How did Women of the Wall come into being?
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It’s a movement that originated abroad, founded by English-speaking women from the United States, Canada and England. They came to Israel in 1988 to attend the first International Jewish Feminist Conference. They went to the Western Wall, wishing to read from a Torah which was supposed to lie on a folding table. There is no folding table in the women’s section of the Wall, though in the men’s section there are of course dozens. The Hyatt Hotel, where they were staying, refused to give them a table. I had a folding table and they asked me to join them. You know, for demonstrations you always need a folding table and a megaphone, and I have both. They asked me to bring the table, and I did. They arrived at the Wall in two buses, tourists who came to pray − and I saw them being assaulted. And I mean assaulted. After that, a group of Israeli women who were there decided that we all would come on the eve of every new month in the Jewish calendar, and repeat what they had done: prayers, Torah, tefillin [phylacteries] and tallitot [prayer shawls]. As a second-generation Jerusalemite, it would never have occurred to me to approach the Wall. I saw it as the discotheque of the ultra-Orthodox − as [the late Prof. Yeshayahu] Leibowitz put it. Those women showed me that a different way is possible.
And from the moment you discovered that, you’ve been going to the wall regularly once a month?
Yes, for the past 24 years. And at a crazy time: The prayers start at 7 A.M.
You like mounting the barricades.
I find myself on the barricades due to force of circumstance. It’s not in me to climb down. That’s the story.
It’s a kind of mechanism. If at 6 A.M. on the appointed day I haven’t yet got up for the prayers, I’ll kill myself about it. No matter what I’ve gone through, no matter what my mental, physical or family state − I am with the women.
Even if you know the event will end with your arrest?
I am committed to this group. There is no other group like it in Israel that prays together, from all the streams in Judaism. They are my sisters.
The night I spent in jail was truly awful, and I won’t hide the fact that I came out of there scarred. Mostly because I had the feeling that the person who arrested me [on October 17, 2012] really enjoyed it. I could feel that.
Your feet were bound and you were handcuffed.
I was bound and given a body search. The worst thing was that when I was naked in front of the policewoman, she puts on a latex glove. Now, I saw “Midnight Express” [movie set in a Turkish prison]. You know what? Forget “Midnight Express.” Every woman knows that when she is naked and someone in the room puts on a latex glove, she knows what is about to happen.
And it happened?
No. It turned out that she put on the glove just to check my clothes, to make sure there was no bomb planted in them. But I was already like a puddle. A puddle! It’s theater. I’m absolutely certain they know that’s what people feel.
I conducted a religious ritual contrary to local custom, which harms the sensibilities of others. The rabbi of the Western Wall called the police.
But that’s open to interpretation, isn’t it? Who decides what harms the sensibilities of others?
That’s exactly why we went to court against the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The role of the rabbi of the Western Wall is to decide what the local custom is, and to ensure it is upheld.
I have been going there for the past 24 years. I am the local custom. Women of the Wall is the local custom, and yet we will never be the local custom.
Twenty-four years, month after month. Could it be that the element of provocation here trumps the other motivations?
It’s a nuance. Is it possible you crossed the line between the desire to promote the ideology that a woman is allowed to pray at the Western Wall wrapped in a tallit, and the desire to beat the system?
No. Progress is made in small steps, but we passed the point of no return. There will be bat mitzvahs at the wall. Women will pray there. The divider [between men and women] will also disappear. It will happen at some point. It’s what the public in Israel wants.
When the divider goes, the barrier in the brain will also fall and we will start to see things like freedom of choice.
How far does this go? In the same way that you are promoting women’s worship at the Wall, can you identify with and support, say, Moshe Feiglin and the others who visit the Temple Mount?
Feiglin and I are in the same business of freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. That’s all we have in common. But you know what? If all this gets sorted out and Jews will be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, I will fight along with Feiglin for the right of women to pray on the Temple Mount.
Is there any way to frighten you?
Yes. The police officer frightened me very much on the night I was arrested. I was scared because he was enjoying it. I absolutely couldn’t believe it when he dragged me across the ground. I was a member of the city council and the likelihood that I would make a run for it was zero, but he dragged me across the ground while I was handcuffed.
What were your thoughts at those moments?
I thought he had lost his mind. That I had fallen into the hands of the wrong guy. I filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers. Within a few days they decided that nothing had been amiss.
I was in a cell with three other women. One of them, a Tatar from Siberia, who was charged with soliciting for prostitution, asked me what I was in for. I explained it to her and she asked if I was from Pussy Riot [the feminist Russian punk rock group].
What do you say to people who claim you are looking for provocations?
