Tzvia Greenfield: peace activist, leftist, Israel's first female Haredi MK
Greenfield is an enigma. She is a fierce critic of her own community's attitudes to the peace process and modernity - 'incapable of compromise' -Yet she still lives in it.
Tzvia Greenfield. Israel's first Haredi female to be elected to the Knesset, she is a fierce critic of her own community's attitudes to the peace process and modernity; describing the Haredi community as being "incapable of compromise." Yet she still lives in it, a resident of the Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof.
Of course, her horizons are far broader than the narrow vista of ultra-Orthodoxy. The 62-year-old, who has a doctorate in political philosophy from the Hebrew University, was elected on behalf of Meretz last November. She advocates a two-State solution based closely on the pre-1967 War borders; a self-proclaimed egalitarian, she?s in favour of women rabbis and religious pluralism.
The mother-of-five, who sent her children to national religious high-schools and both her sons to the army, arrives as expected wearing a sheitel (one that looks like a sheitel) and a long dress. Slightly surprisingly, she initiates a handshake and accepts the interviewer's offer of a cup of tea in a Holborn café.
She then speaks candidly about her prospects of influencing change: she is unsure that Israel's left can be revived - she's not sure they can awake secular Israel from its "slumber"- and feels compelled to channel change in her own back-yard, despite disillusionment about the trenchant positions of the aredi world, which her Austrian "ultra-Orthodox Zionist parents" brought her into.
She describes the "haredization" of parts of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh as "killing" those places: "Once they take over a community no one else can live in - like in some parts of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh - that's unacceptable. That is something people won't tolerate because they want to live their lives. One neighbour cannot impinge on the other's rights; it's true the Haredi community doesn't understand its task in a democracy. It believes when its population grows in a territory, the whole area should be governed by its rules.
She added: "An essential part of adjustment is in being a minority; the problem is when they become a majority. They are already driving people out of Jerusalem and not just the secular - but the modern Orthodox; because they cannot tolerate this. If the Haredi community gets large enough we won't see nice developments."
Slated by large parts of that world - she received death threats after her best-selling book in 2002, which criticised the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and its embedded attitudes that impinged on the peace process - she would like to see "Tel Aviv State," which she regards as the ?engine room? of modern Israel, being more politically active.
The trouble is she believes secular Israel is "fatigued." "Secular Israel will continue to be in a slumber because it sees no end to the peace process." She believes it will only truly awaken when there's a workable two-State solution.
In the meantime she's trying to alter the Haredi community's "extreme aversion to moderation." "Education is the key to bringing about progression," she says.
Her non-interventionist liberal instincts means she defends its right to promote a school curriculum that bares little resemblance to the national model: she believes a "balanced" approach is necessary in seeking to bring the Haredi world into the modern age, without assaulting its delicate nuances. "Interfering in questions of education is particularly sensitive and fragile," she argues. "Thinking from all sides, I think society has to ensure Haredim aren't poor. Despite Israeli society?s investment it's a very poor community."
The irony is she believes Haredi women - who she says are so "subjugated' but do get at least some educational opportunities- can help bring about change. "The education at my strictly Orthodox Beit Yaakov school in Jerusalem was infinitely better than what my brother received," she says.
"I hope ultra-Orthodox women, who often work to support their husbands in their (Torah) learning will seize their greater opportunities," and presumably carry out a feminist revolution that will help to push the whole Haredi community into modernity.
Not that she can see that just yet: "They still have to take enough courage to make their input into society significant because they are still hushed down and still internalize that as a legitimate position. They are gathering power but they won't put it in front of society what they offer," she says.
"The big issue here is a very delicate one. That is children. Large families thirty years ago was six children; now there's 13 or 14 - from one wife. I believes the glorification of bringing as many children as possible is a definite way of ensuring women can?t bring their advantages into effect - subjugation.
It's inconceivable for a woman to say to her husband, 'I won't have more than three children'- a cause for divorce. Inconceivable and non-existent.'"
How does her home community view her? "They disagree with my ideas but they know me as religious and halachic person. They tolerate me because they cannot see any blemish in my practice except for one thing- we have a dog. That's unacceptable in ultra-Orthodoxy.
"When I published my book several years ago criticising the ultra-Orthodox community, I received hundreds of death threats and hatred letters - but they didn't know me. I was never approached personally."
