Jerusalem — In early July, Lisa Richlen, a nonprofit consultant working in the fields of human rights and social change, was planning to help launch Faces of Exile, a website aimed at providing a “human face” to asylum seekers in Israel, when Israel’s war with Hamas began.
She postponed the launch for nearly two months “because we knew it wouldn’t receive the attention it deserved,” and also because publicizing something not related to the war “would have been perceived as insensitive by the Israeli public when rockets were raining down on us,” Richlen said. “You really couldn’t do anything.”
Such was the experience for many social change activists, who, realizing that lawmakers and the public would be less than receptive to critiques on Israel’s internal problems — such as domestic violence, refugees, religious coercion and Shabbat blue laws — during wartime quickly changed strategy.
Others, like Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, was spearheading legislation on Jewish conversion at the time, pushed ahead, but with less-than-optimal results.
“Obviously, our main focus during the war was on the soldiers and their families, and on those under attack, but we saw opportunities being squandered,” Farber said. “Things moved forward on the regulatory front but not on the legislative front.”
On the one hand, Farber said, in August various government ministries issued new regulations based on ITIM’s recommendations that permit parents to be involved in the burial process following a late-stage miscarriage or death of a baby under 30 days of age.
ITIM had argued that, contrary to Israeli hospital and burial society practices, nothing in Jewish law prohibits a parent from knowing where a child is buried or in participating in the funeral.
On the other hand, conversion legislation and legislation to prevent mikveh attendants from acting in a religiously coercive way — both championed by ITIM — gained no traction during the war.
“Right before Pesach the prime minister promised there would be a vote on the conversion legislation that would enable municipal rabbis to run independent rabbinical courts for the purpose of conversion by the beginning of the summer,” Farber said. “Instead, it’s been moved off the agenda completely and is now floundering in the Prime Minister’s Office. You can call it the war’s collateral damage.”
Donna Naor, director of the legal department of the Israel Women’s Network, an advocacy group, agrees that during the war “there wasn’t’ any attention to civil issues, not by the Knesset, and not by the media.”
One project, focused on the low wages paid to school secretaries, was put on hold when the Histadrut, the country’s most powerful labor union, refused to declare a solidarity strike while the war was going on. And a leadership project for women in war-torn Sderot couldn’t proceed because the participants were unable to leave their homes.
At the same time, Naor said, the war increased the number of calls to the network’s legal hotline, which received many employment questions from women who could not work either because they were employed down south or because their spouses were in the army and camps and preschools were shuttered.
“We still had a full plate, despite the war,” she said.
Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush: Freedom of Religion for Israel, said despite expectations that the issue of religious freedom “would be pushed to the back seat,” it actually surfaced times, mainly in the war’s context.
“There was a huge debate over why so few charedim serve in the army,” Regev said, recalling how during the war a journalist pressed charedi Shas leader Aryeh Deri on the question.
“Deri said that there are those in Israel, the soldiers, who fight in Israel’s defense, but that really, Israel’s defense is safeguarded by God and that the yeshiva students are the true miracle workers,” Regev said.
The public also reacted strongly when Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the successor to Shas’ late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said the Israel doesn’t need an army at all, thanks to the prayer of yeshiva students, and after Rabbi Dov Lior, a leading West Bank rabbi, blamed the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens on “anti-religious-coercion” legislation. Meanwhile the charedi newspaper Yated Neeman said rockets were falling on Tel Aviv because secular Jews want businesses there to be open on Shabbat.
While the nightly news was dominated almost completely by war coverage, Regev noted, one of the news programs ran a four-part series on the problems faced by Israeli couples unable to marry in Israel due to the Chief Rabbinate’s strict criteria.
“Israelis weren’t willing to relegate these issues to the back seat,” Regev said, and “while indeed the intensity and mental and political energies that one saw rising before the war were lower during the war, these concerns found a way of expressing themselves.”
Still, Regev acknowledges that fundraising for social issues during the war was more difficult than at other times.
“Many donors said they were being approached, repeatedly, by wartime emergency funds. They are under pressure,” he said.
Arnie Draiman, a philanthropic consultant, agrees.
He estimates that more than half the money raised during the war went to pay for war-related projects, from a respite day up north for children in the south to equipment for combat soldiers.
“During that time there were still other issues and needs around the country, but almost everything was put on hold or on a back-burner. Yes, a few things were taken care of, such as feeding the hungry, but others were put on hold,” Draiman said.
The problem now, the consultant said, is that many donors are tapped out.
“In the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah large and small foundations and tzedakah funds will see that donors, who just gave out money four or six weeks ago, will be less likely to give in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Although this will almost certainly create to shortages come holiday time, Draiman said, “these organizations are hoping for at least an end-of-the-year donation.”