By The Israeli yatra
Please accept our humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.
On March 23, 2012, the devotees at ISKCON Harish, Israel, had the honor of hosting the internationally renowned Prof. Eileen Barker, Prof. Paul Heelas and other leading local academic researchers, as well as representatives of new religious movements, in a friendly discussion panel concerning minority religions in Israel.
Re’em Stern (Bhaktivedanta College alumnus) and Prof. Eileen Barker
On Sep 7, 2011, Hemy Bar-Or and Re’em Stern of ISKCON Harish were invited to present the Hare Krishna movement in an academic conference at the prestigious Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. This historical presentation was the first time ISKCON representatives were invited to an academic dialogue in Israel not as members of a “dangerous sect” (as ISKCON is often referred to by Jewish ultra-orthodox organizations), but as members of an historically authentic, respectable, socially contributing religious movement. This unprecedented achievement is mainly due to the preaching service of the senior devotees of our yatra, Gunavatara Dasa (ACBSP) and Varsabhanavi Devi Dasi (TKG), who have been serving Srila Prabhupada’s mission and teaching Krishna consciousness indefatigably for over three decades, despite tremendous hardships, local complexities and material hostility. In our presentation we spoke in front of leading Israeli religion and spirituality researchers, professors and policy-makers, and received their appreciation and favor towards ISKCON.
Hebrew: Mr. Re’em Stern, a member of the Hare Krishna community in Harish
Dr. Marianna Ruach-Midbar, chairwoman of the Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spiritualities at the University of Haifa, came to visit us in Harish with her family, and invited us to attend the international conference that took place on March 19, 2012. There, in a workshop about alternative responses to minority religions, we met Prof. Eileen Barker (London School of Economics) and Prof. Paul Heelas (Erasmus University Rotterdam), and with appreciation invited all three to Harish for a discussion panel concerning increasing anti-democratic reactions towards minority religions in Israel. We were also honored to host Prof. Nurit Zaidman from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, as well as other representatives of new religious movements in Israel.
Prof. Eileen Barker
Prof. Eileen Barker, a guest speaker at the ISKCON Communications conference in Radhadesh, Belgium last year, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with special reference to the study of religion at the London School of Economics, University of London. Her main research interest is “cults” and new religious movements, and the social reactions to which they give rise. She has around 300 publications (translated into 27 different languages). In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which provides information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. In 2000, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appointed her as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 2011 she was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.
Prof. Paul Heelas is one of the pioneering academic researchers of the New Age movement. He is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University and at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Holland.
In the panel, the general question we presented to our guests was: In light of recent anti-democratic statements and initiatives in Israel against minority religions, and the attempt to categorize them without differentiation as “dangerous cults”, how should we proceed?
Prof. Eileen Barker and Prof. Paul Heelas
Prof. Barker explained the importance of a scholarly network like INFORM that can provide accurate, balanced information about new or alternative spiritual movements to government officials, academic researchers and the media. She pointed out that the term “cult” lacks a clear, conclusive academic definition, and that Old Religious Movements tend to have all the characteristics of New Religious Movements.
Prof. Heelas spoke about the importance of “One Love”, finding the common ground and universal aspects of religious practice and emphasizing them.
Dr. Ruach-Midbar was wondering if devotees in Israel are attacked by Ultra-Orthodox Jews because of the apparently Hindu characteristics of the spiritual practice of Krishna consciousness. However, it was pointed out that other religious minorities in Israel that have no connection to Hinduism whatsoever suffer from oppression and defamation as well.
In conclusion, Prof. Barker added that anyone who wishes to understand the complex religious situation in Israel should read Prof. Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s Theocratic Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2010), which examines more than fifty years of media-reported unconventional and deviant behavior by members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Ben-Yehuda finds not only that this behavior has happened increasingly often over the years, but also that its most salient feature is violence â€“ a violence not random or precipitated by situational emotional rage, but planned and aimed to achieve political goals, such as defamation and destruction of other religious practices and movements.
After the panel, a sumptuous Krishna prasadam feast was served to all the guests, who relished it with much delight. The devotees had the opportunity to speak with Prof. Barker and tell her about the difficulties we face as preachers of Krishna consciousness in Israel, about the media and legal attacks that led to the closure of our educational system, how we cannot even wear traditional Indian clothes for effective preaching in the uniquely sensitive and volatile situation in Israel because of local fundamentalist antagonism, and how even some of our families were turned against us by ultra-orthodox manipulations, which have just recently been exposed. Prof. Barker listened with great interest and said she is available for further advice. The devotees were grateful for the warm and respectful discussion, and invited her to visit again.
Your servants in Israel