That if I had to think about provocations to carry out at the Western Wall, I would definitely not think of a group of modestly dressed women who pray at 7 in the morning according to Jewish law. You want provocations at the Wall? I have ideas that will throw the whole Jewish world into uproar. I am also not familiar with any provocation that is sustained for 24 years. It is not a provocation. It is a movement that is unwilling to accept that the Western Wall has been turned into a Haredi synagogue. The government of Israel is ready to throw in the towel, but these women are not. Secular legislation and the secular Knesset and the secular police have decided to throw in the towel, but this group does not intend to surrender.
You won’t give in.
Is anything a legitimate target?
No. You have to know how to choose enemies: carefully. I choose them according to what suits my personality. There are terrible wrongs that do not suit my personality. Everything I do fits me like a glove.
In what way?
Silencing people is my story. I cannot bear it when I am silenced. [Former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud] Olmert used to silence me in the city council. He had this small switch at knee-level and he would simply turn off my microphone.
I was in the opposition. He didn’t want to hear. He would turn off the microphone when he thought I had said my fill. So I brought a megaphone.
And when he silenced you, you spoke through the megaphone?
Yes, but after I did that, he didn’t allow me to bring a megaphone into the chamber. I then did a study based on 48 council meetings during four years. I wanted to see if there were recurring patterns in the way Olmert silenced men versus women when he got angry.
What were your findings?
I found clear patterns: that the chance of someone cutting into the remarks of councilwomen was seven times greater than for councilmen.
How did you conduct the study?
I worked with the minutes of the meetings. You know, every bit of nonsense that’s uttered in the council is recorded and transcribed. I left out two of the meetings, because Olmert didn’t confirm in writing that the minutes actually reflected what happened in the meeting. I also discovered that he used other silencing methods with men. He would say, “The floor is no longer yours.” With women, he started off flattering them if they were quiet. To a woman who said nothing in a meeting, he would say, “You are the only one that is bringing dignity into this circus,” or refer to her “quiet presence.” I found that after a woman was complimented for being silent, she really spoke less. A woman who disparaged herself got to speak more − if she began her remarks by saying “I don’t remember” or “I don’t understand a thing about this.”
If she started with a disclaimer.
Yes. That would really pay off. There was a councilwoman who had a very high voice, which went even higher when she was stressed. I counted 98 comments about her voice in the transcripts. “What’s with the chirping?” “What’s with the beeping?” “Stop with the hysteria.” She gradually became silent and was not reelected.
Afterward, I asked Yael Dayan, Tzipi Livni and Limor Livnat whether their low voice was their authentic voice. They all admitted that they lowered their voice to sound more authoritative. Olmert used to call me insulting names in Yiddish, even though we are both sabras: Yente, klafte, makhesheyfe. The Haredim thought that was hilarious.
Did you at least enjoy the provocations?
Yes, of course. It’s very creative to try to challenge the system using unexpected methods. Doing the finger-wagging naughty-naughty thing is very expected and therefore loses its power. You know, on “The Voice” someone said he had touched Jennifer Lopez’s butt, and the feminists went berserk. Reshet [the TV franchisee] broadcast an apology. That, I would say, is a very expected and ineffective response.
In [using] feminism I always go for the least expected way. Every establishment that is saturated with testosterone and patriarchalism simply falls on its face when confronted with humor. Women need to create that: to invent funny methods.
Like your research study?
Yes. I presented it in the council in the presence of many people and sent copies to all female Likud MKs, to Olmert’s wife, to everyone he knows, and I published it in the media. People laughed. They laughed when they heard the quotes, when they saw the dynamic. The code of the mechanism was cracked.
Just think that Olmert himself signed off on the authenticity of it all, on the minutes. People laughed at him. He said, “Stop laughing, you are only encouraging her.”
It really was a creative provocation, and one that involved a lot of work.
It was great. The bit where he is standing there, ashamed, was wonderful. After that study there was nothing more to document. Olmert said, “If I speak she will start to write it down, so decide what you want.” It was over.
Yes, and that is my advice to Jewish feminism: to be unexpected. To sting.
So you didn’t get along with Olmert?
I went to the High Court of Justice against him quite a few times. I tried to bring about an investigation against him. But I wouldn’t say we didn’t get along.
What’s your opinion of him?
That he is extraordinarily intelligent and possesses fantastic political abilities. He suffered from hubris. And he didn’t have people around him to tell him the truth.
You know, I found an amazing quote of yours, something you said 10 years ago: “He is surrounded by the wrong people, apart from Shula Zaken” − Olmert’s longtime bureau chief.
I wrote an opinion in favor of getting her sentence reduced. We don’t really know each other − I want that to be clear. Our few encounters were very unpleasant. She was loyal to him, but for me she was the person to go to. I would come to her with a blind woman from East Jerusalem whose washing machine had been taken apart and a wall in her house demolished. Within 24 hours, Shula got the wall rebuilt and organized a washing machine from the social welfare services.
