If Mayor Barkat Fires Rachel Azaria He will Betray Zionist Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-11

Related: J’lem mayor fires coalition member over court petition, JPost, 10-21-11

If Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat follows through on his threat to fire City Councillor Rachel Azaria from the coalition and take away her important portfolios of early childhood education and community councils, he will be declaring war on Zionist Jerusalem – the core constituents who elected him. Fortunately, the news reports treating the firing as a done deal were premature. This Thursday’s City Council meeting must ratify the decision. Everyone who cares about quality of life in a free, pluralistic, prospering Jerusalem should sign the petition demanding Rachel Azaria’s full reinstatement. If this grassroots initiative succeeds, not only will we be saving Jerusalem, we will be rescuing Nir Barkat from his self-imposed imprisonment to anti-Zionist, ultra-orthodox political bullies.

Rachel Azaria

The same redemptive spirit that elected Barkat in November 2008 propelled Rachel Azaria, a grassroots activist, to the City Council from the Yerushalmim Lo Mevtarim, “Jerusalemites Don’t Give Up” movement. Azaria, 33, now the mother of three young daughters, has dedicated herself to improving Jerusalem’s quality of life, focusing particularly on young Jerusalemites. She is a religious Zionist whose movement unites religious and secular, old and young, Sabras and immigrants, committed to reviving Jerusalem. She has performed her City Council duties magnificently, boosting the budgets for community councils, helping to open dozens of kindergartens, revitalizing neighborhood schools, and putting the issue of young families on the city’s agenda. “Before,” she explains, “everyone talked about keeping students. Now people in the municipality understand that young families are the key to our future too.” Full disclosure – I met Azaria during her campaign in 2007 and have supported her enthusiastically since.

Connected to her quality of life push, this religious woman has also navigated the complicated dynamics between ultra-orthodox haredim and their fellow Jerusalemites. She has fought to ensure that the Western Wall does not become a haredi synagogue but remains a unifying Jewish and Zionist space. She has combated haredi attempts to inflict gender segregation in public spaces, including her latest fight against gender segregation on Meah Shearim’s streets during Sukkot, a shocking imposition of fanatic, idiosyncratic, undemocratic, restrictions on public thoroughfares.

“I am not anti-haredi,” Azaria insists, visibly uncomfortable with the characterization itself. “I yearn for the way Israel was in the 1950s, when religious and non-religious Jews lived together in the same apartment building. We were all returning together, in the spirit of the prayer ‘Vahavieynu Leshalom Mearbah Kanfot Haaretz,’ G-d will bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth. But I object to all kinds of segregation – residential and gender. I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us. They are 20 percent of Jerusalem and are here to stay. We have to change the discourse that this is ‘our’ neighborhood or ‘theirs.’ Meah Shearim can’t be beyond the law.” This segregation, she notes, harms haredim too. She has fought equally hard to ensure that buses serve all of haredi Jerusalem, on this principle of equality.

Mainstream, “hegemonic,” Ashkenazi rabbinic and political authorities find this religious woman fighting from within tradition even more threatening than secular Meretz types. But, she notes, “I am the address for many disenfranchised haredim. They come to me begging for help, because I am willing to get my hands dirty.”

Rachel Azaria embodies the open, constructive, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist, pro-Israel, pro-Jerusalem spirit Nir Barkat himself embodies. She and her party represent the majority Jerusalem sensibility needed to make the city thrive. She is a poster child for all the aspirations of Zionist Jerusalem that Barkat stirred and promised to serve. He was absolutely right when he tried promoting her to deputy mayor last spring. And he was absolutely wrong when he succumbed to haredi pressure then. Even worse, he is now threatening to fire her on a technicality, based on the city’s marginal role in the lawsuit Azaria and others initiated opposing the gender segregation in Meah Shearim’s streets – which, she notes, many haredi women encouraged.

As a student of executive power, frustrated that Israel’s current Prime Minister lacks the spine to fire coalition members, no matter how incompetent or defiant, I understand Mayor Barkat’s discomfort with Azaria, his coalition partner, launching a lawsuit implicating the city, although Barkat also opposes the gender segregation. But, in a democracy, activists need to use a range of tactics. This move against Azaria seems too technical, too political, too opportunistic. The haredi press’s delight indicates that this palace coup has been long in the making.

The haredim are well-organized, appear unified, and control between 8 and 11 votes at different times in the 31-person City Council. Azaria’s –and Barkat’s – core constituents are more diffuse and more distracted, living their lives and making the city work rather than playing politics. If Barkat, however, figures he can continue disappointing Zionist Jerusalem, because no one else from that camp will run against him, he risks alienating so many we will simply stay home on Election Day. A surge of voters elected Barkat last time; elections can be lost by abstentions too. Barkat needs Zionist Jerusalem to rise up and free him, demanding Azaria’s reinstatement and promotion to deputy mayor. He should remember not just the 17,000 who elected Azaria but the tens of thousands who placed such hopes in him when he promised to bring this ancient city into the twenty-first century.

