Commentary Magazine


Topic: Women of the Wall

To Stand or to Kneel?

Aryeh Cohen, a leading voice in the left-wing Jewish social justice movement, has pointed out a hypocrisy on the left that has baffled some Jewish conservatives for a while. He doesn’t stand with Women of the Wall–a liberal organization in Israel looking to establish egalitarian prayer rights at the Western Wall (Kotel)–because it is seeking to advance Jewish rights in an area not only “occupied,” but where an Arab neighborhood once stood. In other words: how can Jewish liberals promote Jewish egalitarianism in a place they don’t even believe Jews should be?

Beyond the particular question of egalitarianism, Cohen’s article in Sh’ma in fact speaks to the wider issue of American Jewish liberal treatment of Israel. How are the competing claims of Jews and Arabs to be decided? “In some other world in which peace and justice reign, and nobody harbors any agendas aside from bettering the good of all,” Cohen writes, “everybody would be able to pray together, or as they wished, at the Western Wall or on the Temple Mount itself.” Unfortunately, as Cohen points out–and many conservatives would agree–this is not currently possible. The conclusion seems, then, that for now the will of one side must prevail over that of the other. The problem is that the American Jewish left believes the side that should prevail is that of the Arabs. If only one side of this conflict can pray on the Temple Mount, they say, it must be the Arabs. If only one side can have access to the Kotel, they say, it must be the Arabs. If only one side can have sovereignty in parts or all of the Land of Israel, they say, it must be the Arabs.

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Aryeh Cohen, a leading voice in the left-wing Jewish social justice movement, has pointed out a hypocrisy on the left that has baffled some Jewish conservatives for a while. He doesn’t stand with Women of the Wall–a liberal organization in Israel looking to establish egalitarian prayer rights at the Western Wall (Kotel)–because it is seeking to advance Jewish rights in an area not only “occupied,” but where an Arab neighborhood once stood. In other words: how can Jewish liberals promote Jewish egalitarianism in a place they don’t even believe Jews should be?

Beyond the particular question of egalitarianism, Cohen’s article in Sh’ma in fact speaks to the wider issue of American Jewish liberal treatment of Israel. How are the competing claims of Jews and Arabs to be decided? “In some other world in which peace and justice reign, and nobody harbors any agendas aside from bettering the good of all,” Cohen writes, “everybody would be able to pray together, or as they wished, at the Western Wall or on the Temple Mount itself.” Unfortunately, as Cohen points out–and many conservatives would agree–this is not currently possible. The conclusion seems, then, that for now the will of one side must prevail over that of the other. The problem is that the American Jewish left believes the side that should prevail is that of the Arabs. If only one side of this conflict can pray on the Temple Mount, they say, it must be the Arabs. If only one side can have access to the Kotel, they say, it must be the Arabs. If only one side can have sovereignty in parts or all of the Land of Israel, they say, it must be the Arabs.

This sentiment crosses the border of self-effacement into the region of self-hatred. To insist that the Jews owe so much to others and are themselves owed nothing is to ask of one’s tribe to be nothing more than a doormat. Such an analogy might describe much of Jewish history, yet now that, thanks to the achievements of the modern State of Israel, it may no longer be applicable, the American Jewish left is prescribing it. If rights are to clash in the Middle East, they declare, the Jews should sacrifice theirs. This, we are told, is “justice.”

We are also told it is “peace”–thus compounding the perverseness of these liberals’ recommendations. If the route to reconciliation in the Middle East is through the elevation of one side’s claims over the other’s, is peace likely to emerge from Arab hegemony, under which Jews are denied most rights (including, as it happens, the right to pray on the Temple Mount, which is administered by an Arab authority), or through Jewish democracy, where Arabs are afforded maximal rights?

(Those who contest this last point are referred to Cohen’s admission that “Nothing in Israel, or in the Middle East, is disconnected from anything else,” yet these issues are treated by North American Jews as if they “exist in a vacuum.”)

The Jewish left may think that the answer to Israel’s problems is to go back to the 1940s. Others, though, think “peace and justice” might come a different way.

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The Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

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Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.

But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.

No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.

