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Can the Wall Become a Symbol of Unity Rather Than Division?

The protest group Women of the Wall is back in the news. They have been fighting for the right to hold prayer services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for years–drawing fire from the Orthodox for doing so–dressed in prayer shawls and reading from the Torah. These are practices that are normative for Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations in the United States but considered an outrageous violation of the customs of the site that is operated as if it were an Orthodox synagogue rather than a national shrine of the Jewish people, which is the way most Americans think of it. In recent months, members of the group were again arrested when they tried to hold a prayer service. The controversy was further fueled this week when Jerusalem Police Chief Yossi Pariente sent a letter to the head of the protest group warning her that they were prohibited from saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—when they held their monthly service at the Wall.

The ensuing furor was only contained when the rabbi who heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the place, said no women would be arrested for saying Kaddish. That assurance was delivered to Natan Sharansky, the hero of the Soviet Jewish movement who now heads the Jewish Agency, the philanthropic group responsible for the absorption of Jews from the Diaspora into the country, who had expressed his dismay at this development.

But the exchange shouldn’t reassure anyone. The problem at the Wall is not only not going away, it is escalating and it’s obviously going to take more than talk from Sharansky, who was asked by Prime Minister Netanyahu to deal with the situation. Israelis need to understand that the damage being done to their country’s image by these goings on is not a minor issue. As much as he dreads any involvement in what appears to him to be a no-win situation, it is high time for him to step in and stop the madness.

As I wrote last December, most American Jews have little understanding of the underlying issues at the Wall. The disinterest most Israelis feel about the question of religious pluralism strikes Americans as shocking. However, it is a reflection of the fact that non-Orthodox Judaism is something that most Israelis think is a foreign import with little relevance to their society. As our Evelyn Gordon wrote here a few days after my piece, Israelis are unsympathetic to a movement such as the Women of the Wall that appears to them to be primarily political and intent on disrupting the existing order of the Wall.

Yet as much as I understand that most Israelis may agree with Evelyn’s evaluation of the issue, this latest absurdity about the Kaddish prayer ought to serve as a reminder that what goes in Jerusalem affects the rest of the Jewish people. As Evelyn noted, the spectacle of women’s rights being violated in this manner hurts Israel’s image, particularly among American Jews. It is hard enough for Israel’s defenders to hold their own against the falsehoods and calumnies launched at the Jewish state’s defense policies. For them to be further burdened by incidents that constitute a violation of women’s rights and an insult to the religious practices of most American Jews is as intolerable as it is unnecessary.

When Sharansky told Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of the Western Wall Foundation “The Kotel must continue to be a symbol of unity for all Jews in the world and not a symbol of strife and discord,” I’m afraid the Orthodox rabbinate may have thought the incident could be papered over with platitudes. But it cannot.

Sharansky is working on a plan which, according to Haaretz, will ensure that “that every Jew in the world can pray in the manner that they are accustomed to at Judaism’s most important national and religious site.” If so, that is a formula for confrontation with an Orthodox establishment that has gotten used to the idea that it can dictate policy about the Wall even, as this week’s incident proved, to the police.

It goes without saying that Netanyahu would prefer to avoid such a confrontation if he possibly can. Even while leading a coalition that, for the first time in a long while, has no Orthodox parties among its members, the prime minister knows that knocking heads with the rabbinate will be messy and costly. But he must also know that when American Jews see headlines about women being arrested for praying at the Wall and policemen talking about prohibiting prayers, that is the sort of black eye that neither the country nor the Jewish people can afford.

When Sharansky comes forward with his plan, it will be up to Netanyahu to see that it is adopted and enforced. That won’t make everyone happy but it will end the running sore that the bans on certain services at the Wall has created. Though many, if not most, Israelis don’t identify with the Women of the Wall, the time has come to start treating the place as if it belonged to all Jews, rather than just the rabbinate. That won’t end the ongoing controversy about pluralism or make Reform and Conservative Judaism equal partners with the majority. But it will be a rational step that will strengthen the country and its bonds with the Diaspora. Let’s hope Netanyahu has the guts to see that this happens.


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