FaithWorld

Israeli “kosher” buses: ladies to the back, and no trousers!

Ultra-Orthodox men in an Israeli bus, 14 Jan 2008/Gil Cohen MagenShould public bus companies in Israel be allowed to run “kosher” routes where women passengers must sit in the back and are frowned on for wearing trousers? Israel’s High Court is expected to decide this week on a case brought against them by women who say they have been “bullied in the name of God” on these buses for not following the ultra-Orthodox custom of separating men and women in public.

The controversy has been bubbling for several years. It started when the public bus companies introduced the “mehadrin” (strict kosher) lines to compete with private companies who introduced separate seating in buses that passed through ultra-Orthodox areas. My feature today interviews angry women passengers and defenders of the system.

Bus stop in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, 14 Jan, 2008/Gil Cohen MagenReporting in Israel occasionally throws journalists into the middle of the tension between deeply religious and secularist Israelis. I live in a broadly secular neighbourhood of Jerusalem and drive a car, so have never taken the “kosher” buses. The first time I went to Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem, I took care to wear loose clothing with long sleeves that seemed sure to pass the modesty test. But I hadn’t realised trousers were a no-no too. The placards nailed up around the area listing exactly what clothing was out of bounds soon made that clear.

So I’ll ask a woman for a quote, I thought. When I did, though, she shook her head and pointed to her husband. He grabbed his young son’s hand, shielded his eyes and swept past me with his long black coat.

Man and women wait separately at bus shelter in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, 14 Jan 2008/Gil Cohen MagenFeeling more self-conscious by the minute, I tried talking to a few more men and women with a male colleague at my side. No one would answer my questions. Our Israeli cameraman Eli laughed and suggested he do the interviews on my behalf.

Vatican daily has Jewish historian comment on Bush and Auschwitz

Apologies aren’t easy, especially for the infallible.*

President Bush visits Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, 11 January 2008During his visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, President George Bush saw aerial photos of the Auschwitz death camp taken by American planes during World War Two and was quoted as saying: “We should have bombed it.” This presented an interesting challenge to the Pope’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Critics have long accused Pope Pius XII of failing to help Jews during the Holocaust and his successors of failing to say mea culpa in apology. German-born Pope Benedict heard the same in May 2006 after he avoided the issue during a visit to Auschwitz. So how should the Vatican daily report what looked like an indirect apology (the first of its kind?) by the U.S. president?

The Sunday edition showed the way. L’Osservatore, a once-bland broadsheet livened up under its new editor Giovanni Maria Vian, invited the Jewish historian Anna Foa to write a front-page commentary on “The Missed Bombing” (text in Italian). She writes: “A president of the United States, George W. Bush, has admitted publicly what many historians and a part of public opinion have been saying for years: that in 1944, the Americans should have bombed Auschwitz.” Foa noted that, as early as 1942, information about the death camps had reached “the Red Cross, the neutral countries, the Holy See, the chancelleries of the Allies. Many of these reports were not believed at the time. But in 1943, all governments knew.

Pope Benedict enters Auschwitz death camp, 28 May 2006/Pawel KopczynskiBombing Auschwitz could have slowed or stopped the slaughter there, especially of the half a million Hungarian Jews deported in the summer and autumn of 1944, but the Allies did not do it. Not because bombing would not be useful, Foa writes, but for “a more general reason: saving the Jews did not have priority in the overall management of the war.” Bombing the train tracks leading to Auschwitz or even the gas chambers themselves “would have broken the silence that settled over the death camps, given the war an incomparable ethical motivation and forced all of Europe to know” what was happening there.

To trust or not to trust — Vatican diplomat vents frustration at Israel

Italians have a wonderful phrase they use when things don’t work out as they had hoped: “It was better when it was worse.”

Archbishop Pietro SambiThat was the thrust of controversial comments about the Catholic Church’s relations with Israel by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, currently the Vatican’s nuncio (ambassador) to the United States and formerly the papal envoy to the Jewish state.

Sambi, who was nuncio in Israel from 1998-2005, could not have been clearer about his discontent: “If I must be frank, relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic relations.” That was the opening salvo in a long interview in Italian with www. terrasanta.net, an on-line publication of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Jewish author published in Vatican daily — more to come?

Any foreign correspondent who ever covered the old Soviet bloc remembers how the official press seemed to print only news-free communiques and bland official photos. Scanning newspapers like Pravda or Scînteia or Neues Deutschland, the skilled reader looked for subtle changes from the norm as hints of possible shifts in official thinking. Once a slight deviation was sighted, readers would watch to see if it was just a flash in the pan or whether it became a normal feature.

L’Osservatore Romano front page, Nov. 10, 2007That style of reading came to mind when L’Osservatore Romano published on Sunday what may be its first article ever by a Jewish writer. With its columns of papal speeches and discretion about internal Church issues, the Vatican daily has an unmistakable stylistic likeness to those old party organs. Not in content or purpose or inspiration, I hasten to add (hold the emails, I’m not saying the comparison goes that far). But as newspapers go, it’s as daunting as those other papers and its regular readers develop the same keen sense of small differences. So what does this change mean? Is the official voice of the Catholic Church opening up to views from other faiths? Will Muslims, Hindus or others follow?

The article was a review of a new book Brutti Ricordi (Ugly Memories), an Italian translation of two essays by Israeli academics Anita Shapira and Ephraim Kleiman on the departure of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948-1949 (review here in Italian). The author, Anna Foa, is a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The byline is not the only significant element,” writes veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine. It was also interesting, he said, that the book dealt with the dispute in Israel about whether the Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own will or were forcibly banished by the victorious Jews.”

Friedländer’s eloquent Holocaust non-speech in Frankfurt

Imagine you are a Jewish historian of the Holocaust. You are being awarded one of Germany’s most prestigious prizes. The ceremony is solemn, the audience filled with the great and the good. The three Germans speaking before you give lofty speeches praising you and your life’s work for recording and explaining what they must never forget. What kind of speech should you deliver?

saul-friedlaender.jpgSaul Friedländer found just the right tone on Sunday when he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt. He gave a non-speech. To be more precise, he broke with the tradition of long-winded oration at such ceremonies and simply read Holocaust- related documents from the early 1940s. But these were not just any documents. Friedländer, whose German- speaking Jewish family fled from their hometown of Prague to France in 1939, read letters telling how his parents tried and failed to escape the Nazis, but managed to save him.

One was a letter in 1942 from his mother to a French neighbour who helped hide her son from the Nazis by having him baptised and enrolled in a rural Catholic school . “If we perish, then we will have that one great joy to know our beloved child has been saved.” she wrote. His father wrote her a final letter after he and his wife were arrested following a failed attempt to escape to Switzerland. “I am writing this to you from the train taking us to Germany,” he wrote, “please accept for the last time our never-ending thanks.” He handed it to a Quaker group that waited in train stations to help deported Jews and they mailed it.