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EXCLUSIVE: Israel's Adina Bar Shalom on why peace is possible

The eldest daughter of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is a significant political figure in her own right
Ultra-Orthodox Jews collect water from a mountain spring near Jerusalem during the Maim Shelanu ceremony on 2 April (AFP)

JERUSALEM - Adina Bar Shalom is the eldest daughter of the late former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

A founder of the Haredi College in Jerusalem, she is a champion of advancing higher education among Israel’s powerful and growing ultra-Orthodox minority who now make up more than 10 percent of Israel’s population and 21 percent of all primary-school students.

She is a significant political figure in her own right, courted by prime ministers of right and left. Last year, there was also a campaign to elect Bar Shalom to the ceremonial post of President of Israel. However, while she considered running, Bar Shalom ultimately decided against it.

In an exclusive interview with David Hearst, Bar Shalom talks about the difference between the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists, and how Jews and Arabs, Judaism and Islam can share the same land.

Adina Bar Shalom (YouTube)

MEE: How does Israel treat its Orthodox Jewish minority?

AB: I will use a harsh term here: the racism of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) is that they decline to marry anyone who is not Jewish – whether an Arab, a Christian, or anything else. Haredim distance themselves from anyone not Jewish, and this has deep roots going back to the Holocaust and before, during life in the diaspora. 

The Haredim are not loved, especially by secular people, who view them as a generation that’s obsolete: against progress, against modernism, against integration, against work. Against, against, against. We [Haredim] have contributed more than a little to that feeling. 

Haredim are very fearful of profanation, that is, the non-observance of the Torah and its precepts. It is only human nature to want to be like one’s friends, so they cloister themselves within a neighbourhood, or within their homes. Their social lives are sequestered within their own group. Their only concern is to conduct their lives within that closed society. The Haredi politicians concentrate on improving that life, especially with funding. Secular people see this as extortion, as living at other people’s expense. Because the Haredi existence is so hard, Haredim don’t take an interest in what life is like outside that narrow framework. 

It’s about financial hardship, and it’s also about their existence within a certain framework of laws. Whatever is outside of that doesn’t interest them.

The Haredi rabbis today have been surprised by two phenomena. The first is the young people who are dropping out, meaning they don’t want to attend the yeshivas (religious schools) to study the Torah; they don’t want to study in that closed system. The temptations of the wider world interest them greatly. Haredi society is very fearful of this. 

When it began, the rabbis thought that if they opened schools for them and consolidated them within their own society, they could stop this gradual decline but they were very disappointed to find that things don’t work that way.

The other phenomenon is the voice of Haredi women. The women’s voice is being heard in every sphere, unlike the men who remain very conservative; the women are much more open and take much more interest in other things. They are looking to the outside, very differently than the men do.

It’s interesting that the women are not yet in leadership positions, but they have already become members of committees on the status of women. Eight years ago, they were already setting up battered women’s shelters. The movement for opening higher education to these women is only ten years old but the breakthrough seems like the leap of a century.

MEE: How do the Haredi view peace with Palestinians?

AB: If we want to generate more interest in a dialogue between us [the Jews] and the Arabs who live in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), we should understand that a good separation involves having two states for two peoples, because this would be helpful for both Israel and the Palestinians. What harm would there be?

Since they’ve never served in the army, the Haredim are not on the front line between us and the Palestinians, not even as guards. Nothing. 

And even the Haredim who join the army, do it to learn a trade and find work. They get into computer software and so on. They aren’t out in the field and they don’t see what the occupation is doing to us as Jews. They don’t watch television, so they aren’t exposed to what is happening.

The women, on the other hand, are curious and they want to know about all this, but so far [this development is only happening to] isolated individuals because we’re not organised yet. If her husband is supportive of her and the situation at home permits, each woman by herself is stretching the boundaries as far as she can go.

When we opened the programme in political science and media [at the Haredi College in Jerusalem] women didn’t want to register for it, nor for the conflict resolution programme. I had to sit there as a student in the classroom, to look after the young women who said that they weren’t interested in this, that they didn’t want it. The women didn’t want to be in the classroom. It was because the lecturers covered what the situation was like here, before Israel’s founding as a state.

The women said it didn’t interest them, this is our land and we don’t want to hear anything else. Our position [in this programme] is that, even if we believe this land to be ours, it’s still better for the sake of peace - and to stop the bloodshed between the two peoples - that we let go and wait however long we must for the coming of the Messiah, so that [in the] meantime perhaps all nations could live here together in peace.