Not that she blames the ultra-Orthodox community for everything. She feels the country has been let down by a succession of 'Conservative governments' in every sense. They don't want equal rights for women, Arabs, anyone; any progressive left issues. They want to sabotage these things."
Can Meretz deliver change? "I'm not sure. I think the left all over Europe and particularly Israel has severely failed on many assignments and I think the left should profoundly reconsider its goals and how it goes about them. To me after years of being a peace activist it's a shameful situation and I think it's unacceptable not to look at ourselves.
"I'm speaking about the left in Israel - although of course it's elsewhere as well- and we need to ask very difficult questions. Im trying to think what would be the best way to solve this problem and what would be the political agenda that could actually do it."
Q and A
Why did you go into politics?
I decided to do it at the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1992. I was shocked by the attitude of the religious community to the peace process and the possibility of the idea of compromise over the land. It was horrendous to see what happened to my own community and I decided that I had to do something about that and to somehow influence my own community
How did you do to go from academia to having a political influence?
I?m one of those people who tries to organise people who would not normally voice their opinions, because they are too busy, or are afraid to say out loud what has to be said. The point is to actually organise them and make sure their voice is being heard. That's the way to get into politics. Then you try and get into the centres of power in which decisions are being made and make some significant improvements.
When you said you were concerned with attitudes towards attempts at peace during the Oslo process, were you particularly worried about sentiments within the Haredi community and the way that community views compromise and progression?
Not necessarily. I meant the Orthodox community as a whole. Its modern Orthodox branch, Haredi branch, Zionist branch. They reacted so badly. The reaction was general.
How did the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin affect the way you viewed Orthodox Zionists?
I was actually at the event and not far from Rabin. The fact it was a religious boy who did it just made it so clear to me that the whole approach of religion altogether is wrong. I talk specifically of Judaism of course but I think that's probably a general assumption about Islam and other traditional religions. Religious people have difficulty grasping essential ideas like peace, compromise and accepting others. These are difficult issues and they've got to be worked out.
Bearing in mind you say some religious people have difficulty with compromise how would you like to see change stemming from the religious world?
I'm writing a book on the subject. After criticising for many years the attitude of religious people and writing a book that was a best seller several years ago and receiving great many harsh reaction in response to my opinions, I decided I had to write down what I think and that would be the best way to explain how one could retain ones religiosity and faithfulness to ones position and yet encourage profound changes.
I have one answer to your question. I think a religion ought to be concerned with human beings and not objects. Too often traditional religions have a great interest in objects and not enough in human beings. That has to be shifted completely. The emphasis and the concern should be entirely different and there are ways to do it.
Do you think the demonstration of the human side of the Judaism has been lost?
I think there is not enough concern about human beings, and I mean human beings in general, including non-Jews. As a religious person I believe that all human beings were created in the image of God.
What we've seen in Israel in the last thirty or forty years ever since the '67 War is a concern with land. That's an object. It's become the centre of attention for religious people and I think that's a major mistake and I think that should be changed.
But isn?t historical attachment to the land of Israel the basis of Zionism?
But for some people it comes down to very specific pieces of land. It's amazing how much importance one would assign to a certain place which is a place after all.
Of course as a religious person I certainly value historical and also metaphysical significance and I certainly don't treat these things disrespectfully. But I think that the question of human lives and values really ought to be higher up in religious eyes.
You refer a lot to pre-'67 borders and that you would like to see a two-state solution going back as far as possible to the pre-'67 state. Is it possible at this juncture?
That's a very serious question. I think it can be done. Some people think it cannot be done anymore. I don't believe that's the case if we are determined enough to know what's at stake here and the necessity of having two-states and getting back more or less to the borders pre-'67.
I think it's essential to the survival of Israel as the Jewish democratic state. Otherwise well very soon have one state which is either depriving Palestinians of any rights, or we would lose altogether our Jewish state because the majority of people between the sea and Jordan river will be Palestinian. Already the numbers are almost even and they are going to definitely outgrow us.
Either way we are going to lose the Jewish democratic state which has been the prime of Jewish energy and creativity in the last 2,000 years ever since the Talmud was established. This is the greatest Jewish project and I don't want to see it lost just because we are foolish enough not to understand what's at stake here.
How can your goals be achieved within Meretz and can it exert enough influence politically to make them happen?
