 

She said the Women of the Wall, an organization that fights for women’s rights at the Kotel or Western Wall, is a North American invention.  The goal of Women of the Wall is to bring American democratic principles into Jewish religious observance in Israel.  Every month on Rosh Hodesh, a group of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish women hold a prayer service at the Kotel.  They read from the Torah, receive aliyot, and pray with tallitot (prayer shawls). 

But because the Kotel is run like an Orthodox synagogue, women are barred from wearing a tallis, singing aloud, and reading from the Torah.  And these feminist activists are systematically harassed by Haredi Jews who throw chairs at them and by the police who sometimes arrest them.  I have mixed feelings about the Women of the Wall.  On the one hand, I share their objection to the exclusion of women from the Orthodox prayer service, and for this reason I tend to pray in egalitarian Conservative synagogues.  I can understand the reasons why Haredi (traditional Orthodox) Jews object to such prayer services even though I don’t agree with such objections. 

On the other hand, I have also spent enough time praying in Orthodox environments that I have become accustomed to and comfortable with Orthodox prayer services.  I had the opportunity to pray at the Kotel for a few hours during my visit to Israel in 2007.  I felt very much at home at the Kotel because it reminded me of the Orthodox synagogues where I had spent many years praying.  I picked up a siddur (prayerbook) and davened shacharit (morning prayer) and felt a deep and moving spiritual connection to this ancient site.  Touching the Wall and putting a note in the Wall was an incredible experience that met my spiritual needs. I didn’t feel at all persecuted, victimized, or silenced as a woman because I felt I was visiting an Orthodox synagogue.   For this reason I probably wouldn’t join the Women of the Wall services because I don’t feel the need to pray in such a vocal fashion at the Kotel. 

But I also listened to the stories of women at Temple Beth El who expressed deep personal anguish about being subjected to a mechitzah (prayer divider) and being deprived of the opportunity to participate in a vocal prayer service at the Kotel.  I understood that the Orthodox prayer structure at the Kotel does not meet their spiritual needs because it clashes with their deeply held belief in egalitarian prayers.  I feel comfortable suspending my egalitarian beliefs temporarily while praying at the Kotel, but many other American Reform and Conservative Jewish women want to pray at the Kotel in the same egalitarian fashion as they pray in their hometown synagogues.  For this reason they attend mixed gender egalitarian services at the Robinson’s Arch, and they also participate in Women of the Wall services on the women’s side of the Kotel.   

I had to think carefully about this complicated and controversial issue.  I finally concluded that I support the rights of Women of the Wall participants to pray on the women’s side of the Kotel in their own fashion.  Such prayer services clearly meet the deep spiritual needs of many Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish women who want to pray vocally at the Kotel.  I realized that I can support the efforts of some of my fellow Jewish feminists even though I don’t feel comfortable participating in them.  I also am revolted by the way that Haredi Jews violate the sanctity of the Kotel by throwing chairs over the mechitzah at the Jewish feminists who are engaged in a sacred prayer service.  And I think the police clearly should not arrest and harass Jewish women simply for praying as such arrests are clearly a flagrant form of gender discrimination. 

I also support Ms. Hoffman’s proposal that certain hours of the day at the Kotel should be made available for egalitarian prayer, while other hours should be set aside for Haredi forms of prayer.  I think such proposals are meant to create the opportunity to share the Kotel and find such ideas intriguing and worth considering.  I support Sharansky’s efforts to expand the Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian prayer but expect that such proposals will take many years to be implemented and face many major obstacles. 

Now I want to mention of my friend Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad’s latest article.  Unlike Maikel, I support conscription in Israel.  But I think conscientious objector Natan Blanc should be offered the opportunity to participate in national service projects such as working in a kibbutz, as a firefighter, in environmental protection,  as a medic, or as a hospital volunteer.  I think national service is better for Mr. Blanc than prison. 

I was appalled and outraged to learn that Egyptian conscientious objectors such as Emad Dafrawi and Mohamed Fathy are not allowed to work and study.  I greatly appreciate Mr. Dafrawi’s support for Israel and the Jews and admire Mr. Fathy’s courage in refusing to join an army that has murdered civilians since the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011. Employers who dare to hire them face up to two years in prison.  I have also faced systematic discrimination in the workplace by employers who refused to hire me because of my autism.  In the USA, employers are not faced with the threat of imprisonment for hiring autistic people, but they face social ostracism for doing so.  I have been intentionally deprived of a livelihood due to discrimination for 16 years, and so I can empathize with the Egyptian conscientious objectors who cannot work because of their beliefs.  And I am also appalled that these young men cannot travel or even hold a passport.

Finally, I spoke via facebook with Maikel’s brother Mark, who told me that he is still being denied the freedom to travel outside Egypt. Mark is being harassed in part because of his leadership in the Egyptian pacifist movement founded by his brother Maikel.  And Mark is also being treated by the Egyptian regime as a hostage, and the regime is trying to intimidate Maikel from speaking out against them by holding his brother a hostage.  International pressure is needed to demand that the Egyptian regime immediately allow Mark his human right to travel freely outside of Egypt and stop violating his freedom of movement. 

No comments: