Foreign workers in Israel: In which Naftali Bennett and I agree.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

Here’s a thing that doesn’t often happen: I find myself agreeing with, and grateful to, Naftali Bennett.

Among the portfolios held by Bennett in Israel’s government is that of the Ministry of the Economy, and in that capacity, he’s ordered a broad campaign to investigate the exploitation of migrant workers. Already, the results are shocking: The ministry reported on Wednesday that 90 percent of businesses investigated have been found to be in violation of their workers’ legal rights:

The suspicions included failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime compensation, delaying payment, excessive work hours and failure to provide vacation time. Fifty inspectors took part in the sweep.

“We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “We will continue to be on the ground. We will not allow [businesses] to treat the law as just some sort of recommendation.”

Moreover, Haaretz reports, the ministry has been responding directly to workers’ complaints (though it’s not clear if these complaints have come from Israelis, foreigners, or both), opening more than 1,700 investigations so far this year, 60 percent of them in response to information from laborers. “Close to 5,000 workers have been questioned in enforcement activities since the beginning of the year, including 700 foreign workers.”

The importance of such efforts cannot be overstated, and they are long overdue. As much as I may criticize Bennett on other fronts, he deserves real credit for taking action to help Israel’s vulnerable residents, whether citizens or not.

There is, of course, much more to do. The new campaign only covered Tel Aviv, and only took in 160 businesses. There still remains the excruciating issue of the deportation of migrants workers’ children, many of whom were born in Israel; in one case in 2012, at least seven children died of malaria as a direct result of their deportation. There are the stomach-turning conditions under which many migrant workers are forced to live. There are the tales—far too many tales—of brutal arrests and expulsions suffered by workers who have arrived illegally, including shackling the legs of children and the forced return to regions in which the migrants’ lives are in clear and undeniable danger.

And then there’s the case of Palestinian laborers, who are often prey to Israeli contractors who extract exorbitant fees for legal work permits yet still leave anyone arriving from the West Bank to the mercies of the military’s sporadic enforcement of the Security Barrier (involving everything from attack dogs to rubber bullets). Palestinians who don’t cross the Green Line but rather work within settlements are legally entitled to the same benefits as any Israeli worker, but frequently work under dangerous conditions and for less than half of Israel’s minimum wage—not to mention the billions of shekels deducted from Palestinians workers’ wages to pay for social benefits that they do not receive.

Israeli citizens also have much to complain about: Some 11 or 12 percent of Israeli businesses regularly violate the country’s minimum wage law, a problem that Haaretz recently reported is “more common in Israel than in most other Western countries.”

Unsurprisingly, those who suffer the most minimum wage violations are the poor: 39 percent of workers in the lowest economic decile earn less than the minimum wage…. But minimum wage violations also affected middle-class workers, including 16 percent of those in the fourth decile.

Attorney Gal Gorodeisky, who specializes in labor law, said many employers aren’t afraid to break the law because they think workers will be either too afraid or too ignorant of the law to sue them.

It’s good that Naftali Bennett has begun to tackle one of these many shameful problems—I can only hope that he’s willing to continue the work that he’s started, and remember all the weak and vulnerable: Israeli, Palestinian, and foreign alike. As an Orthodox man, Bennett is probably intimately familiar with the Scripture that will be read in all synagogues around the world as we fast in atonement for our misdeeds on Yom Kippur:

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Training the world – on little girls and body image.

I maintain something of a bi-cameral approach with regard to writing about my children: I write about them, but I don’t use their names (their last name is different to mine, which helps); I write about them, but I write only happy things, or uplifting things, or things that are far in the past. Nothing that would embarrass them, nothing that is truly personal and private. I owe them that, I think. They didn’t ask to be born to me.

Today I’m going to break down that wall, though, because I believe my own daughter’s well-being actually, in a very broad way, depends on it. If you know my girl, or if you ever meet her, I’m asking you here and now: Please don’t discuss the following with her. It would, genuinely, make her sad.

The girl.

The girl.

But how am I to remain silent, when she sits in the back of my car, tears streaming down her face and wondering, in a tiny and strangled voice, if anyone will ever love her?

The girl is tall, and broad, and strong, and round. She is 10, and as she has throughout her young life, she has a belly. It’s not small – it’s a real belly. The kind of belly that many young girls have until they reach puberty, and which is usually eclipsed by the appearance of breasts. As girls grow into women, our shapes change — but they don’t usually change entirely. Mine didn’t. If you were born big and soft (9 lbs 3 oz, and she was four weeks early), you’re never going to become anything much different, unless you literally do physical damage to yourself in the effort.

“Do you think I’ll ever be skinny?” she asked in that same car ride.

