Jewish Journal


February 26, 2013

Q&A:  ‘Israel is also the country of the Jewish people, not only of the Israeli people’



Dr. Ruth Calderon

Dr. Ruth Calderon is an Israeli politician and Talmud scholar who was recently sworn into the Israeli parliament as a member of Yair Lapid's 'Yesh Atid' party. Prior to her election, Calderon was a very public figure in the Israeli Jewish education scene, founding the Elul Beit Midrash- the first Israeli secular, pluralistic, and egaletarian Beit Midrash for both men and women- and the Alma College for Jewish education.   

In the past couple of weeks Dr. Calderon's maiden speech as a Knesset member has received enormous amounts of attention, becoming the most watched Knesset speech of recent years.

Dr. Calderon, your first speech as a member of the Knesset - in which you unconventionally taught and discussed a page of Talmud- recen received a lot of attention and became somewhat of a 'web-sensation'. Were you surprised by the reactions? What did they teach you?

Yes- I was surprised. I definitely did not expect it to get 180,000 views on Youtube. Regarding what I've learned from it- I suppose it's that the best thing for me to do is to be myself.

In the speech you said that you aspire to a situation in which all of Israel's younger citizens take part in carrying the burden both of Torah studies and of military and civil service. Are the two equally important to you? Do you think that the Israeli education system should include more Torah studies, even for the secular majority?

I feel you are asking two different questions here:

Are they are both equally important to me? The answer to this is yes. The important thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is that while today a huge and unacceptable amount of Haredis get exempt status from the army in order to study Torah, I believe that a Torah studies exemption or special status option should be available to excellent scholars from all streams of Judaism (but only to a select few of them- based on merit- just like we award special status to exceptional athletes and musicians). The civil responsibilities need to be shared and the Torah study effort should be equally open to all streams and affiliations.

Should it simply be 'open to' everyone or should it be encouraged and invested in?

That brings me to your second question, about the school system-

It's not something that isn't already happening today: I was part of the Shenhar committee some 20 years ago and we encouraged adding more Jewish studies into the public school curriculum. We are not in the same place we were two decades ago. Of course I think it's important. What I think should be encouraged is knowledge rather than practice.       

Some people might say, though, that while extensive Jewish heritage studies- even if the framework is a cultural one- could be taught in many ways, they could also be used and exploited in many ways as well (they could be a platform for the promotion of nationalistic propaganda in elementary schools, religious indoctrination, etc'). Is this not- to a certain extent- explosive material especially in the case of young impressionable people?

You know, in this country we study Bible 2-3 times a week starting from the 3rd grade and so far the Bible doesn't seem to be exploding... There is a lot of energy and strength in the text but I think that's exactly what young people need. Teachers should show the students how to treat the texts seriously but leave the part of religious interpretation to the student. 

I think Ignorance is weakness and knowledge is always power. It's too bad that people grow up without essential knowledge, be it secular people who don't know such a big part of their cultural heritage or Haredi people who don't know the languages of math, English or computers. What I would like to see is people having knowledge of both worlds and integrating them in whatever way they see fit. I'm not here to tell people what to do, but I think ignorance, any kind of ignorance, is never a good thing. 

In your speech you mentioned that you agree with Naftali Bennett's call for unity between the religious and secular citizens of Israel. Is the spirit of your party's call for unity and understanding between secular and religious people really similar to that of Bennett's? Do you believe that the secular public in Israel should take steps towards the religious population?

Well, what I connected to in Bennett's speech was his metaphor of soldiers carrying a stretcher and how if all of them don't make an effort the stretcher would simply fall at some point. I wasn't talking about unity or endorsing Bennett's positions.

As to my own position- I believe that different expressions of Jewish life should be living peacefully side by side. Communities have the right to decide on their own identity. What's important to me is that the resources will be available to different communities not based on affiliation but according to individual citizens' needs. I'd like to see something along the lines of a religious voucher system, in which each citizen has coupons which he or she can invest in whatever organization which fills his or her religious needs.

This is all in contrast to what is happening today, when the government decides which religious institutions receive the public funding and these are always orthodox or ultra-orthodox ones. A huge amount of money is devoted every year to Jewish education but none of it is directed towards the secular and pluralistic movements.

Your party- Yesh Atid- has continuously stressed the importance of a more equal distribution of civil responsibilities, especially concerning the ultra-orthodox population. What's the ultimate goal of this process- To make the ultra-orthodox community less ultra-orthodox, to simply make its members more economically independent (while remaining as they are in other aspects), or to make sure they don't have the political power to change the nature of Israel? What's the real goal here?

I feel the real goal here concerns not only the Ultra-Orthodox, but also Israel's Arab population: today the army is a major place where you build your identity in Israel. For many years afterwards people ask you what you did in the army and that's a huge part of people's lives.

Unfortunately, both the Arab Israelis and the Haredi Israelis are kept out of this experience. The new concept that Yesh Atid is promoting is that every 18 year old person in Israel will be called to a center and, after the army recruits as many people as it needs, everyone else will engage in some form of civil service which will be an opportunity for young people to get to know each other (Haredi, Arabs, secular Jews). Those two years would help more people enter the Job market.

