‘This is the reality that currently exists in Israel,’ says the creator of Autonomies
War rages in the heart of the Middle East. Jerusalem is captured. Concrete walls go up, and a deep distrust spreads across the holy land.
The well-worn tale is used as the backdrop to multiple Israeli television dramas. Yet for one show, it is not Arabs and Jews who are doing the fighting, but Jews and Jews.
Currently touring film festivals across the world, the six-part series Autonomies envisions a clash between secular Jews and the deeply religious ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews.
In this vision, set in the near future, civil war has cut the land into two countries. The coastal State of Israel is nonreligious, with the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv as its capital. Jerusalem is a walled, autonomous city-state, run by Haredi rabbis.
At first glance dystopian, the show is in fact an artistic extrapolation of real-life rifts in Israeli society. Many Israelis increasingly see secular-Haredi disaccord about the future of the state as a greater concern than the Palestinian issue, and fear it could tear the country apart from the inside.
Earlier this year, disagreements between secular and religious politicians shattered attempts to form a coalition government and dragged the country into a second round of elections. On 17 September, Israelis will go back to the polls following a campaign in which political parties have sought to exploit internal animosity.
Yehonatan Indursky, an Israeli filmmaker who wrote Autonomies with the writer Ori Elon, says the show takes divisions in Israel “to extremes, and tries to show what can happen if we do not wake up and try to find the way to live together and respect one another’s way of life”.
The drama’s protagonist, Broide (played by Assi Cohen), is a Haredi man who moves contraband, smuggling pornography and books banned by the religious authorities into Jerusalem. He is one of a few who crosses between the two sides and is soon caught up in a controversy that could reignite the war.
The Israeli filmmaker Yehonatan Indursky, pictured, wrote the show with the writer Ori Elon. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo
The series comes off the back of the writers’ hit Netflix show Shtisel, which received acclaim for sensitively and lovingly portraying Haredi family life, and has been renewed for a third season. Autonomies instead paints a much bleaker scene.
“Autonomies gives a kick in the stomach. And sometimes it is painful and hard to watch,” Indursky said.
What is fascinating for many viewers is how similar the setting of Autonomies appears. Israelis today lament a nation already divided, with the Haredim often living in their own neighbourhoods, women covering their hair with wigs and men wearing black coats and hats.
To secular outcries, ultra-Orthodox politicians have sought to ban public transport and other activities on the Jewish holy day of rest, and outlaw non-kosher food in supermarket chains. They feel their way of life is under threat.
Meanwhile, resentment against them focuses on hefty government stipends given to the community, as many men do not work but study religious texts. Almost half live in poverty.
Indursky grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem but has not been part of the community for years, although he keeps close links with family and friends. He said he had received two main responses from Israelis to the series, both of which saddened him.
“One possible answer is that this is really not a dystopia but rather a utopia,” he said, adding some viewers backed the idea of separate countries to end seemingly irreconcilable differences.
“The second possible answer is that this is not a dystopia – this is the reality that currently exists in Israel. And in a way, that’s part of what we wanted to show through the series.”
The fissure between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities has already spiralled to the point that it ignited a political crisis this year.
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Start-Up Nation Central staff visiting teachers and students from a Bais Yaakov Seminary in Jerusalem in June. Photo courtesy of Start-Up Nation Central
Tel Aviv — Zehava Feinberg is a 19-year-old from charedi girls’ seminary in Jerusalem who wanted to study computer science after high school in the hope of landing a job at an Israeli high-tech firm.
“I like problem solving and math,” she said. “I’m looking for a job that I won’t be bored at. I want it to be a good salary. I also want to raise a family.”
In theory, there should be plenty of opportunity for Feinberg. Israel’s high-tech sector is thirsty for young programming talent and intense demand for employees has driven up salaries so high that many companies have set up programming operations outside of Israel to ease labor costs. At the same time, charedi communities are eager for women to find high-paying jobs to provide a higher quality of life for a population group in which men are encouraged to engage in religious studies and the poverty rate was a staggering 43 percent in 2018.