No, honey, no. I do not think you will ever be skinny. “Skinny” (like “fat”) has no real value, it tells us nothing about the worth or even the health of the person, it’s a descriptor. It’s like “tall” or “blue” or “left handed” – it describes something, it doesn’t tell you that thing’s worth. Or, worse yet, we’ve made “skinny” (and “fat”) into a weapon, a weapon we use to wound people.

These are almost exactly the words I used with her in the car, words very similar to words she’s heard her whole life — or, at least, since the first time she was called “fat” and understood it to be intended as a cruelty, when she was 4. When she was 9, she could already use the phrase “objectification of women” correctly.

And the other day, in that car, tears streaming down her face, she finally said “I know, but you’re training me. You’re not training the whole world.”

My daughter is exactly as God and her genes intended her to be: She is funny and lights up a room and won’t take no for an answer. She is very smart and loves being very smart and can sit in a corner and read for two hours at a stretch. She will spontaneously dance to just about anything, and will run around the playground with her friends all afternoon if time and homework allow. She is a person of healthy appetites, in all senses: She would like a bigger bite of the world, please, and also some more ice cream, while you’re up. She thoroughly enjoys her food, except when she doesn’t, at which point she can’t be bothered to have another bite. She knows that too much ice cream isn’t always good for her body, and she is learning that sometimes “no” is the best answer — but she’s always heard “no” from time to time, and always had that “no” acted upon. Her diet is healthy, and she knows that, too, and likes it. She is also, if I may, beautiful. Gorgeous, in fact, with milky-peachy skin and deep brown eyes and hair that falls in waves all around her beautiful smile.

But the girl lives in the world that her father and I cannot reach, she doesn’t live within our arms. She lives in a world where 10 year old girls are already so bone-deep aware of how we treat women who do not fit a certain, very narrow, paradigm that they worry they will never be loved. She worries — a lot — what strangers think of her when they see her from a distance; she worries that the people who know her are kind only because they know her.

She is 10. She is healthy. She is strong. She is wicked smart. And she sat in my car, weeping about her body.

There is only so much her father and I can do, only so much real science we can bring to bear on the lies and misapprehensions peddled by the diet industry and swallowed whole by those around us. There is only so much we can do about the fact that every adult woman she comes in contact with is steeped in the same lies and misapprehensions, the vast majority of them openly bemoaning their sacred bodies and bonding over self-loathing. “I’m getting fat!” one of the girl’s friends said at school the other day, a friend who is so slight she might blow away on the next strong wing.

There’s only so much I can do. It’s already in her. And even though I never say it out loud, it’s in me too. I hate it, but there it is, telling me how little I’m worth because I refuse to punish my only body for being something other than that which I am told it should be. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me, how furious it makes me, to know that this is what she feels and what she faces. I’m weeping as I type. And there’s almost nothing I can do. I cannot train the world.

But maybe, maybe – if we all work together, maybe if we’re kinder to ourselves and each other, more loving toward these fabulous machines that move us through our lives, less willing to accept shaming that cloaks itself as wisdom – maybe together, we adults can make the world in which our little girls are growing into wonderful women a better place. Maybe.

Please help me. We’re the adults. My daughter, and probably yours, needs our help.  They need our love.

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UPDATE: My Twitter friend Kris Lindbeck sent me the lovliest essay I may have ever read about human bodies — all of them. Please click through to read. “I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness.”

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UPDATE 10/6/13: All of a sudden this post is getting a ton of love from Facebook, and I’m very grateful — and Facebook is not the easiest thing to search, so I honestly don’t have any idea why today, or what the source(s) is (are). If it’s you – thank you!

A post for 9/11: Muslim American heroes.

In honor of all we lost on that terrible day, a short list of just a few Muslim American heroes. I don’t know the first man’s name, but aside from being a hero, it would seem he’s also a very good friend.

