Abortion issue heats up in the Holy Land

Photos of a children "saved" by Efrat cover the walls of its office in Jerusalem. Photo by Simone Gorrindo.

By Simone Gorrindo

NETANYA – Mali Aharon’s enormous family has just finished its Purim feast at her sister’s home in this coastal Israeli city. Stacks of dirty plates cover the long dinner table, and children scamper up and down a spiral staircase as flares go off outside in celebration. Aharon, 35, sweeps back her thick brown hair and smiles.

“My dad wants to tell you a story,” she says in perfect English as she places a hand on her father’s knee. “And he wants me to translate it.”

Leaning back in an armchair, Aharon’s father begins in Hebrew, and Aharon quickly follows.

“Before I was born, my mother got pregnant and decided to have an abortion,” she says, rewording the story as though she were telling it. “They were young and didn’t have any money.” One afternoon, the couple sat waiting at a bus stop, full of apprehension. They were heading to an abortion clinic. An old Moroccan woman sat down next to Aharon’s mother, and knew instinctively that something was wrong.

“You are not God,” the woman told Aharon’s mother after she found out what was troubling the couple. “Go, go home, for your own good.” As Aharon’s father tells the anecdote, he mimes the old woman, waving his arm as if shooing away a dog.

“They took it as an omen,” Aharon says. The couple never got on the bus.

Years later, when Aharon became pregnant in 2005, she stood, figuratively speaking, at the same way station her parents’ had, paralyzed by fear. But she had no husband, no wise old woman to make her decision for her. She was broke, alone and didn’t know what to do. But as an Israeli, she had options.

In Israel, there are organizations women can turn to for help with their pregnancy. After Aharon became pregnant, a friend told her about an organization called Efrat, a non-profit in Jerusalem that seeks to prevent Jewish women from having abortions. Originally started by Holocaust survivors shortly after WWII, Efrat is founded on the belief that no Jewish woman should have to abort a child because of money troubles. The organization helps out needy mothers like Aharon financially for the first year of her child’s life. To many Israelis, Efrat’s mission sounds suspiciously pro-life, but Efrat likes to see itself as “pro-choice,” more an instrument of education than coercion.

“We show [the woman] information, show her she has a human being,” says Dr. Eli Schussheim, who took over the organization in 1978 when abortion first became legal in Israel. “The fourth week, the baby has a heart, the sixth a brain, the eighth, it has all of its organs. It awakes a natural feeling in a mother.”

While abortion in Israel is usually not the polarized, hot button issue it is in America, it has lately been making waves in both political and religious news. At the start of March, a liberal member of the Knesset put forth a bill to abolish the abortion committees, which did not pass. Efforts to change the status quo have also come from the right. Much in the style of a Catholic bishop, the Chief Rabbinate sent out letters at the beginning of the year to every rabbi in the country, asking them to forbid their congregants from aborting a child. For many religious Israelis, abortion is equal to killing, and they would never even consider the option.

Schussheim of Efrat goes even further. He sees abortion in Israel as a kind of Holocaust of Jews’ own making—a plague, he says, that causes more loss of life than wars or natural disasters. In his view Efrat is a vital effort to preserve and multiply this diminished population, to ensure that Israel remains fundamentally Jewish.

“After we lose millions of people, I think we should do more to encourage the birth-rate,” says Schussheim. “We should do more to save the lives we have already started.”

While Schussheim argues that what Efrat offers is education, Irit Rosenblum, the head of an Israeli family rights organization called New Family, thinks the process is a lot more insidious. One of Efrat’s most virulent critics, Rosenblum advocates for civil marriage and women’s rights in Israel. According to her, Efrat is invading women’s privacy and cajoling them into a decision. And in 2004, a member of the Knesset attempted to outlaw Efrat’s existence, calling its work equal to harassment.

“They are trying to tempt [the woman], to pay her,” says Rosenblum. “The temptation around it is very ugly, I think.”

Efrat’s humble, cramped office is tucked away on a tree-lined street in residential Jerusalem. The floor is covered in industrial, grey carpet, and the wooden desks are worn and shabby. But against this colorless background, hundreds of photographs showcased on the walls leap out vibrantly. Photographs of the children that Efrat has “saved” are pinned to every inch of every wall, and laminated letters of thanks accompany many of them.