Despite that potential match, the prospects for young charedi women like Feinberg to find employment as programmers in Israel’s technology industry have been discouraging. In the last two years, nearly three out of every four graduates of vocational computer science programs at the Bais Yaakov schools, a network of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox girls seminaries with 8,000 students, did not find work with technology companies. The graduates who do get jobs in the field are usually employed in low-paid quality assurance jobs. At the same time, charedi women became convinced that the industry was biased against them, and often never even bothered to apply for entry level jobs.
But an educational pilot project is trying to improve the prospects for female graduates of charedi post-high school seminaries to find work in high tech. Dubbed “Adva” (small wave or ripple in Hebrew), the project aims to give high school graduates a post-secondary education on par with Israeli universities and colleges (institutions that are shunned by ultra-Orthodox as “foreign” and sacrilegious).
The two-year (three semesters) program also gives them programming boot-camp problem solving experience as well as interviewing and career skills necessary for the largely unfamiliar world of high tech.
Feinberg is part of the first Adva cohort — 86 students spread over three Jerusalem schools — and recently completed her first year of studies, which focused on catch-up math courses in statistics, calculus and linear algebra, as well beginning programming languages.
“Our math level was not such a high level,” said Feinberg. At the beginning of the year we had intensive math to bring it up just so we could learn.”
The curriculum has been developed with input and oversight from university computer science professors and executives from technology multinationals. The program is a joint initiative of Start-Up Nation Central, a non-governmental organization promoting Israel’s tech sector, the companies themselves and the Bais Yaakov network of schools. (Start-Up Nation Central did not provide exact figures on the cost of the pilot, saying only that the first year’s costs were “expensive” and that government agencies are expected to pick up some costs for the second year.) It also has the blessing of ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities.
The disconnect between Israel’s reclusive ultra-Orthodox community and larger society animates the country’s daily political debate and is shaping up as a major wedge issue in the Sept. 17 elections. Issues of military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds and charedi-enforced restrictions on marriage, dietary laws and Sabbath observance have created a bitter divide.
But that chasm also threatens the country’s economy: with low levels of employment, the impoverished charedi (and Israeli Arab) populations will eventually become a drag on public finances. Economists have warned that Israel needs to take urgent steps to better integrate the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs into the larger economy.
“We can’t sustain our economy if Arabs and charedim go their separate ways and don’t participate,” said Eugene Kandell, the chief executive of Start-Up Nation Central and a former economic adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The majority of relations between non-religious and charedi populations is driven on fear and non-familiarity. Each one thinks the other wants to change them and delegitimize their way of life.”
The Adva initiative began with Yisrael Tik, the head of external relations at Bais Yaakov and a former director of education for the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Ilit, who wanted to improve the job acceptance rate for seminary students studying computers. Tik discussed the challenge with colleagues on Israel’s Council for Higher Education (on which he also serves), who put him in contact with Start-Up Nation Central.
The first thing the stakeholders realized was that the vocational curriculum developed by Israel’s labor ministry for the seminaries was not up to par.
“The computer programs at seminaries don’t provide what the industry requires,” Tik said. “They were built for people who don’t attend university.”
As recently as a decade ago, nearly two-thirds of charedi women became educators within their own community. That figure has dropped to just over one-third, as more of the women find work as nurses and caregivers. For years teaching was the most prized women’s profession within the charedi community, but now, women with engineering education are also sought after as potential matches. Poverty rates among the ultra-Orthodox are dropping, but the community still lags far behind the rest of Israel.
“People are more practical now,” said Gilad Malach, who heads the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There is a need and wish for a lot of women to go into areas of high tech. Even within the community, there is an understanding that if a woman is working and earning a lot of money,” it frees a man “to [pursue] religious studies.”
Adva isn’t the first educational program to embrace the challenge of integrating ultra-Orthodox women into the tech workforce. Special courses at three Jerusalem academic colleges are tailored to ultra-Orthodox students, though only 130 charedi women are receiving degrees a year — far from the number necessary to help the industry or boost the standard of living of charedi families.