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Why Palestinians Block Wall Changes

As I predicted two months ago, the prospects that Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky’s fair-minded plan for changes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall will be implemented have run into an impassable obstacle. Sharansky’s plan was to create a third section of the Kotel that would create a space for egalitarian services that would remove a source of conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers. It has been met with generally good reviews among both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who don’t like the way this sacred place has become for all intents and purposes an open-air Orthodox synagogue rather than a place of pilgrimage for all Jews. But as nasty and as bitter as the infighting between Jewish factions may be, the real conflict in the city remains the one between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Jerusalem Post reports today that the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs minister has said it will not permit Israel to change the entrance to the Temple Mount—which adjoins and looks down on the Wall Plaza—in order to expand the area where Jews may worship at the remnant of their ancient holy place. But the motivation of this veto isn’t pure spite. Just as they have used their power to set off violence and riots to protest even the most harmless alterations to the area in the last 20 years, Palestinian leaders are determined to stop Sharansky’s scheme in its tracks because they regard all of the Old City as not only theirs by right but a place that will be theirs in the event of any peace deal. Rather than this issue being a purely internecine conflict between women who wish to wear prayer shawls and read Torah and those Orthodox adherents who want to prevent them from doing so, the question of who is in charge at the Kotel still shrinks in significance when placed in the context of the Palestinian struggle to return to a period of history when Jews had no rights in Jerusalem.

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As I predicted two months ago, the prospects that Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky’s fair-minded plan for changes at Jerusalem’s Western Wall will be implemented have run into an impassable obstacle. Sharansky’s plan was to create a third section of the Kotel that would create a space for egalitarian services that would remove a source of conflict between Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshipers. It has been met with generally good reviews among both Israelis and Diaspora Jews who don’t like the way this sacred place has become for all intents and purposes an open-air Orthodox synagogue rather than a place of pilgrimage for all Jews. But as nasty and as bitter as the infighting between Jewish factions may be, the real conflict in the city remains the one between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Jerusalem Post reports today that the Palestinian Authority’s religious affairs minister has said it will not permit Israel to change the entrance to the Temple Mount—which adjoins and looks down on the Wall Plaza—in order to expand the area where Jews may worship at the remnant of their ancient holy place. But the motivation of this veto isn’t pure spite. Just as they have used their power to set off violence and riots to protest even the most harmless alterations to the area in the last 20 years, Palestinian leaders are determined to stop Sharansky’s scheme in its tracks because they regard all of the Old City as not only theirs by right but a place that will be theirs in the event of any peace deal. Rather than this issue being a purely internecine conflict between women who wish to wear prayer shawls and read Torah and those Orthodox adherents who want to prevent them from doing so, the question of who is in charge at the Kotel still shrinks in significance when placed in the context of the Palestinian struggle to return to a period of history when Jews had no rights in Jerusalem.

The problem is that in order for Sharansky’s plan to be implemented, alterations must be made to the Mugrabi Bridge that provides access to the Temple Mount from the Wall Plaza. Israel has sought to renovate the bridge in recent years, a move that would only benefit Muslims and the foreign tourists who visit the mosques on the hill (Jews are forbidden to pray there), but it has been prevented from doing so by the demands of the Muslim Wakf which administers the Temple Mount.

The issue here isn’t just preservation of an ancient site in pristine condition since the Temple Mount has already been the scene of massive vandalism committed by the Wakf, which is determined to ignore or bury the evidence of the Jewish origins of the place. The Wakf claims the Kotel is theirs and rejects Jewish sovereignty over any part of it or the city that surrounds it as well as any association with Judaism or the history of the Jewish people. Palestinian Authority leaders and their media have repeatedly claimed that the ancient temples were not built on the Mount where Muslim conquerors subsequently built mosques, just as they deny the associations of the Jews with the rest of their ancient homeland. The rejection of the Sharansky plan is a function of the desire of the PA to exercise control over the entire Old City.

The PA and the Wakf don’t want to stop the expansion of the areas where people can pray at the Wall only because they wish to discomfit the Jews but because they envision administering it themselves in the future.

The dispute between the Women of the Wall and Orthodox authorities is a significant issue that can poison the relationship between Israel and the vast majority of American Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox denominations. But the PA’s pronouncement is a reminder that the real fight in Jerusalem is not between Jews. So long as Palestinians are determined to reverse the verdict of history and return Jews to a subordinate status in their ancient capital, the spat between Jewish factions will have to wait.

