Fear the Frum

Were the New Israel Fund a newly landed Martian’s only source of information about Israel, he’d likely imagine the country as a cross between Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

In the extraterrestrial’s mind it would be a place where women are forced to sit in the backs of buses and the sound of their voices prohibited from being heard. A place where religious extremists eschew democratic values and control the government and national discourse.

(Our Martian would be stunned to actually fix his multiple eyes on Tel Aviv’s Rechov Dizengoff—or, for that matter, Jerusalem’s Rechov Ben-Yehuda. He’d be stupefied by the unfettered operation of Reform, Conservative, and Messianic places of worship. The Knesset would utterly blow him away.)

The NIF’s latest Big Lie took the form of a big ad—a full-color full-pager, in fact—in The New York Times and the Forward. Maybe the latter periodical ran the ad gratis, but the Times charges $175,000 for a color page. Even discounted, it cost the NIF a pretty penny.

Actually, the one it cost is Murray Koppelman, as noted in the corner of the ad. Mr. Koppelman, an Upper East Side money manager, is a major supporter of the group—he has pledged $500,000 in matching donations to it—and is featured on a video the NIF produced.

In the clip, the grandfatherly Mr. Koppelman reminisces about his youth. Shortly after Israel’s declaration of independence, he spent time on two kibbutzim and, after deciding that “I don’t want to be poor,” embarked on what appears to have been a successful career.

During his kibbutz days, though, he recalls visiting Yerushalayim and how “it always distressed me, as I walked through the religious sections of Jerusalem,” to see “these women… walking behind their husbands.” He wondered “what kind of life they lead” and about their inability to “really show what their capabilities were to do better for the world, rather than just to look up to their husbands, who become their god.”

Mr. Koppelman may not be a Martian but he, too, could benefit from a dose of reality. (He can start with a visit to my house.). His imaginings aside, the organization benefitting from his largesse is using it to renew its batty battle-cry that Israel is becoming a theocracy.

The new NIF ad is dominated by a photograph of another ad, on a billboard in Israel. It features a woman’s face but only half of it is there, as part of the ad has been torn off. The large words in the NIF ad ask: “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EXTREMISM CROWDS OUT EQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY IN ISRAEL?” The word “EXTREMISM” is written in such large type that it takes up an entire line, symbolically “crowding out” all the others. (The damaged ad-in-an-ad was itself posted by an NIF-supported group that opposes “gender separation in the public sphere” and supports a “pluralistic” Jerusalem.)

Although no one can know whether the defacing was the work of religious Jews or those who seek to vilify them (such “proxy” vandalism is not unheard of in Israel), the problem here is vandalism, not impending theocracy. And the solution is to catch and prosecute vandals, not to wax alarmist or besmirch a community.

Likewise, when an individual Jew, whether motivated by religious zeal or lesser stimuli, acts improperly, the problem is that individual—not the larger religious community.

Yes, that community’s democratically elected Knesset representatives seek to maintain the standards of the Jewish mesorah in Israel regarding things affecting the essential integrity and unity of the Jewish people, like issues of marriage and divorce.

And, yes, observant communities deserve respect in things like the routing of traffic on Shabbos away from their neighborhoods, and even by permitting some buses servicing their neighborhoods to offer separate, voluntary, gender-separated seating. But such accommodations of the observant population do not a theocracy threaten. The model here is not Iran, but the Israel of the past 64 years.

It’s painful to recognize, but no less true for the fact: The same sort of intransigent ill will that so many Arabs harbor for all Israelis is harbored by the NIF and its supporters for religious ones.


The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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