Commentary Magazine


Topic: the Kotel

Ignoring the Rights of the Other Women at the Wall

Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, public relations expert Laura Kam argued that the ongoing controversy over Women of the Wall is particularly harmful to Israel because it’s seen as an issue of women’s rights. I agree that Israel’s current policy unacceptably violates Women of the Wall’s rights in some respects. But there’s another group of women whose rights the organization’s overseas advocates too often overlook: the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to “see and be seen,” as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman shockingly described her goal, but to pour out their hearts to God.

Because much of what the organization seeks to do at the Wall in no way disrupts other people’s worship, the existing ban on these activities is unjustified. A woman wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah, for instance, doesn’t impede anyone’s prayers: If you’re there to pray, your eyes should be on your prayer book, not on what other people are wearing or carrying. Even a full women’s prayer service complete with Torah reading wouldn’t necessarily be disruptive if it were quiet, as Orthodox worship often is: At many Orthodox services, you can’t even hear the Torah reading from more than a few feet away.

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Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, public relations expert Laura Kam argued that the ongoing controversy over Women of the Wall is particularly harmful to Israel because it’s seen as an issue of women’s rights. I agree that Israel’s current policy unacceptably violates Women of the Wall’s rights in some respects. But there’s another group of women whose rights the organization’s overseas advocates too often overlook: the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to “see and be seen,” as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman shockingly described her goal, but to pour out their hearts to God.

Because much of what the organization seeks to do at the Wall in no way disrupts other people’s worship, the existing ban on these activities is unjustified. A woman wearing a tallit or carrying a Torah, for instance, doesn’t impede anyone’s prayers: If you’re there to pray, your eyes should be on your prayer book, not on what other people are wearing or carrying. Even a full women’s prayer service complete with Torah reading wouldn’t necessarily be disruptive if it were quiet, as Orthodox worship often is: At many Orthodox services, you can’t even hear the Torah reading from more than a few feet away.

But that isn’t what Women of the Wall want. What they want is to make a political statement by worshiping as loudly and publicly as possible–to “see and be seen,” in Hoffman’s words. And that most definitely is disruptive to other worshipers: It’s hard to concentrate on one set of words when someone else is chanting a different set at full volume nearby.

Indeed, even the limited activity the group is allowed to conduct at the Wall today is conducted in as loud, public and disruptive manner as possible: A New York Times article last month, for instance, described the women “dancing and singing hymns in the women’s section,” which would certainly be disruptive to other women trying to pray at the site.

Jonathan’s analysis last week of why Women of the Wall’s battle has little traction in Israel was spot-on from a political standpoint. But there’s another reason that has little to do with politics: Contrary to the myth that most Israelis are secular, a majority of Israeli Jews actually put themselves someplace on the spectrum between “traditional, but not very religious” and “ultra-Orthodox.” And even among the 42 percent that define themselves as secular, many observe certain Jewish traditions and even believe in God: A recent survey found that a whopping 80 percent of Israeli Jews overall believe in God; 66 percent light candles on Friday night; 68 percent fast on Yom Kippur; 67 percent avoid leavened bread on Passover; and so forth.

In short, most Israeli Jews respect the sincerity of those thousands of women who pray at the Wall every day even if they would never do so themselves. Consequently, they see no reason why these women’s heartfelt prayers should be disrupted by other women seeking merely to make a political statement.

If Women of the Wall were more interested in praying than politics, Israelis might be more sympathetic to their cause. But as long as their main goal is to “see and be seen,” Israelis will understandably give precedence to the rights of those women who just want to pray to God without disruption.

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