The Efrat approach is a hard sell, not unlike the efforts of anti-abortion groups in the United States. Images of developing fetuses line the inside of pamphlets that Efrat distributes to women who are seeking help. One cover pictures a stork dangling a blanketed baby from its beak. A question in big, black letters stands out above the bird: Mommy, why won’t you let me live?

“They showed me more than I wanted to know,” says Aharon. When she came to Efrat, she was 25 and living very hand-to-mouth. She had just moved to Arizona to work in customer relations for an Israeli company, because she had always wanted to live in America. She hadn’t had her period in nine weeks, but the women at work said that was normal when transitioning to such a hot, dry place. Eventually, she went to the doctor. Her worst fears were right.

“I can’t be pregnant,” she recalls telling her friend.

“I’m sorry, Mali, but you are,” she responded. Aharon was not in a steady relationship, but she knew who the father was: her on-again, off-again flame of seven years. The tumultuous love of her life. They had slept together the night before she left Israel for the United States, but he was living the life of a bachelor. What was she going to do?

According to a recent report from the country’s Health Ministry, some 20,000 legal abortions occur yearly in Israel. A New Family poll conducted this year shows that another estimated 25,000 are done illegally. That’s a whole city, says Efat social worker Ruth Tidhar—and not even a small one.

“We have the possibility, every year, to save 45,000 children,” says Schussheim. “And I must tell you—we have not one case of regret.”

Tied into Schussheim’s demographic concerns are religious concerns. Schussheim believes the Chief Rabbinate should be involved in the abortion committees, for the sanctity of life is a fundamentally religious concern, he says, one that the Torah touches upon. Unless the mother’s life is in danger, abortion is forbidden.

“The Rabbinate must be involved, like the pope,” says Schussheim. “This is something very serious, and this issue is very important in this religion.”

Although Aharon says her decision to keep Yuval wasn’t directly religious—“I just know killing is wrong,” Aharon says—she does say her traditionalist Jewish family raised her to believe that abortion is wrong. Though the members of the family are religious to varying degrees, several of them wear it on their sleeve, so to speak. Her mother covers her hair, her nephew wears a tall, black hat, and her younger sister wears long skirts. And the sheer size of Aharon’s family exemplifies a value that has long been handed down in Jewish tradition.

“According to Judaism, this is an order—to give birth to children,” says Rosenblum. She feels that religion plays too prominent a role in the discussion of abortion in Israel.

“Religion is religion and it shouldn’t be involved in the state,” she says. “But unfortunately, in Israel, there is no separation.”

Aharon returned to Israel and moved in with her mother. She knew she couldn’t have an abortion—she’d already had one before, when she 22. Three months into that pregnancy, her doctors could not detect a heartbeat, and she made the decision to abort.

“When he was gone, I was glad he was gone,” says Aharon. “I kind of thought, ‘good, he doesn’t have a heartbeat. Fine.” But the abortion would ultimately cause her more emotional fallout than she expected.

“A year and a half later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she says. “I felt so sorry.” She wonders now that if maybe she had waited, something could’ve changed. Maybe the baby would’ve been okay.

The second time around, Efrat gave her reassurance that everything would be okay, she says. And when she had Yuval, the organization gave her everything she was promised—a crib, a stroller, a year’s supply of diapers and baby food, and $300 a month.

“I needed that money,” Aharon says. “I had nothing left here.”

As plates are cleared from the table in Aharon’s sister’s home, the children’s energy does not seem to flag. Yuval and her cousins run around the living room in circles. But Aharon brings out dessert, and that does the trick. Yuval stops at her mother’s side, eyeing the chocolate cake. Aharon reaches for her, and sits her down at the table. She has big brown eyes, coffee-colored skin, and frizzy hair. She looks more Brazilian than Israeli, Aharon jokes.

After the meal, Aharon sits on the roof deck of her sister’s home, the salty ocean breeze whipping through her hair.

“About two weeks ago, on a crazy morning, I thought: I wish I was single—no kids, no husband,” she says with a smile. “I could just pick myself up, pack a bag, and go.” She pauses for a moment, and then shakes her head.

“But there is no way I’d live without her,” she says. “It’s just not worth it.”

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