That’s actually the essential difference between us and the Zionists. We all believe that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave this land to the people of Israel. The difference is that we Haredim are prepared, for the sake of preventing bloodshed, to share the land. But they [the Zionists] say: ‘We are here and whoever isn’t Jewish should leave this land and go away.’ 

The most terrifying thing in my view - and I haven’t really discussed this yet with my circles - was the part of the Uvda programme (Channel 2’s popular investigative programme). In the programme [journalist] Ilana Dayan asked Yehuda Glick [the Temple Mount activist who survived an assassination attempt last year] whether he wanted Jews to continue going up to the Temple Mount even at the price of bloodshed. He said yes.

Then when she asked him again, regarding himself, he tried to wriggle out of it but finally said: ‘I love life, and I want to live.’ 

To me, this is horrifying. Are the lives of others less important than his?

I hope that the people who saw that clip will wake up and understand the contradiction in what Glick said: that on the one hand he is concerned for himself and his own life, while on the other hand he calls on Jews to go up to the Temple Mount.

I hope that everyone who sees that video will understand that those ‘Temple Mount Faithful’ people don’t care about the value of others’ lives; they don’t care that someone in the street may get stabbed or be killed.

That doesn’t mean that I think it is okay to kill us. Or to kill people who oppose going up to the Temple Mount. The people who were killed in the Har Nof yeshiva [by two Palestinian men last year] belonged to the community that opposes going up to the Temple Mount.

It saddens me that the Haredim and the religious Zionists are perceived as the same thing. For us, as Haredim, our tradition forbids us to go up to the Temple Mount. That’s because the Temple Mount is considered too holy. Both chief rabbis, including my brother (David Yosef), always said that. 

When my father Ovadia Yosef was alive, only a small minority went up to the Temple Mount. This craziness started only last year…

MEE: Do you think the Israeli government is using the Temple Mount for its own political purposes? 

AB: Yes, of course, I have absolutely no doubt. It serves as a bargaining chip for negotiations.

MEE: Which groups of Palestinians have you met?

AB: Generally it’s groups that organise by accident, whether it’s peace-seekers, Arab-Israelis [Palestinian citizens of Israel], or people who come to learn a little about us. There has been little continuity and that’s unfortunate, because it’s hard to learn very much from brief encounters that last for a few days. You can’t really get to know each other or become friends.

MEE: Would you exclude anyone from that dialogue such as Sheikh Raed Saleh (head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel)?

AB: I’d be glad to meet with him, but there’s been no opportunity. I’ve twice gone to meet with Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) whom the people see as the biggest enemy: that’s because it’s more comfortable for us to justify only our own politicians. But I went anyway. I’m not afraid.

MEE: How can Judaism and Islam share the same land?

AB:  The only way is a division into two lands for two peoples. There’s no other way. I want to give them [the Palestinians] the right to live in their own state… I want to give them the right to live their lives as they understand them. I don’t want to be arrogant towards them and if we live together, this will always happen - the Jews will [continue to] patronise them. 

We are an arrogant people; the European Jews are arrogant toward the Mizrahi Jews [Oriental Jews], so imagine what would happen with the Arabs. They have a right to autonomy and to live their lives as they wish, without the Jews patronising them.

MEE: Palestinians have been divided physically from each other into separate enclaves in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel. How do you unite them?

AB: In peacetime, I don’t see a problem living our lives together. The borders can merge into each other like in Europe. I don’t see any problem with that. On the contrary, we prefer cooperation; the entire Middle East will flourish.

In this situation when there is an existential threat looming over every one of us, all we do is spill more blood, and we don’t develop. Not the economy, or trade, or anything else.

A very large proportion of the people living in Gaza, who used to work here [in Israel] with us, are nostalgic for those days. That’s why I say that the fact that I call for partition is not to reinforce the borders and the walls, but to allow the possibility that we can live as neighbours.

I want to say that Zionist Judaism sees me as naïve, and they don’t believe that the Arabs will stop engaging in terror. They think I’m living in some utopia. I believe that if the Palestinians have their own state, they will stop the violence. So I like to talk to influential people like you, because at the moment we have two states here, we will need the people who can help us feel secure enough to move ahead. This work has to be done now and it can’t wait.

