Commentary Magazine

Religious Equality at the Kotel

To the Editor:

One question seems to have escaped Evelyn Gordon’s recasting of the events surrounding the blatant discrimination against Nashot HaKotel/Women of the Wall in Israel [“Provocation at the Wall,” September], which too often leads to the violent reactions of a narrow Haredi Orthodox conception of what “true” Judaism is: How does one bring about positive social change without what she labels as provocation?

It is beside the point that for the majority of Israelis, religious gender discrimination against women is irrelevant. In a place holy to all Jews, which until the 20th century saw men and women praying in close proximity to each other without the necessity of a mechitzah (barrier), that place is now governed by those who deem the wearing of a tallit (prayer shawl) by women, reading from and touching the Sefer Torah, and chanting prayers audibly offensive. The absurdity and immorality of this discrimination are part of a wider set of issues that continues to see all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism having to curry favor from a government that only under pressure steps up to do what is right for the Jewish people. This government also hides behind the judicial process and court system, which, in turn, reluctantly continues to affirm that such discrimination is illegal.

The fact that Diaspora Jewry is championing the cause of the downtrodden in Israel is not connected to any attempted leftist power grab in the Jewish state, as Ms. Gordon seems to suggest. It is the proud heritage of Jews throughout the West, who themselves have struggled and fought for the equality of all peoples, and it is politically consistent with what it means to be a democratic nation-state, a definition over which Israel is continuing to struggle. The examples Ms. Gordon cites on Israel’s slow pace of granting women equality in the political and military arenas are positives, to be sure, but have been too long in coming.

Last, the question of whether “Jewish” and “democratic” can exist in harmony in Israel is really the heart of this whole issue. Whether its leadership is willing to affirm the reality and necessity of shutafut (partnership) with the Jews of the Diaspora, having for too long been seen as merely “Zionist checkbook Jews” and Zionist political advocates without an internal voice, is also part of this wider conversation—without chair-throwing, spitting on fellow Jews, and the like.

Steven Jacobs
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

To the Editor:

A question remains after reading Evelyn Gordon’s article about Women of the Wall. Are they genuinely interested in religious freedom for women, or are they cynically misusing a worthy cause in a campaign to slander the Jewish state?

The answer may lie on the other side of the Wall—namely, at the Temple Mount. If the Women of the Wall—and other organizations that voice support for pluralism—also pushed to say Kaddish on the Temple Mount, where the Waqf forbids Jewish prayer of any kind, then they’d have more credibility. They’d still be at the Wall, just on the other side of it. Women of both sides of the Wall.

A recent article in the New York Times asserts that the few Jews who attempt to pray, silently, on the Temple Mount are, in the article’s title, “Challeng[ing] Rules to Claim Heart of Jerusalem.” So where are the Women of the Wall in this key challenge to religious intolerance on the other side of the Wall? Nowhere, it seems.

Kevin Jon Williams
Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Evelyn Gordon writes:

Kevin Jon Williams raises an important point in his letter: Far too many groups and individuals who champion “religious freedom” at the Western Wall have no use for religious freedom when it comes to Jews seeking to pray at Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount. They are justifiably appalled when Israel’s government capitulates to ultra-Orthodox violence aimed at driving (non-Orthodox) Jewish worshipers from the Wall, but applaud when it capitulates to Arab violence aimed at driving (Orthodox) Jewish worshipers from the Mount.

Just as the Wall should properly be open to all who seek to pray there (which is the goal of the plan proposed by Natan Sharansky to add an egalitarian section at the Wall), the Mount should also be open to all who seek to pray there. It is holy to two faiths, not just one, and both should be able to worship on it—just as Jews and Muslims alike can worship freely at another site holy to both, Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. The Cave contains both a synagogue and a mosque, and both are open year-round except on a few Jewish and Muslim holidays, when the site is open only to members of the celebrating religion. A similar arrangement could and should be instituted on the Mount, which has plenty of space to accommodate a synagogue in addition to the existing mosques.

Regarding Steven Jacobs’s question as to how one effects change without provocation, the answer is, through all the usual tools of democratic activity: speaking, writing, demonstrating, legal action, and above all, voting. That’s precisely how women made strides toward equality in the political and military arenas, which he grudgingly acknowledges as “positive.”

Jacobs also questions Israel’s willingness for a partnership with Diaspora Jewry. In fact, Israel has always granted Diaspora Jews a voice on certain policy issues of great importance to them; that’s why, for instance, the government shelved legislation in 2010 aimed at easing the conversion process for non-Jewish Russian immigrants, even though it would have furthered a very important Israeli interest, after American Jews objected vehemently to a clause they interpreted (erroneously) as giving the Orthodox rabbinate more control over conversion. That’s also why the government favors Sharansky’s plan—not to accommodate the few dozen women who join Women of the Wall’s once-a-month services, but to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Reform and Conservative Jews in America who are upset by the lack of such a space.

Yet while Israel sees itself as belonging in some sense to all Jews worldwide, it is also a flesh-and-blood country that, like any democracy, must primarily tend to the interests of its own citizens, and whose politicians must answer first and foremost to their voters. Thus the fact that WOW’s cause wasn’t of great concern to most Israelis isn’t “irrelevant,” as Jacobs claims; the reality of life in any democracy is that when governments are considering where to invest their limited time, attention, and resources, issues that do concern their voters usually get priority. And non-Orthodox Jewish movements have very few voters in Israel—a fact that’s unlikely to change unless American Jews begin immigrating in large numbers.

That these movements nevertheless periodically manage to sway Israeli government decisions is the best possible proof of how seriously Israel takes its partnership with Diaspora Jewry. That they also lose many battles is proof that Israel remains a democracy, where the views of its citizens are necessarily usually accorded greater weight than those of non-citizens.

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