I must admit I have my doubts with regard to that (Meretz's ability to wield power) and it's important to readjust and make new assessments. Can Meretz survive and deliver? I'm not sure. I think the left all over Europe and particularly Israel has severely failed on many assignments and I think the left should profoundly reconsider its goals and how it goes about them. To me after years of being a peace activist it's a shameful situation and I think it's unacceptable not to look at ourselves.
I'm speaking about the left in Israel - although of course it's elsewhere as well- and we need to ask very difficult questions. I'm trying to think what would be the best way to solve the problem and what would be the political agenda that could actually do it.
If we branch out beyond the peace issue. Where do you stand on issues of religious pluralism and the rights of all sects of Judaism to have equal funding with regards to conversion programs and education?
Of course I support pluralism. People have to make their choices and decide what's for them. There's no way the state should direct on what or how they should do things. Every citizen should be a free subject to make his or her decisions without any input by the state whatsoever.
What do you think about the Gafni Bill, which states that the only private schools eligible for full local municipality funding are Haredi schools despite the fact they go nowhere near following the state curriculum?
I think all schools should be treated equally including the ultra-Orthodox. With regards to the curriculum, in a democracy it?s difficult to force people to do things they don't want to do. To force people to have a better education in a community that doesn't want it, is not a light issue to me. I would not hastily do that.
However, I think that it's the responsibility of the community itself to take responsibility and if it's failing to do that it becomes the responsibility of society at large to ensure the future of Haredi students so they will not be dependent on other people when they are grown up.
The ultra-Orthodox community should of course be supported by the state but I also think it's dependent on this community to accept a better general education for the children so they can provide for themselves. Very simple.
How can the state provide the community with a broader range of opportunities without undermining Haredi ideals?
I?m not sure. These are very delicate issues. In general I?m not in favour of forcing people to do what they don't want to do. We do force people in a democracy to pay taxes, to go to war and not everyone want these things. By and large a democracy should diminish what it forces people to do. Interfering in questions of education is particularly very sensitive and fragile.
Thinking from all sides, I think society has to ensure it's not poor. Despite Israeli society's investment it's a very poor community.
When can the state decide that the cost which stems from the perpetuation of poverty within a community needs to be dealt with?
I think people should be respected for what they feel, believe and spend for. A democracy is not a democracy unless it does it. A majority should not decide for a minority what to do. However, if the minority is damaging its future, including its children's - they are totally subjugated to the decision of their community. The issues are complex. But decisions have to be made carefully and need to be very attuned to these communities and yet need to do what has to be done.
How would you, as a progressive Haredi, advocate it modernises its approach to self- governance?
Education. Education is the answer to everything, The fact that it blocks general education to its community is part of the problem because they never really understand what is going on and make their own decision. I would try and allow these people to get education without breaking down the system altogether, without enforcing education on them in a way which cannot acceptable, not only for them, but even for me. I don?t believe in enforcing it brutally; it has to be done carefully.
The very fact it's living in the modern world, is affecting it. We are talking about the younger generation that will make decisions about what they are doing. In both America and Israel.
They are re-evaluating the world that their parents have brought them into. We're probably going to see changes in the next 20-30 years. After all, they do not want to be poor.
You hope that the secular and Haredi worlds can live side by side but at the moment even the modern Orthodox are getting annoyed with the Haredim as the recent riots in Beit Shemesh prove.
Once they take over a community no one else can live in - like in some parts of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh - that's unacceptable. That is something people won?t tolerate because they want to live their lives. One neighbour cannot impinge on the other's rights; it's true the Haredi community doesn't understand its task in a democracy. It believes when its population grows in a territory the whole area should be governed by its rules.
How can the Haredi community curb its militism towards non-Orthodox groups?
In principle there shouldn?t be inherent problems. However, an essential part of adjustment is in being a minority. The problem is when they become a majority. They are already driving people out of Jerusalem and not just the secular, - but the modern Orthodox; because they cannot tolerate this. If the Haredi community gets large enough it won?t be nice developments.
The Haredization of Jerusalem is already here - how can this situation be clawed back?
The community is poor, uneducated and very militant - the combination is lethal. It will kill Jerusalem.
What do you think about the issue of segregated buses.