Rachel Azaria is Nir Barkat’s natural ally in this all-important mission. We, citizens of Jerusalem, and lovers of Jerusalem, must reunite them, not just by signing the petition, but by demonstrating that while we may not be well-organized or very loud, we care deeply about this special city, which remains the Jewish people’s capital, precious to many of us, religious and secular alike.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

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Why did 400 rabbis attack Fox News’ Glenn Beck and defend George Soros?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-1-11

American Jewry faces many crises. Jewish education is increasing in cost while often losing relevance, appeal, and popularity. In the Orthodox world, an obsession with petty, pedantic ritualism often obscures larger compelling ethical concerns while tolerating an untrammeled materialism. Among the non-Orthodox, the lures of leisure blot out a commitment to community, tradition, modesty, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Every year thousands of Jews drift away from Judaism, apathetic, lazy, bored. Beyond the Jewish world’s dwindling synagogues, dying organizations, declining schools, and decaying communities, Israel is enduring a vicious assault so systematic that many Jews internalize it, assuming Israel must be guilty of at least some of the many crimes people attribute to it. But, never fear. Amid this trouble, 400 American rabbis united, and spent $100,000 taking their stand – against Fox News and Glenn Beck, while defending George Soros.

I don’t get it. There are so many pressing issues for 400 rabbis “of diverse political views” to tackle.  There are so many fabulous ways to spend those anonymously donated non-transparent one hundred thousand holy dollars – because every charity dollar is sacred.

Moral leadership requires courage. Yet too many rabbis today seem afraid of their congregants. It is easier to bash Fox News than question congregants’ cushy lifestyles, their lazy worldviews, their phoned-in often phony Judaism. It is safer to target Glenn Beck’s obnoxious references to the Holocaust than to challenge congregants to change their lives, recalibrate their values, redefine and revive their Jewish commitments. Predictably, 400 Rabbis taking out a $100,000 ad in the Wall Street Journal to defend George Soros against Glenn Beck’s ranting fed more rants on MSNBC and elsewhere.

In fairness, many of the signing rabbis were sincere, even if it looked like they sought cheap notoriety hitting an easy target. Seeing that two of my closest rabbinical friends were listed at the top, I asked them why they signed the ad, which the Jewish Funds for Justice addressed to Rupert Murdoch and placed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is offended by Glenn Beck’s constant, sloppy, histrionic invoking of the Holocaust, to demonize those he dislikes, including the controversial financier George Soros. “It is worth paying attention to the way people use language around the Shoah- that’s a lesson I took from my classes with Professor Elie Wiesel years ago at Boston University,” Rabbi Ehrenkrantz explained.  “The Shoah is already poorly understood. And it’s even more difficult for the Holocaust to have meaning in people’s minds if the language surrounding it is cheapened.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also reacted to Beck’s polarizing demagoguery. “What I intended to sign was a strong statement that abusing the Holocaust to impugn politics with which one disagrees cheapens the memory of the Shoah and makes real conversation across the aisle impossible. It is abused on the left and on the right and it must stop,” Rabbi Artson noted. “Hence, I signed. I would have signed a similar statement against impugning President Bush or any other public servant. Differ with the policies, but references to the Shoah are destructive to the democratic process.”

I share my friends’ distaste for Holocaust-fueled histrionics. But they and their 398 colleagues missed repeated opportunities to denounce the sloppy invoking of the Holocaust when George W. Bush was president. George Soros himself did to George Bush what Glenn Beck does to George Soros. Saying he believed the White House was guided by a “supremacist ideology,” Soros said in late 2003:  “When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans… My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me.”  Moreover, too many of Soros’s fellow anti-Zionists frequently deploy the offensive, inaccurate Nazi analogy to bash Israel.

Yet with most American Jews often placing their liberalism before their Judaism, it does not take much courage for their rabbis to take on Fox News. Liberal rabbis attacking Glenn Beck is like stand-up comics mocking the bald guy in the front row. The laughs are cheap, easy, predictable but forgettable.  Moreover – and I say the same thing about Israel’s National Religious camp – theologians should beware confusing the clear lines of faith and morality with the messy compromises of politics and governance.

When drafting a call for civility regarding Israel, defining blue and white lines to affirm and red lines not to cross (www.restoringsanity.info), I learned the Zen of such declarations. If too bland, they lack punch; if too biased, they backfire. In these polarized times, finger-pointing in one direction when championing centrism is like Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol preaching abstinence while pregnant.

Predictably, the ad fueled the flames of partisanship. Rabbi Artson reported that the responses he received to his signing “skewed along political lines… conservatives deplored the signing as hypocrisy and liberals celebrated it as courage.” He asks: “Is there no one left who thinks, across the board, that using Nazi labeling is illegitimate whether it comes from left, center, or right? Is there a way to say that and for people across the spectrum to chastise their own when that line is crossed?”

This is where the rabbis’ collective wisdom failed them. In today’s polarized community, big tent civility must be nurtured, cultivated, taught. An ad with 400 rabbis complaining about loudmouths from both sides of the spectrum sloppily invoking the Holocaust would have worked; this ad, singling out only one manifestation of the broader problem politicizes complaints about the Holocaust. An ad with 400 rabbis calling for a more respectful tone in politics, acknowledging abuses from both sides of the spectrum, would have worked; this one-sided ad risks reducing a call for civility to a partisan battering ram – which we certainly don’t need.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “Ronald Reagan: A Very Short Introduction.”