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.
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 Haredi 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.”
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.”
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.
Q and A
Bearing in mind you say some religious people have difficulty with compromise how would you like to see change stemming from the religious world?
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.
I’m writing a book on the subject. 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.
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.
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 neighbor 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.
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.
How can the Haredi leadership recognise the need to modernise?
There is one factor in favour of modernisation- poverty. Some of the leadership recognizes 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?
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.
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.