Firstly, I personally participated in an initiative in Jerusalem in which women, and some men - about 100 of us - went up onto buses which separate women and men and the women in our group insisted on sitting at the back of the bus. We did it for the whole morning, getting much press. Of course that doesn't lead to the real results but something was done to turn the attention of the public to that.
Second, and it was part of my doctorate published several years ago. The last chapter was an philosophical analysis of the separation of women and men in response to an article written by an expert on jurisprudence in South Africa saying there was no problem in the separation of men and women in buses and it can be totally accepted if the community wants it.
I thought it was a shameful position- typical to a post-modern position which doesn't take into account women in these communities. It?s a reckless position and a big chapter in my doctorate was dedicated to a philosophical analysis of that rationale. We have to fight against segregated buses but we'll lose ground because instead of protesting people cooperate.
Isn't it what, at least part of the Haredi community wants?
I think it's a whole new trend and a controlling mechanism. Zealousness is an active process; people always searching for new ways to express their commitment. It's regressive.
How can the Haredi leadership recognise the need to modernise?
There is one factor in favour of modernisation- poverty. Some of the leadership recognises and is concerned by this. Although the politicians would recommend poverty should be paid for, the leaders have a deeper approach. Certain changes must occur. First women join professions. Later on some men join. Things will change. Young men will be encouraged to join colleges. Already now there are a couple of colleges where Haredi girls are accepted to law or commerce school.
What do you think about the status of women in the Haredi world?
Firstly, women are subjugated everywhere. Secondly, it's not one-dimensional, because women get better education than men. I went through the Beis Yaakov system and I know what I learned compared to my brother- who learnt nothing. Women are modernised more than men because they are offered basic opportunities society gives. They still have to take enough courage to make their input into society significant because they are still hushed down and still internalize that as a legitimate position. They are gathering power but they won't put it in front of society what they offer.
In a way they hold the balance of power. A feminist argument would be they could use that as a way of promoting their status and rights and lift the Haredi world towards modernism?
The big issue here is a very delicate one. That is children. Large families thirty years ago was six children; now there's 13 or 14 - from one wife. I believes the glorification of bringing as many children as possible is a definite way of ensuring women can't bring their advantages into effect - subjugation.
It's inconceivable for a woman to say to her husband, "I won't have more than three children" - a cause for divorce. Inconceivable and non-existent.
Do you think there should be Orthodox female rabbis?
I'm all for it. I think if women want to serve as rabbis in religious function they should be given the right to do so. The issue of depriving women a religious position is part of deprivation of women from positions of power. Women don?t have equal rights in Judaism because they never had them in any field of life- a general result of subjugation.
How are you viewed by the Haredi community?
I live in the Haredi community of Har Nof. I think they treat me as people generally do when they have contradiction on their hands. They treat me separately from my ideas.
They disagree with my ideas but they know me as religious and halachic person. They cannot see any blemish in my practice except for one thing- we have a dog. That's unacceptable in ultra-Orthodoxy.
When I published my book several years ago criticising the Ultra-Orthodox community, I received hundreds of death threats and hatred letters - but they didn't know me. I was never approached personally.
How do you view the role of the New Israel Fund?
It's a rarity in Israel. It's a foundation from the left. It takes care of essential issues no one else takes responsibility for: equal rights, pluralism, justice. These major issues are not taken care of by anybody. It's not that people don't care for them, but we don?t have this activism on a civic level. It's a unique foundation.
Why is there a lack of state involvement in social issues?
The state has been run by conservatives who don't want equal rights for women, Arabs, anyone; any progressive left issues. They want to sabotage these things.
I've mentioned "Tel Aviv State'- those who are the backbone of Israel: its industry, army, etc. Why does this group not do more; demand change? Therefore the question is not why doesn't the government change: it's not going to. Since Golda Meir and Menachem Begin it's almost always been right-wing. That's in both economic and every other aspect. The real problem is that people are fatigued; people want their own private lives to be in order because they can?t control other things, like the Palestinian situation. Once peace is achieved I believe there will be energy to change social issues.
If secular Israelis are "fatigued" who can bring about change?
The good thing is it's not simply secular versus ultra-Orthodox. There's also modern Orthodox groups, who value the role secular Israelis play.But things will only fall into place once we give back the occupied territories. Then there will emerge a strong sense of reason. As long as we're stuck with the greater Israel it's impossible for the country to develop, because the peace process is too entrenched.
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