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July 20, 2012

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PAGE 20A Linda Gradstein The Media Line It's summer, and that means it's protest season in Israel. Last year, the focus was on economic inequal- ity, and how middle class Israelis can't make ends meet. This year the demon- strations, which have been gaining steam every week with more than 20,000 pro- testors this past weekend, are about army service for the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Arab citizens of Israel. The focus on expanding army service has given the protests that began last summer new energy and a new focus. "The issue of conscription is a lifeline for the protest," Gidi Grinstein, the director of the Reut Institute told The Media Line. "The protests lost energy and steam. They also lost the credibility with the middle class because some of its key leaders be- came aspiring politicians HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 20, 2017 Israel's social protests focus on army service and began to engage with political parties. They had no real agenda and some more radical and aggres- sive factions took over the protests." Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flip- flopped yet again over the recommendations of the Plesner Committee. The committee's goal was to formulate a replacement for the Tal law, a bill which al- lowed the ultra-Orthodox to delay army service virtually indefinitely. At the same, the bill did not permit Haredim towork until they completed army service. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled the Tal law unconstitutional and ordered it replaced by August 1. Netanyahu disbanded the Plesner committee, headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, last week. But last Sunday, Netanyahu's Likud party unanimously approved the committee's recommendations and a new committee headed by Ne- tanyahu and Vice-Premier Shaul Mofaz, who heads the Kadima party, is to come up with a new bill by this week. "Everyone must carry the burden," Netanyahu told his Likud faction. "We will provide positive incen- tives to those who serve and negative incentives to draft dodgers." Today, about 2,000 ultra- Orthodox Israelis serve in army units, with about 1,600 performing technical jobs and another 400 in combat units. The army has estab- lished special units to ac- commodate these soldiers. They are all-male units and the food served adheres to the strictest standards of kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. The soldiers are given extra time to pray three times a day, and the army makes a special effort to pre- serve Sabbath observance. Yet, most Israeli analysts say that it is not likely that large numbers of ultra- Orthodox will join the army. Currently, some 62,000 stu- dents, age 18 - 23, receive army deferments. By age 23, most ultra-Orthodox men are married and are no longer candidates to serve. "The ultra-Orthodox are very nervous, they under- stand that what has been in the past simply won't be any more," Yair Sheleg, an ex- pert on the ultra-Orthodox at the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. "But they still don't know how big the change will be." The ultra-Orthodox are being offered an alternative to army service--national service in schools, hospitals, etc. An increasing number are choosing this option, which may be more compat- ible with an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. Other analysts say that like everything else in Israel, the demands to draft Hare- dim are all about politics. "The driving force of Israeli politics is the de- mographic rise of ultra- Orthodox and the Arabs who don't belong to the secular majority," Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the Ha'aretz newspaper told The Media Line. "For the past three years the entire political debate is about the shrinking mainstream try- ing to reassert itself." Today, the ultra-Ortho- dox are about 15 percent of Israel's population and Arab citizens of Israel are about 20 percent. But about half of all elementary students are either Arab or ultra- Orthodox meaning that in ten years, they will make up 50 percent of the population. The Plesner committee dodged the issue of Arab citizens serving in the army and agreed to investigate the issue further. It seems highly unlikely that large numbers of Arab citizens will join the army, although they are already doing more national service. What everyone agrees on is the need for more ultra- Orthodox men to work in- stead of studying full-time. Women do work, but usually in relatively low-paying jobs such as teaching. "Many of them do want to join the work force, they don't want to be poor any more," said Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute. "What happened to the ultra-Orthodox is the paradox of success because they succeeded in their fertility rate and demographically and also educationally, they can't live according to their former standards." A law that would enable ultra-Orthodox to do either a shortened army service or national service and to then join the work force would lead to greater in- tegration of the Haredim into broader Israeli society. That, in turn, would most likely lead to more ultra- Orthodox joining the army. Jewish leader in Tunisia tries to maintain strong ties with government By Kouichi Shirayanagi TUNIS (JTA)--Sitting beside his collection of Tuni- sian menorahs, spice boxes and jewelry, with Danish Impressionist paintings on the walls, Roger Bismuth was recalling his days as a Nazi slave laborer--and the dramatic change in his life since that time. Bismuth said that be- tween November 1942 and May 1943, he built bunkers and harbors for the Nazis in the nearby port of La Gou- lette, a suburb of Tunis. He had left school in 1940 at age 14 to become a construction worker. "The Germans knew I was Jewish. The major who was in charge of building the bunkers was a nice man--he would pick me up every morning and take me to work," Bismuth, 86, remembers. After the war, Bismuth worked for the French building barracks for the colonial soldiers stationed in his port city. At the same time, he was active in the Tunisian independence movement against the con- tinued French colonization of Tunisia. A product of an almost- lost era, when most Jews living in metropolitan Tunis became doctors, lawyers and businessmen while those on the island of Djerba stud- ied to be rabbis, Bismuth amassed his wealth by de- veloping a major product distribution conglomer- ate that distributes food, electronic and cosmetic products, including UOreal, across North Africa. He also is president of the Jewish Community of Tunisia. After spending decades developing a good relation- ship with Tunisia's old gov- ernment, which he served as a member of parliament, he hopes to build a strong relationship with the new Islamist-leaning govern- ment of his small North African country, keeping Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia's Jewish the aging Jewish commu- nity from further decline. Tunisia at the time of Bismuth's birth had more than 100,000 Jews. