What is the most important challenge facing Israel today? Most of us can recite by heart the usual answers: Terrorism, lack of unity, anti-Semitism. But according to virtually every one of the twenty speakers at last month’s ninth Ramle Conference, the answer appears to be the threats facing the nuclear Jewish family.
Organized by several groups, principally Hotam and Komemiyut, the conference brought together experts from various fields, all of whom had a significant take on the subject. Attendees represented a varied cross-section of the population, from Ramle pensioners to policewomen, as well as National Service girls, social workers, legal experts, a Hesder yeshiva dean, yeshiva students and rabbis, grandmothers, and others.
What are the threats to the family that render the topic so critical? The most immediate threat has apparently been neutralized – for now – but many of the speakers feel the ideology that drove it is still very much in force. The reference is to a proposed drastic change in Israel’s “Parents and Children Law” – and it was only intense lobbying by pro-family activists that prevented the change from being voted on in the Knesset.
The proposal would have stricken the clause defining parents as a child’s legal guardians (authorized to represent the child before the authorities, to decide where the child will live and go to school, etc.), replacing it with one defining a new concept of “parental responsibility” consisting mainly of parents’ obligation to respect and uphold a series of “children’s rights” as defined by the bill. This “parental responsibility” could be limited or obviated by a court, should the authorities decide a parent is not carrying out his or her “parental responsibility” properly.
Social worker Ronit Smadar-Dror, founder of an organization called L’tzidchem (By Your Side), spoke of another threat to normative family life.
“Contrary to common misconception,” she noted, “it is not mainly women who are the victims of male violence but the opposite: In 50 percent of the cases of family violence, both spouses are violent, while in 26 percent of the cases it is the woman who is violent; only in 24 percent is it the man alone who is violent.
“Yet the wrong picture is constantly promoted. The problem with this misrepresentation of reality is that it causes men not to seek help because they know they will be mocked, disbelieved, and/or likely distanced from their families by the police and courts – and thus the families continue to suffer. What is a child to do or feel when he sees his father being victimized, yet is taught everywhere that men are violent?”
Another problem was highlighted by Rabbi Azriel Ariel of Ateret. “In my role as a marriage counselor I see that many couples simply don’t have time for their marriage or to deepen their relationship,” he said. “This requires not only work on their part, but also a public policy change. For instance, the Ministry of Economic Affairs forces its female employees to work full-time – meaning that the government does not allow them to invest in their families. This has to be changed.”
Gil Ronen, founder of the Femilistim pro-family organization, posited that the above examples, and others, are driven by nothing less than a Communist agenda, and that feminists in Israel have, wittingly or not, bought into a wide-ranging campaign to destroy the family unit.
“The dialogue in the country has changed, by design: Every flirting or untoward remark is reported as sexual harassment, and men are constantly portrayed as violent, instead of as protective. This is all part of a campaign to change the way we think.”
Predictably, those remarks elicited some strong objections, but Ronen was not deterred. He noted that some weeks ago, the gang assault of a Jewish woman by five foreign workers in Tel Aviv “was barely covered in the press, because it did not fit the agenda… while not long before that, an offensive remark by former MK Yinon Magal at a party [was dragged out in] headlines until Magal finally surrendered to the media charges of ‘sexual harassment’ and resigned.”
Michael Puah, father of 12 and a leader of the Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) organization, told the audience that is “unfortunate that the religious-Zionist public does not take part in the struggle on behalf of the family the same way it did against the Oslo agreements. There are forces at work that wish to dismantle the family structure. These forces soon concluded, however, that if they could not beat them they would join them, and instead of destroying the family unit they would just call everything a family: two mothers, two fathers, etc. They are trying to replace the ‘biological family’ with the ‘contractual family,’ so that it can be dismantled at will…”
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Zini, former rabbi of the Technion and now the dean of Yeshivat Ohr V’Yeshuah, related a story of a Muslim preacher who “told his flock of worshipers one Friday how dangerous and terrible the Jews are, but then said that in reality, the Jews are really only the agents of our real enemies, the Americans – who want to destroy our family structure.”