So she was attentive?
Yes, she was the only one ... But I’ve had a dialogue with Olmert, too. There’s something I didn’t realize: that there is intimacy between enemies. I am an Olmertologist; I know everything about him. How much his cigars cost, the budget for flowers for his office − I knew it all. I was traumatized when he left. I was miserable without him. I bought him the novel “Enemies, a Love Story.” And he responded. He missed it, too. And since then there has been a dialogue between us. I think he really missed out during his time as mayor; with his abilities he could have taken Jerusalem sky-high.
Would you like to see him return to politics as prime minister?
He is a gifted politician, one of the best in Israel. Extraordinarily intelligent. He stumbled badly.
If you know him so well, why do you think he just stumbled, and only over little things?
I think he was confused between illegal and inappropriate. The lawyer in him told him that what he was doing was legal; it may have been possible then to come up with an explanation regarding the legality of his actions. But he also knew it was inappropriate, not right. That’s exactly where people aren’t around to help you out. I find it hard to believe that he took money for himself. But political appointments, to make sure his loyalists were everywhere − that is very much like him.
I saw it in the Jerusalem Municipality, too. He would choose the less qualified person; the main thing was that the appointee had to show loyalty. It’s the same in regard to the people around him. He sucks in all the oxygen in the room. He is bad at surrounding himself with people who will truly help him. But I genuinely admire him. When he turns on the charm, he can be superbly charming.
Listen, Aliza Olmert [Ehud Olmert’s wife] is no dummy. [Benjamin] Netanyahu had to go through three women until he found a ‘poodle’ who doesn’t challenge him at all on ideological issues. Olmert is married to a woman who votes left wing. His children vote left wing. And he is a loving spouse and a marvelous father. There’s love between them. And yet they don’t have the same mindset. There are big egos at work. The man is strong.
Your biography shows a consistent antiestablishment thrust. You led a well-publicized campaign against Bezeq [the telecommunications company], you’re head of Women of the Wall, you were a fighting opposition on Jerusalem’s council. If there’s a wall, you ram into it head-first.
I always look for cracks in walls. A whole bunch of vegetation grows in cracks. No one cultivates it, but it’s there and it lends the wall its character. Without the capers or the golden henbane that grow in it − the Western Wall will just resemble a part of the Old City wall. They cling to the rock, look for food, enjoy the rainwater and in the end make the wall fall apart. It’s a symbolic representation of our struggle. Every fall of a wall begins with a crack. Cracks fascinate me, but I choose the walls carefully.
I like that. It’s the kind of thing people do when they are young, and it fades a bit when the burden of life descends on them. But that muscle hasn’t atrophied in you.
It’s actually getting stronger, I think, because of the search for a meaning to life. And also the understanding that the group that is us is in fact part of a circle that confers meaning. I am always with a lot of people. I am never alone.
The struggles are your way to give life meaning?
Americans talk about the “pursuit of happiness,” but I was never enthusiastic about that. I pursue meaning. I find meaning in the fact that I repair things which I think would be left untouched if I weren’t so insistent about them. There are also many failures, of course.
What meanings have you found?
In regard to the whole subject of how to function as an opposition in this country, at the local council level, I think I set some sort of standard about what can be done in my 14 years on the Jerusalem Municipality. Look, council members don’t get a salary. It’s very easy to buy them. That is very sad.
How did you earn a living in that period?
I had the luxury of not working, because my spouse supported me. Looking back on it, that’s what wrecked our marriage.
When did that happen?
Eight years ago, after 33 years of marriage. There is still great love between us, even now. I have very high regard, respect, gratitude. But gratitude is not exactly a good seasoning for a relationship.
I am trying to figure out what drives you. The easiest thing is to say, “This woman needs a lot of attention,” but I don’t think it’s really that.
Every woman in the history of Israel who fomented change was said to be a provocateur looking for attention. Women who behave nicely don’t bring about change.
Then what does drive you?
The question “Why not?” Let me explain the source of that particular question. My brother, and this is the truth, is a genius. I live in the shadow of a brother-genius. And as someone who failed in studies all her life, I was constantly reminded of that: “Why can’t you be like Ron the genius?” That “why not” stayed with me.
How many High Court petitions have you filed?
Is it easy to recruit you for causes?
No, it’s not. Often I will give someone good advice and refer him elsewhere.
I like to wield a multifaceted campaign on one issue and win.
And when you don’t win?
I think that maybe I should do it in a different style.
But you will attack the same target until you win. Like a bulldog.
