By Ron Kampeas
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Murray Koppelman saw women pushed onto the back of a bus in Tehran and had a nightmare about Israel’s future.
Koppelman, a well-known philanthropist in New York, is behind a New Israel Fund pledge drive to combat discrimination against women in Israel. He will match every new dollar donated to the New Israel Fund up to $500,000.
A full-page ad in The New York Times including a dramatic photo of a defaced poster featuring a woman’s portrait — one of many that have been vandalized in Jerusalem — announced the drive on April 18. The ad urges Americans to “Help keep Israel strong, free, and democratic.”
Koppelman, 80, said in an interview that the idea for the campaign came to him when he was touring Iran last autumn.
He had traveled much of the world and wanted to see Iran “while I still could make the trip,” he told JTA. His decision caused much family consternation, but he persisted.
Koppelman waited six months for a visa. He hired a guide when he arrived in Iran.
“It was a very arduous trip — I am over 80 — I needed to sit down. I found a bench, I sat down,” he recalled.
It was a bus stop. “There were 20 to 30 women with chadors on, and when the bus came, they were pushed to the back,” Koppelman said.
The scene brought to mind an NIF-organized lecture he had attended just before leaving for his trip. Alice Shalvi, a veteran Israeli feminist, described encroachments on Israeli women’s rights, including buses where women were expected to sit in the back.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pushed back against such measures, pledging to “preserve public space as open and safe.”
Seeing Iranian women shoved to the back of the bus unsettled Koppelman, who asked his guide whether such measures were introduced all at once after the 1979 revolution that brought Islamists to power.
No, the guide said, each change came incrementally.
“I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to Israel?’ ” Koppelman said.
He didn’t leave it at just thinking about it.
“I’m a person who likes to speak out,” said Koppelman, who then recited an Op-Ed he had submitted to The New York Times in 1995 weeks after an extremist Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“Like so many members of the American Jewish community, I have kept my opinions to myself for too long,” Koppelman read from the Op-Ed in stentorian, Brooklyn-inflected tones. “Hesitant to contribute to an image of the Jews as a divided people, I have refrained from taking a public stand on the issue of Israel exchanging occupied territory for peace. In unity, so I thought, there is strength. But it was words — words of venomous hatred — that led directly to the unthinkable outrage of the assassination of a prime minister of Israel by a Jew.”