Analysis from Israel

I don’t think something should be news just because the New York Times tries to make it so by publishing an accusatory op-ed. But if you want to write about a topic that almost never makes headlines in Israel, you have to seize any opportunity. And Israel’s abortion policy is worth writing about, because it’s an all-too-rare example of a compromise that gives something important to both sides in a case where Jewish and liberal values clearly conflict.

I admit I once thought otherwise. Raised on America’s abortion wars, in which both sides take absolutist positions, I initially scorned Israel’s policy as institutionalized hypocrisy. And in some ways, it is: Whereas the letter of the law declares abortion legal only in exceptional cases, its application in practice makes abortions available to virtually anyone who wants one. But that tension between theory and practice – or hypocrisy, if you will – is precisely what makes the policy one both sides can live with.

By law, abortions require the approval of a committee comprised of two doctors and a social worker. These committees (which all hospitals have) can approve abortions only in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy; after that, a special exceptions committee must authorize the procedure. And at any stage, approval is possible only if one of the following criteria applies: the woman is under 18 or over 40; the pregnancy stems from rape, incest or an extramarital affair; the baby is liable to be physically or mentally impaired; or the pregnancy endangers the woman’s physical or mental health.

But in practice, as Yair Rosenberg wrote in Tablet last week, 98 percent of all abortion requests are approved; these criteria – especially the one about the woman’s mental health – are flexible enough that some committee can always be found to say yes. Moreover, he noted, since abortions that meet the criteria can be approved anytime, they end up being easier to obtain here than in many liberal European countries, where limits on later-term abortions are much stricter.

The result is that while neither the liberal nor the Jewish side gets everything it wants, both get something important. Liberals get the fact that almost anyone who wants an abortion can get one, even in cases where Jewish law wouldn’t permit it; but they don’t get a legal “right” to an abortion, nor is the fetus deemed merely part of a woman’s body, subject to her full control. Religious Jews get a law which sends a clear message that destroying a potential life is justified only in exceptional circumstances; but in practice, they must accept many abortions that don’t meet that standard.

What Mairav Zonszein decried in her New York Times op-ed was the Jewish side of this compromise. Her own abortion was approved instantly. But because she sees abortion as “pertaining strictly to my own body,” she finds the very idea of needing approval objectionable. And that view is precisely what the law is meant to counter. By requiring women to obtain approval, it effectively says: “You may have an abortion if you want it, but you may not pretend that destroying a potential life is no different than removing a wart from your finger – something ‘pertaining strictly to your own body,’ to be done solely at your own discretion.”

And for most Israelis, the compromise clearly works; that’s why abortion is such a non-issue in Israel. It works for those who want abortions because they can get them. And it works for those who oppose abortions because its message about the value of life seems to be effective. At 117 abortions per 1,000 live births, Israel’s abortion rate in 2013 was lower than in any European country except Croatia. And its fertility rate, even excluding the Haredim, is the highest in the developed world; it’s the only Western country with a birthrate above replacement rate.

The compromise is possible because Jewish law doesn’t believe life begins at conception, and therefore doesn’t consider abortion murder. It’s hard to compromise over murder. But in Jewish law, a fetus is only a potential life – one that shouldn’t be destroyed without cause, but lacks the status of an actual life. Thus Jewish law actually mandates abortion if the mother’s life is endangered; an existing life takes precedence over a potential one. And some rabbis permit abortion if pregnancy endangers the mother’s mental or emotional health.

But similar compromises are possible in other areas where liberal and Jewish values clash, and we should be striving to find them. One possible example is the recent Shabus project to provide bus service on Shabbat in Jerusalem.

As an Orthodox Jew, I’d prefer no buses on Shabbat. Nevertheless, the Shabus project is as respectful of Orthodox sensitivities as any service that violates Shabbat could possibly be. It’s a private organization, so the state isn’t lending its imprimatur to violating Shabbat. It’s a co-op in which people purchase membership and then ride for free, so no money changes hands on Shabbat. And it employs non-Jewish drivers, so Jews aren’t working on Shabbat.

Granted, the organizers spoiled the picture by declaring that they hope to eventually eliminate all these restrictions. But as it stands, it’s precisely the kind of compromise that, like the abortion law, concedes something important to both liberal and Jewish values. For the liberal side, there’s transportation on Shabbat for those who want it, albeit not state-sponsored and more limited than the weekday bus service. For the Jewish side, there’s the effort to minimize Shabbat violations, and more importantly, the fact that Shabbat legally remains a day of rest rather than just another workday.

Both religious and liberal Jews would rather Israel conform fully to their very different visions. But since we have to live together in the same state, finding practical compromises that both sides can tolerate is infinitely preferable to fighting endless culture wars that never resolve anything. The abortion law is a model of what such a compromise should be, and shows just how much tension such compromises can alleviate. Our legislators should strive to imitate it on other issues.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 22, 2015

2 Responses to A model for resolving clashes between Jewish and liberal values

  • Cartiel Lev says:

    Great article, Evie.

    This is indeed a point that needs to be made: That we can find compromises that will work in practice if we really try.

    There are many examples of this in Israeli society, and I hope that some kind of “Brit Zugiut” compromise will actually be accepted into law to deal with the friction regarding religious marriage and people who don’t want/can’t have religious marriage.

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ISIS Borrows a Tactic from Hamas

The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.

There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.

In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.

Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.

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