  1. 9/11 first-responder

  2. Mohammad Salman Hamdani, 9/11 first-responder – A 23 year old paramedic, Mohammad Salman Hamdani died trying to save lives at the World Trade Center. After his death, Hamdani’s Muslim faith was seen as reason to suspect him of collaborating with the terrorists — thankfully, the truth of his life and death eventually came out. Rep. Keith Ellison evoked Hamdani’s memory at Peter King’s hearings into the “radicalization” of American Muslims, breaking down in tears as he did so.
  3. Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, US Army – Twenty years old when he was killed by an IED in Iraq, Cpl. Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan’s military awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal, a bronze star, and a good conduct medal. His unit was scheduled to ship home a month before he was killed, but the 2007 surge extended Khan’s combat tour. His story came to the forefront of America’s discussion of Muslim patriotism when Colin Powell discussed Khan’s sacrifice at some length on Meet the Press in 2008.kareem-rashad-sultan-khan
  4. Rep. Keith Ellison – This country’s first Muslim member of Congress, Rep. Ellison (D-MN – see above) is sharp, compassionate, and a dedicated advocate for the civil rights of all Americans. On a personal note, I will forever be grateful to him for being one of the very few members of Congress to ever travel to the Gaza Strip, and for defending the good name of Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the much-maligned but little-read Goldstone Report on Israel’s 2008/09 war in Gaza.
  5. Farhana Khera – President and Executive Director of Muslim Advocates and the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, Farhana Khera previously served as Counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. She also worked for six years under Sen. Feingold (D-WI), Chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee at the time. Her areas of expertise include racial and religious profiling and American civil liberties, about which she has said: “After the horrific attacks of 9/11, and the realization that the American-Muslim community was bearing the brunt of new, overly broad laws and policies, and some of our fellow Americans feeling perfectly fine abridging our rights, it was incumbent on us as Americans and as Muslims to step forward and fight for the founding values of our country.”
  6. Farouk El-Baz – Today the director of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing, Dr. El-Baz served as the Supervisor of Lunar Science Planning for NASA’s Apollo Program from 1967-1972, and then went on to establish and direct the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. Perhaps of even greater weight and import, however, Dr. El-Baz had a shuttle named after him in Star Trek: The Next Generation (!):

el-baz-shuttle5And finally a video that I just love, the work of of Muslim-American country singer Kareem Salama and filmmaker Lena Khan. To learn more about the clip (which won the grand prize in the One Nation, Many Voices short film contest in 2008), read this post by my friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt.

If you have some names you’d like to add, I’d be very grateful if you did so in the comments. 

السلام عليكمas-salamu alaykum – peace upon you, and on us all.

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If you’re interested in reading some Muslim responses to terrorism (spoiler: they’re against it), click here.

For my thoughts on how we write about terrorists who happen to be Muslim, click here.

And finally, please note that the above is an edited version of a post I first ran in 2011.

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Israel’s seemingly contradictory attitude toward separating religion and state.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, two bits of seemingly contradictory news emerged from the Jewish State.

On the one hand, a new poll shows that 61 percent of Israeli Jews favor separating religion and state, a hefty nine percent rise over last year. Eighty-three percent of those with an opinion said Israel should grant its citizens freedom of religion and conscience, and 62 percent think any kind of wedding, religious or civil, should be recognized by state authorities (currently, unless held overseas, only wedding ceremonies conducted by Orthodox rabbis are). Perhaps the most remarkable (and telling) figure is this: 51 percent of those surveyed said that the relationship between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews “is the most difficult conflict in the Israeli society,” with right-left political tensions coming in at a distant second (23 percent).

On the other hand, we have this:

The government on Sunday gave the go-ahead to the Religious Services Ministry to establish the “Jewish Identity Administration,” an ambitious new initiative meant to foster a stronger connection to national Jewish heritage among Israelis.

The new, 5-million-shekel ($1.4-million) initiative was one of Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett’s demands for joining the government coalition.

That is, even as Israel’s Jews are becoming more comfortable with the notion of letting folks decide for themselves just what being a Jew means, Israel’s government is investing what little money it has in teaching Israelis how to be Jews.

But of course, these things are not so much contradictory as joined at the hip.

The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have always held a monopoly on official Jewish expression in Israel—how to get married, how to get buried, and which rabbis are paid from state coffers—but for the most part, when faced with a monolith that didn’t offer meaning to the average secular Israeli life, secular Israelis have accepted the rabbinate’s power as something beyond their ken. You brush elbows with the black hats when you get married, and bemoan your cousin’s decision to become religious and join them, but other than that, hadati’im hardly touch your life.

Or so it would seem, but in recent years, secular Israelis have gotten something of a crash course in just how much the Orthodox do, in fact, touch the lives of all Israeli Jews, because those in positions of power have either tried to extend that power, or have impinged on the rights of the non-Orthodox with impunity.

Suddenly, the papers were full of stories about little girls facing a barrage of spittle on their way to school; contretemps over where non-Jewish soldiers may be buried in military cemeteries; images of women literally forced to the back of the bus—not to mention the growing ultra-Orthodox population, and associated increase in government budgets allotted to support a community that doesn’t serve in the military, or, indeed, have almost anything to do with the rest of Israel.

Secular Israel—the Israel that looks to Europe and America for its cultural clues, the Israel that can read the siddur but doesn’t know what it says—might not like to think about it, but the undue power and unremitting mutual hostility are actually a result of political decisions that it signed off on, from the state’s earliest days. When Israel was first established, most of the pioneers believed that ultra-Orthodox expressions of faith would go the way of the dinosaur, and that handing out special privileges for political gain didn’t pose any threat.

Sixty-five years later, though, with Israel’s religious right going from strength to political strength and nationalist Orthodoxy at the heart of both the military and state leadership, the tension has become more and more apparent, in no small part because nationalist Orthodox politicians like Naftali Bennett continue to make efforts to codify an ever-narrower definition of who may count themselves a member of the Jewish national home.