And more than a decade ago, programming companies like Matrix software opened offices in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Ilit to employ charedi women in a gender segregated work environment that offered flexible hours so employees could balance home life and employment. But those positions were outsourced programming projects with relatively low pay.
Instructors in the Bais Yakov program are all charedi women with doctorates in their respective fields. To overcome suspicions about the tech work environments, community rabbinic authorities visited the offices of technology companies taking part in the program.
But there is still ample resistance to women pursuing degrees in high tech. In May, at a conference for the parents of women studying at the post-high-school seminaries, Modiin Ilit Chief Rabbi Meir Kessler complained about husbands who encourage women to earn better salaries. He warned that “immodest” workplaces promote “evil” inclinations, mixing with secular co-workers and leave wives too tired to handle their roles as homemakers.
After the publication of a report on the program in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, a public leaflet warned the public that “the defense establishment” was behind a secret campaign to turn the charedi seminaries into academic colleges with help from “collaborators” from within the seminaries.
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Hardline ex-defense minister has relied on support from Russian-speaking Israelis, but polls show his refusal to capitulate to demands of religious parties is widening his appeal
AFP — In a former hotel turned social housing building for elderly Israelis from the former Soviet Union, one politician remains more popular than all others.
“Here, the vast majority of people vote (Avigdor) Liberman,” said Nadejda Yermononok, 75, referring to the gruff hardline leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party.
At the “Diplomat” building housing more than 400 people in southern Israel, residents call the ex-defense minister Yvet, the Russian version of his first name.
He has done so in part with his stand against ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which he accuses of seeking to force religious law onto Israel’s secular population.
He has also been seeking to end exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox from performing mandatory military service like most other Jewish Israelis.
In many ways, Liberman is the reason Israel is holding another election only five months after the polls in April, unprecedented in the country’s history.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority of seats in April, but Lieberman prevented his old nemesis from forming a coalition.
‘Only one who fights’
Liberman refused to agree to a coalition deal that did not include legislation that would seek to have the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military.
That was a deal-breaker for the ultra-Orthodox parties, which would have been an important part of the coalition.
Netanyahu opted for fresh polls rather than risk the possibility of President Reuven Rivlin selecting someone else to try to form a government.
And he harshly criticized Liberman, who headed the premier’s office during Netanyahu’s first term in the 1990s.
Liberman resigned as defense minister in November over a Gaza ceasefire deal that he called a “capitulation to terror.”
Most of Israel’s Russian-speaking population arrived in the 1990s, and those with origins in the former Soviet Union now make up some 12 percent of the country’s nearly nine-million-strong population.
ermononok said Liberman “is the only one who fights the special treatment the ultra-Orthodox get” from the state — echoing a common complaint from secular Israelis.
They “don’t work, don’t serve in the army, receive child benefits and all sorts of discounts in transportation, municipal taxes and education,” the former nurse said.
“Other Israelis, including the Russians, work like crazy, pay their taxes and send their children to combat units.”
Ultra-Orthodox men have been exempted from military service to devote themselves to religious studies since the creation of Israel in 1948 when there were only a few hundred to enjoy that privilege.
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Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox political parties have denounced Blue and White chairman MK Benny Gantz for saying he would exclude them from government if he gets the chance to form a coalition.Speaking on Tuesday night in Beersheva, Gantz said he would form a “liberal unity government,” without “extremists or extortionists,” widely seen as a reference to the ultra-Orthodox and right wing religious-Zionist parties.United Torah Judaism chairman and deputy health minister MK Yaakov Litzman and senior UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni said that “the cat was out of the bag” and that Gantz’s efforts to hide his positions regarding the ultra-Orthodox parties had now been exposed.“After he has tried for a considerable period to conceal his opinions and even did everything to separate himself from his partner Yair Lapid, today it is clear that there is no difference between them,” said Gafni and Litzman in a joint statement to the press.