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews in the country, and many of them are elderly. According to historians, Tu- nisia has had a continuous Jewish presence for more than 2,600 years. When Tunisia was a French colony, the Tunisian Jewish Community Council was a government within a government--operating its own court, issuing marriage licenses and overseeing edu- cation for the Jews. Follow- ing the North African na- tion's independence in 1956, Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, dissolved the council and created a new organization with a dramatically altered role. Most of the country's Jews live on Djerba, which always has maintained a separate organized Jewish community from the main- land. Thus the majority of Tunisia's Jews don't use the services of the Tunisian Jew- community. ish Community; Bismuth has been its president since 1996. "There is no poor Jew- ish person in the street, we look after everyone, no one goes hungry," he said. Elderly Jews are provided with visits from the doctor, given food, clothes and as- sistance no matter where they live in greater Tunis, Sousse or Sfax. The community worked to build the Center for Aging People in La Goulette, which provides kosher food and assisted living to 20-25 resi- dents, b, 12-person staff of do,ctors, nurses, cooks and medical specialists provides round-the-clock care for the residents. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee once provided half the operating costs for the center but with fund- ing from abroad reduced, Bismuth says the Tunisian Jewish community works diligently to get by. Bismuth maintains ties with the World Jewish Con- gress and American Jewish Committee. Kouichi Shirayanagi "Roger has played a tre- mendous role in support- ing Tunisian-American relations and his coun- try's continued openness, moderation and support for women's rights," said Jason Isaacson, AJC's di- rector of government and international affairs. "Dur- ing his time in and out of government he has always supported our initiatives of Tunisian-American bridge building." It's difficult to gauge, however, the significance of Bismuth's role in Tuni- sia's Jewish community. Both Bismuth and Chief Rabbi Haim Bittan acknowl- edge that they have a cold working relationship, and congregants at Bismuth's synagogue, Belt Mordechai Synagogue in La Goulette, are reluctant to speak about him on the record. Beth Mordechai Rabbi Daniel Cohen, however, calls Bismuth "a nice man who does his best to care for the community." Jo Krief, a retired fashion designer who is involved with the association to preserve the Borgel Jewish cemetery in Tunis, says Bis- muth was named president of the Jewish community only because of his close ties to the old regime. Krief claims the Tunisian Jewish Community operates under an old, outdated structure that lacks transparency, separates Djerba from the mainland community and concentrates all decision making into one leader. "The Jewish community needs a revolution just like the rest of Tunisia," Krief told JTA. Bismuth, who says he meets regularly with the community's four-member board and provides assis- tance to Djerba as needed, denies that he supported the former regime. "I was associated with my country," he said. Bismuth asserts that the old Tunisian government it- self was not corrupt, saying that talented technocrats ran the state apparatus. "We spent years building a good government here. It was just the head, the president and his family, that made Tunisia hell," he said, explaining why Tuni- sians took to the streets in massive protests in Janu- ary 2011, forcing Zine E1- Abddine Ben All to leave and the regime to change. Until the revolution, he was the only Jewish parlia- mentarian anywhere in an Arabic-speaking country. In 2005 the Tunisian employers association selected him as one of seven representatives to serve in the Tunisian Senate. "When we had people shouting kill the Jews in the street of Tunis and at the airport, the whole world called me," Bismuth said, referring to incidents in January when Islamists made violent threats to the Jewish community while greeting the arrival party of visiting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and in March when an imam at a downtown Tunis rally in support of Is- lamic law called on Tunisian youth to kill Jews. As a businessman, Bis- muth has found himself working with the new gov- ernment. "It's not just Jews but everyone in Tunisia's busi- ness community who has to change from working with the old to the new govern- ments," he said. Bismuth frequently meets with ministers in the new government, particularly after each of the recent incidents of incitement. He says the government has responded positively after each incident. He acknowledges, how- ever, that he has greater ideological differences with the new government. "I have a problem with this government because I don't believe in mixing religion and state," Bismuth said. "I think religion is a private matter." With his wife, Aase, a Dane who converted to Judaism through the Masorti (Con- servative) movement--a conversion that has brought Bismuth harsh criticism from some in the Jewish community who are more observant than he--Bis- muth has six children (only two of whom remain in Tunisia), 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. And while life for Tunisia's Jews remains uncertain, Bismuth has no plans to leave his native land. In fact, he has harsh words for Israel's Tunisian- born deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, who in De- cember urged all of Tunisia's Jews to immigrate to Israel. "I really don't like Silvan Shalom. He is very stupid. I knew him before," Bismuth said. "Even in Israel many don't like him. "What will he do for the people once they get to Is- rael? He can't provide better services for our community than we can. He is really speaking for nothing."