Yes. The jaws lock and that’s it. Ask Olmert.
I will ask you.
Olmert really did not want it to be known that he smokes cigars. They cost NIS 150 each. By Bibi’s standards that is the height of modesty.
Yes, but Jerusalem is the poorest city in the country and that’s what he smokes.
I publicized his cigar thing from every possible platform. So much so, that in the party’s primary in Jerusalem he came in third. The mayor finished third.
Do you care what people think about you?
Absolutely not. There are six people who are truly perhaps my mentors, and I care about their opinion.
And your children?
My family is not part of that circle. There is no one in the family who thinks the struggle for the Western Wall is worthy.
The good feeling I have about myself doesn’t come from the outside. I can learn a great deal from people externally, but the struggle itself, whether it’s worthy or not, comes only from my conscience.
What do your children say to you?
My son Yoel, who is 17, says, “When the day comes that someone will have to wipe your ass, will anyone from politics be there? It will be me! Me! You’re always on the phone, and it’s always more important than me.”
Do you have a feeling of guilt?
Together with all your campaigns, you also know very well how to get along with the establishment. From the inside. For example, your fund-raising tactics: you know how to get what you want. You understand the codes of the system.
Yes, definitely. I understand the codes. Let’s say with Olmert: For every six letters of complaint that I sent him, I would also send one of thanks or of praise for something good he did. That sustained me in the system.
Because it’s also unexpected, you see, saying: “You did good with this or that thing.” “I support and reinforce your decision in such-and-such a case.”
So your tactic is to do the unexpected.
Yes, and also to take my value as a pest and use it to get things done within the system. I had a notebook in which I kept a record of how many things I sent, and what I sent and about whom. Because I had to strike a balance about myself, too, and not be nourished only by the poison and the filth.
It was important to be aware also of the wonderful things the municipal staff did. So, even if Olmert believed that the entry ticket to the city council is to make the life of the opposition miserable − to have a letter in your file from an opposition member saying how well you handled a certain matter is an asset. You can’t just look at things with one eye. You need both. And that demands discipline.
Do you enjoy being contrarian?
It’s a very well-developed muscle, but there is something very foot-stomping − like the “terrible twos” thing − in being contrarian. It’s not that. I am not willing to accept, put up with or rest easy in a situation where something in the system is screwed up and I have the potential to fix it.
Give me an example of a particularly creative idea you’ve had.
During the period of Women in Black [an anti-occupation movement] it was forbidden to carry a Palestinian flag. Six of us were arrested for wearing a pin on which there were two flags, the Israeli and the Palestinian, along with the word “peace.”
This was in the period of the Ordnance for the Prevention of Terrorism, and our goal was to get the ordnance annulled. It was in a period when soldiers told children to take down kites colored in red, green and black and when underwear in those colors was taken away from Palestinians [referring to the colors of the Palestinian flag]. Racism. I decided that I would create 10,000 symbols. The flag of Palestine, but instead of printing the flag in its colors, they bore the outline of the flag and the words “red, green, black.”
Like in children’s coloring books.
Yes. The police didn’t know what to make of it. It went to the attorney general. Is it the flag or not? What is the essence of the “stain” in Jewish law? They took it all the way to niddah [ritual purity] laws. What do we do with something like that?
Very. Three months later the ordnance was annulled. It’s truly a skill and a pleasure: to think what organizations can be expected to do and how we can do it differently.
From this perspective, Women of the Wall are sweeping across the Jewish world. Jews from all over the world call Netanyahu to talk to him about it. Do you know how we finally put an end to women’s segregation on buses [on routes going through religious areas]?
After the story exploded, we found out that the segregation was continuing on more than 2,000 trips a day. So we started to sue the drivers. Small-claims suits. Each driver was sued paid between NIS 8,000 and NIS 12,000. And that was it. They no longer cooperate with it. A woman on a bus who gets shouted at to move to the back and whose seat is kicked can turn to the driver, and he will tell them that it’s her right to sit wherever she wants. Otherwise she brings us the ticket, on which the driver’s name and the time appear. We will sue him. It worked very well.
Are you an optimistic Jewish woman?
Of course. Jews are optimists. We have been in the arena for enough years. That we are bruised, that there are people who take advantage of the bruise in order to be elected, that we are cowards and, because of that cowardice, will both eat crow and get beaten − that is all true. But we have a long history of heroism. Someone who is the hero conquers his impulse − not sexual impulse − for power, for chauvinism, for might. And turns his enemy into his friend.
How do you understand that?
The hero is one who finds the common ground with his enemy, so that it will be possible at least to start to talk. I have common ground with [Likud MK] Tzipi Hotovely, say. All in all, we have an interest in steering this ship in the direction of life.