Even on Tuesday, Shas chairman and interior minister Aryeh Deri said that if Gantz and his fellow party leaders would separate from Yesh Atid and Lapid they could join a right-wing, religious government that might be formed.But Blue and White has, over the last few weeks, been battered by Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party for his reticence to underline his commitment to liberal, pluralistic values.Whereas Blue and White obtained 35 Knessets seats in the April election, it is currently polling between 30 and 31 seats, while Yisrael Beytenu, which took just five seats in the April election, is polling between nine and ten seats.Yisrael Beytenu rejected Gantz’s comments saying that they were part of a coordinated plan between him and the ultra-Orthodox parties and that the Blue and White leader planned to bring UTJ and Shas into a coalition which Gantz would form if he was positioned to form a government after the election.
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Late last month, as Israel prepared for yet another round of elections, Ayelet Shaked ascended to the leadership of the United Right, a joint list comprising the primary factions representing the nation’s religious Zionist community.
While women have led Israeli political parties, none has ever risen to the pinnacle of political power in a bloc representing the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox community.
And even more remarkable, the 43-year-old mother of two is a secular Jew from Tel Aviv.
So who is Ayelet Shaked and how did she overcome decades of political tradition?
Growing up as a middle-class child in the Tel Aviv of the 1980s, Shaked could have been expected to develop into a left-leaning Labor or Meretz voter, a proponent of two states and liberal policies. But as Shaked told The New York Times in 2015, she experienced a personal revelation at the age of 8 when she watched Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir debate an opponent on television: She was swayed by his nationalistic perspective.
During their mandatory military service, some Israelis tend to shift to the right, at least for a while, and a stint as an instructor in the storied Golani infantry brigade helped Shaked strengthen her conservative political outlook.
“I just realized there will not be a solution right now,” she told The Times.
Like the coalition she represents, Shaked is staunchly pro-settlement and hawkish on defense.
Although she studied computer engineering and began her career working for Texas Instruments, Shaked pivoted to politics in 2006, going to work for then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as his bureau chief. She brought along with her the future Jewish Home party head and frequent collaborator Naftali Bennett, helping him make a similar transition from high tech to the dog-eat-dog world of Israeli parliamentary politics.
The two worked for Netanyahu for four years but left following a reported falling-out with his wife, Sara. In 2012, Bennett and Shaked entered the world of right-wing, pro-settlement politics. That was the year that Jewish Home — a party composed of the old National Religious Party and several smaller right-wing factions — held its first open primaries. Bennett, religiously modern Orthodox and politically hawkish, entered the Knesset in 2013 at the top of its list. Shaked took its fifth seat.
By the 2015 primary Shaked, having only finished her first term in the Knesset, was popular enough with the party base that she came in second behind Bennett, establishing her position as a leader of the nationalist camp. In a party traditionally led by older, gray-haired men, Shaked at 39 not only was an ideological torchbearer but literally a fresh face: a young, stylish woman.
A stint as the country’s justice minister under Netanyahu further cemented her popularity. With mixed success, Shaked sought to overhaul an activist judiciary that in her view handcuffed the military and undermined the right-wing elected government. She also helped pass a controversial bill that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Supporters said it made an obvious reality into law, while opponents attacked it for prioritizing an ethnic identity over democracy.
Her critics say she is a threat to that democracy.
“While Shaked was ‘polite,’ she was also a bulldozer that would run roughshod over liberal democracy,” Tamar Zandberg, a lawmaker representing the liberal Meretz party, said in a Facebook post. Her attempt to remake the judiciary is “not a misunderstanding of what democracy is, it is a desire to destroy it and establish the Jewish state, the settlements, and Jewish supremacy instead of the state of equality.”
In March, Shaked’s team produced a mock perfume ad featuring “Fascism by Ayelet Shaked” in which she posed like a model while a narrator taunted her liberal critics.
Whatever it takes to win
Both her effectiveness as a politician and Jewish Home’s move toward open primaries helped Shaked advance in the religious sector, according to Yair Sheleg, who researches the religious Zionist sector at the Israel Democracy Institute.
In many ways, he said, its followers consider the nationalist aspect of religious Zionism — settling all of biblical Israel, asserting Israel’s Jewish character — as more fundamental than the religious aspect. Many leaders in the community “can live with Shaked as the leader because she brings many more voters” than other politicians.
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