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Palestinians and the Western Wall

Five women were arrested today at the Western Wall as the dispute about the right of non-Orthodox Jews to conduct egalitarian services there continued. The confrontation that came, as it always does, on the first day of the Hebrew month displayed the usual nastiness as an Orthodox man was also arrested reportedly for trying to burn a prayer book of one of the Women of the Wall. But there were some hopeful signs that the compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky won’t be opposed by Orthodox leaders. In particular, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Foundation that currently runs things at the Wall, said he wouldn’t oppose Sharansky’s plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza so as to create another equally large space in which egalitarian services may be held.

Sharansky’s idea for creating “One Kotel for One People” based on the principles of access, equality and unity is a good one. If implemented, it would not only substantially improve the site; it would effectively end a long-running argument that serves only to alienate the majority of American Jews from Israel. But as I wrote yesterday, the real obstacle to this project is not the desire of some to keep the Wall functioning solely as an Orthodox synagogue rather than as a national shrine for all Jews. The problem is the willingness of Palestinians to use threats of violence to prevent any changes in the area. What I did not discuss fully yesterday was why exactly the Muslim religious authorities that control the Temple Mount compound above the Wall Plaza would care about stopping Jewish religious services. The answer goes to the heart of the Palestinian rejection of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem or any part of the country.

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Five women were arrested today at the Western Wall as the dispute about the right of non-Orthodox Jews to conduct egalitarian services there continued. The confrontation that came, as it always does, on the first day of the Hebrew month displayed the usual nastiness as an Orthodox man was also arrested reportedly for trying to burn a prayer book of one of the Women of the Wall. But there were some hopeful signs that the compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky won’t be opposed by Orthodox leaders. In particular, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the Western Wall Foundation that currently runs things at the Wall, said he wouldn’t oppose Sharansky’s plan to expand the Western Wall Plaza so as to create another equally large space in which egalitarian services may be held.

Sharansky’s idea for creating “One Kotel for One People” based on the principles of access, equality and unity is a good one. If implemented, it would not only substantially improve the site; it would effectively end a long-running argument that serves only to alienate the majority of American Jews from Israel. But as I wrote yesterday, the real obstacle to this project is not the desire of some to keep the Wall functioning solely as an Orthodox synagogue rather than as a national shrine for all Jews. The problem is the willingness of Palestinians to use threats of violence to prevent any changes in the area. What I did not discuss fully yesterday was why exactly the Muslim religious authorities that control the Temple Mount compound above the Wall Plaza would care about stopping Jewish religious services. The answer goes to the heart of the Palestinian rejection of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem or any part of the country.

Any attempt to expand the area of the ancient remnant of the Second Temple will hinge on a renovation of the Mugrabi Bridge, a ramp that allows access to the Temple Mount from the area around the Wall. As I noted previously, Muslims reacted to an Israeli plan to repair that facility with threats of violence even though it would have been to their benefit. They did the same thing in 1996 about the opening of a Western Wall tunnel exit that had nothing to do with them.

Some put this down only to the bad feelings that have poisoned all relations between Jews and Arabs in the dispute over sovereignty over Jerusalem and the land of Israel/Palestine. But this is not just a manifestation of malice. Muslim clerics associated with both the “moderates” of the Palestinian Authority and the extremists of Hamas agree that Jews have no claim to any part of the Western Wall, no matter how they wish to pray there.

The Wakf, the Muslim authority that governs the Temple Mount compound, claims that the Kotel is part of their bailiwick and reject Jewish sovereignty over any part of it or the city that surrounds it. Palestinian Authority leaders and their media have repeatedly claimed that the ancient temples were not built on the Mount where Muslim conquerors subsequently built mosques, just as they deny the associations of the Jews with the rest of their ancient homeland.

As Haaretz notes, the Wakf is opposed to any plans that might expand Jewish worship at the Wall or allow more people to have access to it. They also oppose all archeological digs in the area since they further establish the historical validity of Jewish claims. They also use spurious claims that Jews are trying to undermine the structure of the Mount—the same sort of libel that led to bloody Arab pogroms against Jews in the past—in order to whip up anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

There is no doubt that these unscrupulous Palestinian leaders will use the same tactics to prevent Sharansky’s plan from ever being realized. That is regrettable. But what American Jews who rightly lament the situation at the Wall should understand is that the bigger problem in Jerusalem isn’t the dispute between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews but the one in which Palestinians attempt to deny the rights of all Jews. Prior to June 1967, no Jews could pray at any part of the Wall or step foot in the Old City of Jerusalem, and that is the situation Palestinians are trying to restore. Those determined to fight to the bitter end on issues of Jewish pluralism should remember that the bigger, far more important battle is part of the ongoing Arab war to destroy Israel.