Today, 45% of Israelis carry the whole weight of country's economic burden. Most of the others- including large portions of the Haredi and Arab populations- don't take part in the economic effort and in the tax burden. This situation is impossible. We believe that two years in a kindergarten, a national park or a fire brigade would help these people join Israeli society and the public space.

That being said, I don't want to change the Haredi population- I appreciate and respect them and their way of life. I think we have a lot to learn from them.   

What can we learn from them? Would you like to elaborate on that?

There are a lot of things- I feel that the Haredi population gives us a special way of connecting with our ancestors in Europe who perished in the Holocaust. I think that the way they take care of their weak and their poor by virtue of 'Gmilut Hassadim' is also something very impressive which I'd like to see more of in the general population. I also think that it's great to see a society which isn't about shopping and having but about studying and other values.

There's a lot of culture there. A lot of it is positive and can give the Israeli public space a special feel and color which I do not want to completely lose. Now, of course I don't like walking in Mea-Sha'arim and being yelled at, and I refuse to see women forced to sit at the back of busses, but though there are a lot of problems in the Haredi society that doesn't mean that the whole culture is wrong.

But do you see secular Israelis really employing Haredis? Do they want to? Can we genuinely expect integration on a large scale?

Yes: for sure. Some of it is already happening. Why not? They are Jews and citizens just like us. I would also like to see Arabs and Druze and non Jewish populations working together. I think that would be great and would make for a much more interesting public sphere, in many ways like the US, where devout Muslims can work with Jews and Christians and it seems natural to everyone.

Do you think these elections will have an impact on the relations between Israel and between Diaspora Jewry?

Yes. I think that if we join the coalition we will make this a serious priority. I personally think it is extremely important that Israel remembers it is also the country of the Jewish people and not only the country of the Israeli people. It is paramount that we have respect and sensitivity towards Jewish communities abroad- in North America and elsewhere- where there are forms of Jewish life which are different from the ones we know here. I don't think enough work has been done on the relations with Diaspora Jewry and I don't think we have been sensitive enough towards Jews who want to see in Israel a kind of home.

That brings me to my next question- How supportive is your party of the fight for the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel? How unified and resolved are the different members of Yesh-Atid regarding the promotion of Jewish pluralism, Civil Marriages, reforming the conversion system and solving the Kottel issue?

First of all, we need to understand that the structure of the Jewish American community- where there are a lot of Reform and Conservative Jews- is very different from that of Israel, where the majority of the population is secular. Here the reform and Conservative Jews are a minority. The members of Yesh Atid are very diverse in their Jewish Identities and I can't say that we are all united in our Jewish identities. But we do have a proposal for changing the current status quo- a proposal I worked on together with Shay Piron and Aliza Lavi- one that will take on a multitude of different issues- including the holy places, conversion, kosher food- which we believe Israeli society has yet to resolve.

I'm not sure we will manage to immediately solve all these issues, but we do wish to propose changes to the current status quo in which the default definitions and criteria for Jewish identity are always the orthodox-Haredi ones. We want more equality when it comes to the holy places, Kashrut, conversion and Marriages.      

How ‘Jewish’ do you think Israel should be and in what ways?

I love that Israel is a Jewish state, the country of all the world's Jews. I adore the Hebrew language, the Hebrew calendar, the feeling of the holidays (now you can see kids dressing up everywhere for Purim) – I've always how the public sphere has a very special and particular color.

That being said, seeing that we're the majority here, it is extra important that we be sensitive to the minorities- we always need to make sure that the fact that we celebrate our culture doesn't make them feel excluded, or make them feel not at home.

I remember being in the US during Christmas-eve and noticing that it feels quite lonely being a Jew on Christmas. While there is a separation between church and state there, the holidays are very Christian in their nature and it's quite hard not to feel it. I often remember that feeling when we celebrate our holidays here and I want people who aren't part of our holiday to still feel at home.

Many pundits have claimed that the recent elections- and the exceptional success of your party- have signified the marginalization of the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the Israeli public sphere (in favor of more day-to-day concerns). Do you think that’s accurate? Was the peace process a non-issue in these elections?

No, I do not think that: one of the five principles which we specifically stated in our campaign and which we are now demanding in the coalition talks, is that of returning to the negotiation table with the Palestinians. I don't think that our emphasis on sharing the civil burdens conflicts with our commitment to peace with the Palestinians and the two state solution.

But wasn't this issue a bit less emphasized these elections (not only by Yesh Atid)?

Well, in these elections there weren't people who don't want peace- There's no strong division between left and right like there was in the past. The vast majority of the current mainstream political players want the conflict to end. It's not as if 'the left is willing to compromise and the right is against it'- the right has already returned Gaza.

Yesh Atid has been very vocal about the two state solution and I believe that if we'll be in the coalition, you'll see the government immediately sitting at the negotiation table.

I can't say I'm that optimistic about the problem coming to a swift end though. I'm not sure that we have a partner for an immediate solution, but of course Yesh Atid is interested in seeing one.

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