It is intriguing to imagine what Israel's founders would think of Israel at 65. The changes in Israel over its short history have been extraordinary across every dimension. Economically, culturally, technologically, in medicine, agriculture and education, Israel's achievements belie its age, size and the enormous obstacles it has faced and continues to face.
Political issues tend to dominate discussion about Israel but each anniversary of Israel’s independence is a chance to celebrate the vision upon which Israel was founded -- of a democratic state in the land of Israel giving renewed life to Jewish national self-determination.
This vision included complete social and political equality for all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender, and was enshrined in Israel’s founding document. In many ways, this vision has been realised. Israel has a vibrant and creative democratic culture, and an enviably strong economy. But as with all democracies, there is still work to be done.
The disparity between Israel’s mega-wealthy and its poor is one of the largest in the developed world and is increasing. Palestinian Israelis and Israelis of Ethiopian and Mizrachi backgrounds are more likely to experience poverty and disadvantage. Despite basic civil equality for all citizens, Palestinian Israelis face discrimination in employment, educational opportunities, and in allocation of state resources, an issue recognised by successive Israeli governments.
And we can be sure that Israel’s founders would not have envisaged that control over religious matters and matters of personal status would be so squarely in the hands of an Ultra Orthodox rabbinate. This control results in lack of choice and severe difficulties for many Israelis when it comes to marriage, divorce and burial. It also results in real discrimination against the practices of large numbers of Jews in Israel.
These issues have been highlighted by the activism of Women of the Wall, a group comprised of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative women who have met each month for the last ten years to pray at the Kotel. Many women have been arrested and detained for saying Kaddish, wearing tallitot, and reading the Torah at the Kotel, activities which breach the regulations set by the Kotel Rabbi.
The persistence of these brave women has created real political pressure, and the Prime Minister has now referred the matter to the Jewish Agency to broker a compromise. If agreement is reached, it will take time to implement, but, excitingly, this may be a significant step in the long battle for religious equality in Israel.
For now the women continue to meet once a month. Their work is an example of real results achievable by grass roots activism in Israel. NIF is proud to support the Women of the Wall and other organisations working for religious freedom in Israel.
On behalf of NIF Australia, we send a heartfelt yom huledet sameach (happy birthday) to Israel, with the wish for the next 65 years for an open, pluralistic and democratic Israel at peace with its neighbours and itself.
Robin Margo, President
Liam Getreu, Executive Director
P.S. The New Israel Fund is collecting signatures in support of Women of the Wall and to ensure that the Kotel is a place where all Jews can pray freely. In two days, more than 3,000 people signed the letter, and it would be great to add your name to the list.