MEE: Are you against the use of force, expulsions from East Jerusalem and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s plan of population transfers?

AB: I think people shouldn’t be moved from where they live and I also don’t think any more settlements should be created. The Arabs have to go on living where they live now and they also have to be given more places as compensation for the places that we took for the settlements.

Certainly, I’m against the expulsions going on in East Jerusalem. Transfers shouldn’t be done… We have to stop building in the Arab territories. Today it’s just blurring the borders and will make it much, much harder for us to reach agreements with them.

Giving the Ministry of Infrastructures to someone as extreme as Minister Uri Ariel (who belongs to the far-right Jewish Home party) was a lot more damaging than it was useful.

MEE: Are you planning to run for the Knesset or form your own party?

AB: To have my own party, I’m not prepared to do that. To join a political party is very difficult in the Haredi community. Haredi Judaism does not allow me to join a party like Bougie (Isaac) Herzog’s [Labour Party] even though all my ideas are close to his - whether regarding the allocation of resources or the political issue and peace between us and the Palestinians.

On every issue I’m more with him, but if I were to join his party, they would kill me, not physically, but everything I’ve built in the community would be destroyed.

And of course going with Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] would not be appropriate to my ideas; from an ideological standpoint, we are very far apart. Bibi is not considerate. He has cultivated capitalism and given a lot of freedom to the economists. He has no idea what a minimum wage is. His economic programme is destructive and so is his political approach.

So what would I do there? Relinquish my values to sit in the Knesset? It’s not worth it. By the way, Bibi promised me full freedom to vote with my conscience on any subject I chose if I’d run with him.

MEE: Do you think the Mizrahi (Oriental Jews) have something to offer peace efforts that the Ashkenazi (European Jews) have missed? 

AB: I and Eli Yishai (former leader of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas who failed to be elected to parliament) were on friendly terms when I went to see Abu Mazen the first time. He told me: ‘You’re making a mistake; why are you going? Nothing will come of it.’

I said, ‘I’m not kidding myself that anything will come of this, but I am going to hear what he has to say.’ I had the blessing of my father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The second time I went, he [Yishai] didn’t oppose it. Eli Yishai, despite his extreme views, was prepared to accept my father’s Torah view.

We should be sitting down with Aryeh Deri [the current leader of Shas] ceaselessly, even if he is opposed [to peace talks] and let him understand what is happening today with the negotiations. We are not getting anything from a primary source; we’re only being fed by the media and by various shrill propagandists. 

I believe that what we’re doing will help, not overnight, but the work has to be done, continuously, day after day. 

MEE: What do you think of the Jewish Nation State Bill?

AB: We [in the Haredi community] were all opposed; even Shas spoke out against this law. We have an independent state and that’s enough. Does anyone, anywhere in the world doubt that this is a Jewish state? Why do we need a law for that? It’s to humiliate others. You don’t pass a law for a reason like that.

MEE: Your father made a religious ruling, a Halakhha, in 1972 when he was the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Tell us about that?

AB: My father, Rabbi Ovadia, ruled in 1972 that according to Halacha (Jewish law), parts of the Land of Israel should be returned [to the Palestinians] in exchange for peace, as a gift to prevent bloodshed.

He said: ‘One drop of blood is not worth the whole of Eretz Yisrael.’

MEE: Ovadia Yosef had many followers. How do you explain his failure to affect the policies of the government?

AB: It does have an influence. It has not had the impact he wanted, but still, at the time of the Oslo Accords [in the 1990s], Shas did not come out against it. Shas had more than half a million voters then, and they said: ‘We rely on him to know what’s better for us. No one argued with him.’

Zionist Judaism has a very strong lobby all over the world. They work in an exceptional way. They come as teachers to all the [Jewish] schools everywhere and they inculcate their values in everyone. A child who learns these values will grow up to be anti-peace and in favour of the Greater Israel, and also in favour of expelling the Arabs and in favour of all the things we find unpleasant. It’s very hard to do battle with them.

When I talk, they say I’m not normal and I’m unrealistic. But please understand, I’m not talking against us. I’m talking for us. This will be good for us. Judaism is not about material things; it’s not about control over the assets of others. Our Judaism is about love your neighbour as yourself.

Nowhere is it written: ‘Love another Jew as yourself.’ Judaism talks about human dignity, not Jewish dignity. The Zionists turned everything upside down. I see it as idol worship.

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