Under the circumstances, I’m not surprised that a growing number of Israelis (secular and otherwise) would like to see a little more daylight between the Orthodox religious establishment and the daily lives of the country’s Jewish citizens.

But they, in turn, had better not be surprised that Bennett wants to teach them a thing or two—if Israelis really want freedom of conscience, they may have to fight for it.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Rosh Hashanah + general madness.

pomegranate-1000There is a a kind of busy-ness in my life right now, both personally and professionally, that is boggling my mind and robbing me of all kinds of time. I don’t know where to start or where to begin, and I honestly don’t even have time to try to figure it out. Alas! And alack.

At any rate: Rosh Hashanah starts this evening (personal busy-ness), at which point I will be off the tubes until at least Saturday night (two day holiday followed immediately by Shabbat), but then I’ll be gearing right back up, that very night, into the professional busy-ness, much of it related at this point to a class I’m teaching on mass media and politics at Lewis University (home of the fightin’ Flyers!), not to mention the usual writing and whatnot. So. Who knows when you’ll see me again?

Hopefully soon, but I honestly don’t know. All of September and the front half of October is more and more and more of the same, and I fear that even the limited blogging I’ve done over the summer might be too much for me. I hope not, and I hope I don’t lose you all together. For I love you so!

I’ll do my best. In the meantime, if you’re celebrating: Shana tova u’me’tooka! May this be the year in which we finally know more of peace than of war.

xoxo,
ellaesther

Update: Over on Twitter, Yasmeen Serhan reminded me of this post that I wrote for Rosh Hashanah in 2010, about longing for home and wishing for peace. It’s all still true.

Abbas cancels Rosh Hashanah party with Israeli politicians.

Mahmoud_Abbas,_Davos

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

On Friday I wrote that Israeli Finance Minister and Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid had forbidden his Members of Knesset from attending a holiday party scheduled for today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Lapid was of the opinion that attending the event would undermine Israel’s negotiating position. I expressed some wonder at this decision, however, because just two weeks earlier, three Yesh Atid MKs had not only met with Palestinian officials in Budapest, they and the Palestinians had agreed that a future peace deal would look very much like the Geneva Accord, a draft agreement that includes two states based on the 1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem.

Well. It turns out that Lapid need not have worried: Abbas’s own people have put the kibosh on the party:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a pre-Rosh Hashana toast with more than 30 ministers and Knesset members that was set for Tuesday because he came under pressure from the anti-normalization movement in Ramallah.

Abbas invited the Knesset’s Caucus on Ending the Israeli- Arab Conflict to his headquarters in Ramallah after a Palestinian delegation was greeted by 30 MKs and ministers and a Palestinian flag at the Knesset on July 31. That meeting emphasized the need to have a show of force in Ramallah to boost the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But the anti-normalization movement, which is strong inside Abbas’s Fatah party, criticized him for meeting such a high-profile Israeli delegation so soon after the IDF killed Palestinians in recent incidents in Jenin and Kalandiya.

As an American-Israeli Jew, I can’t presume to tell Palestinian nationalists how to approach my people. Me and mine are in the position of power in this conflict, and those who struggle against military occupation have a limited number of tools at their disposal. And indeed: The Israeli military just killed Palestinians—if Palestinians had just killed Israelis, it’s a good bet that Israeli parliamentarians would not be going to Ramallah for a pre-holiday toast. (Moreover, as Peter Beinart so eloquently documented in the New York Review of Books yesterday, American Jews have their own anti-normalization movement—we just don’t call it that).

Furthermore, the gathering might not be permanently cancelled: According to Labor MK and caucus head Hilik Bar, the Palestinian officials behind the now-cancelled event have promised him that they’ll reschedule. “I told the Palestinians that if this is not the ideal time, we can do it after the holidays,” Bar said. “I want the President [Abbas] to feel comfortable and hold the meeting in the best environment possible.” It could be that just as Lapid didn’t raise a stink about the earlier, more quietly held meeting in Hungary, Abbas will be able to pull off a less high-profile event.

But I do despair a little bit more every time one side or the other refuses to so much as sit at a table with their opposite number (apparently the supply of despair is bottomless). These things do not—cannot possibly—replace a rigorous examination of the conflict, its perpetuation, and the possibility for resolution. They are not a substitute for the difficult and painful process of letting go of decades-old habits and fear in order to forge a path to mutual respect and self-determination for a people too long denied their rights.

Yet it also cannot be denied that no genuine peace will be born or survive without the million smaller moments in which two enemies learn to see each other as people. And the irony of Fatah’s anti-normalizationists being on the same side as Yair Lapid isn’t lost on me.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.