“Traditional Jews are therefore in a precarious position,” Rabbi Zini continued, “because we are fighting simultaneously against Western culture and against extremist Islam – and both of them are distorted versions of what we Jews gave the world.”
After the audience digested this point, Rabbi Zini added, “The Western world…believes in only one thing: the individual. But this is poison to our belief system, which believes in the community and family structures…”
One of the conference’s two panel discussions dealt with the matter of work environments vis-à-vis the family unit. Rabbi Ariel agreed with some of the other speakers that the danger of extramarital relationships is enhanced in mixed-gender workplaces:
“Great caution is required. It must be remembered that while work is an important value, it is not an obligation – whereas adultery is a capital crime. One goes to work to support his family, and he must be careful that he does not do the opposite – causing the collapse of his family by what he does at work.”
The rabbi enumerated some guidelines, drawing nods of agreement in the audience but not necessarily on the panel. Police Brig.-Gen. Yael Idelman, who has served for three years as the Israel Police Department’s first adviser on women’s affairs, said she could not accept this approach:
“When I agreed to sit on this panel, I had no idea we would be talking about things like separation between men and women and the like. I view my role as creating the conditions to bring about equal opportunities for women serving on the police force, and to thus bring out their abilities – and I believe that we have done this successfully. Regarding marital infidelity and the like, this can happen anywhere, not just in the police force, and it is up to each individual.”
Asked why male and female police officers serve together on night shifts, she said, “This is how it must be, because they sometimes have to deal with women who will only open up to a policewoman.” The questioner was not satisfied with the response, saying afterward, “The police department just recently experienced a rash of sexual harassment cases on the part of senior police officers, and yet they continue on as if nothing ever happened.”
MK Betzalel Smotrich (Jewish Home) presented a general approach of “thinking positively” and doing what we can now to avoid problems later: “If we see that the divorce rates are very high, let us provide government-subsidized pre-marital counseling. If we want to encourage large families, how about subsidizing larger cars for those with four or five children or more?”
Rabbi Menachem Burstein, head of the Puah Institute, which works with couples who have fertility problems, urged that every teen register with a genetic testing service to prevent genetic diseases and strongly recommended that unmarried women over the age of 30 undergo a relatively new process to freeze egg cells, which can later be fertilized by their husbands and transferred to the uterus as embryos.
Demographer Yaakov Feitelson, who served as the first mayor of the Shomron city of Ariel over 30 years ago, presented encouraging statistics and charts showing that Israel’s Jewish population growth is positive in comparison not only with the rest of the world but also with its Arab population.
In terms of average first-marriage age, Israel is in second place in the 41-member OECD; first-marriages in Sweden, Iceland and Chile, for example, typically take place when the bride and groom are in their mid-30s – eight years older than in Israel. Similarly, Jewish fertility rates are climbing while the Arab numbers are slumping, and equality has nearly been reached.
Feitelson, who is not outwardly religiously observant, says he is in favor of ending the compulsory military draft of women, for three reasons: “It will help the country economically if they can go out to work earlier, religious men will have no reason not to serve, and it will lower marriage age and increase Jewish population growth.”
Highlighting the optimism of those fighting the battle on behalf of the nuclear family in Israel, conference organizers awarded plaques of recognition to two Israeli organizations for their success in imbuing and preserving family values: Internet Rimon, which filters out unacceptable Internet sites and content, thus enabling families to use the Internet without fear, and Binyan Shalem, whose annual three-day seminar is attended by thousands of men and women, with many dozens of classes on topics related to the Jewish family and its values.
“It all started in a living room one day several years ago,” said the Binyan Shalem representative accepting the award, “which shows us how much can be done simply with patience, perseverance, and the desire to do good.”