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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.

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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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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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The Women and the Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

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In the last week, the New York Times has published two articles on the simmering controversy in Israel over the right of non-Orthodox Jewish women to worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The Wall may be a sacred site for all Jews, but it is operated as an open air Orthodox synagogue under the authority of a foundation determined to keep it that way. Thus the desire of women who adhere to the beliefs of Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism to pray with Torah scrolls and in prayer shawls is considered a breach of the peace leading to unfortunate scenes in which female worshipers have been dragged off to jail. As far as most American Jews are concerned this is an outrage, and the latest argument over the activities of the Women of the Wall, who have been pushing to change the status quo there, has created another surge of anger that has led Prime Minister Netanyahu to say that he will initiate a study by Natan Sharansky that will seek to explore ways to make the place more accommodating to all Jews.

Whether Netanyahu is sincere or not, the Women of the Wall are entitled to react to this proposal with cynicism. It’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu will do anything at the Wall to upset the religious parties that make up his governing coalition. The non-Orthodox—who make up the overwhelming majority of American Jews—can choose to see this as one more reason to distance themselves from the Jewish state. But the reason why nothing is likely to change there tells us more about the divide between Israeli Jews and those of the Diaspora than any bad will on the part of the prime minister. The problem here is not so much prejudice against Reform and Conservative Judaism—though that exists in abundance among the Orthodox establishment in Israel—but the fact that those denominations remain tiny and without much influence in the country.

The battle over the Women of the Wall is just one more illustration of the gap between the rhetoric about Israel being the heritage of all of the Jewish people and the fact that the country is, as a matter of course, always going to be governed to suit the needs and the beliefs of those who live there.

In the United States, where the Orthodox remain a minority in the Jewish community—albeit the only one that is growing rather than shrinking in terms of population—the treatment of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel remains a source of anger and puzzlement. To many American Jews, the fact that Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations in Israel are not given the same support as those of the Orthodox seems to be an expression of pure bias. The relegation of the Women of the Wall to an out-of-the-way section of the Wall known as Robinson’s Arch for their prayer services is viewed as a contradiction of the country’s purpose as the homeland of all of the Jewish people.

But as much as the Reform and Conservative movements have made some strides in recent years, they remain a tiny minority in the country. It may no longer be true that, as some wags used to say, there are more Scientologists in Israel than Reform or Conservative Jews, but the same point still applies: the political constituency inside Israel for equal treatment for non-Orthodox denominations is practically non-existent.

To those who say that politics should have no role in determining decisions that ought to be made on the basis of the principles of religious freedom and pluralism, the only response is to point out that this is one point on which Israel has more in common with European democracies where there is an established religion than with the United States. In a country such as Israel where religion and state are not separated as they are in America and the clergy is paid by the state, the question of who is a rabbi is inherently political.

Though, as critics of the Orthodox establishment rightly point out, most Israelis are not observant, the vast majority still sees Orthodoxy as the only valid form of Judaism. By contrast, Reform and Conservative Judaism are viewed as foreign imports whose adherents are mostly American immigrants. There is strong support among the Israeli electorate for disestablishing or cutting back on the influence of rabbinate, but there is little interest in the question of giving equal treatment to the non-Orthodox. That is a source of understandable frustration for American Jews, but until the ranks of Conservative and Reform Judaism inside Israel swell to the point that they have some kind of political clout, no Israeli government will care much about them. This is also the reason why most Israelis either don’t care about the Women of the Wall or dismiss them as publicity-seeking Diaspora troublemakers.

The symbolism of the Wall is such that Netanyahu is right to make some sort of gesture about the issue that will calm American Jewry. The Wall ought never to have been allowed to become yet another point of contention in this manner. Letting the Orthodox authorities abuse the non-Orthodox who wish to worship there according to their own lights is a problem that can only worsen the already tattered ties between Israel and the Diaspora. But stripping it of Orthodox control simply isn’t in the cards. That doesn’t make what has happened at the Wall right, but the fact that most American Jews don’t understand why this is so just illustrates how little they know about the country. 

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