From Women of the Wall to the Mandela Funeral Fiasco

Israel’s diplomatic debacle over Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was Haaretz’s top-read story in 2013, but violent protests against Women of the Wall got the year rolling.

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Segregation on buses and gender equality were big stories in 2013, and Israel being Israel, there were plenty of scientific breakthroughs and scandals to go around too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the world to take action against Iran’s nuclear program but somehow mucked up Israel’s response to the death of Nelson Mandela. Below are Haaretz’s most popular stories of 2013, in order of most read, as determined by our readers.

10. Women of the Wall

Women of the Wall’s efforts to secure equal praying rights for women at Jerusalem’s Western Wall stoked violent protests by the ultra-Orthodox community this year. In the first half of 2013, police arrested Women of the Wall members as they prayed; nearly a dozen were detained on February 11, including Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman.

The arrests and counterprotests put issues of religious pluralism and gender equality into Israel’s courts and headlines as the group marked its 25th birthday. On April 25, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that women praying at the Western Wall with prayer shawls and tefillin does not violate local custom and does not constitute a provocation, so there are no grounds for arrests. The group is led by Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. She was voted Haaretz’s Person of the Year based on a Facebook poll in September.

9. Israel, the convenient puppet master

Egyptian-Belgian journalist Khaled Diab asked why the Middle East generates so many conspiracy theories featuring a nefarious role for Israel. His opinion piece mentions the outlandish assertions by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Israel was behind the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, and asks why both Morsi loyalists and their opponents allege Israel’s involvement, usually in collaboration with the United States, as the master puppeteer behind the crises.

Diab argues that a clash between Egyptians has been distorted, as have many historic events in the region, by the demonization that has been going on for generations between Arabs and Israelis. This has led to the sorry state of too many people on each side willing to believe the most implausible, inhumane theories about the other.

8. Israeli anti-aging discovery?

Israeli researchers at the Hebrew University are developing a material that inhibits the aging process and could prevent degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. It has been successfully tested on worms; mice go under the microscope next.

7. Bus 497 from Beit Shemesh to Bnei Brak

Buses were stoned this year in Beit Shemesh, a mixed city of secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. The issue: gender segregation. On July 31, a woman on the 497 bus was asked by another woman to sit in the back of bus. Although the second woman did not object, the bus driver summoned the police to detain the woman who had made the request. The result was a backlash from ultra-Orthodox youths in Beit Shemesh, a frequent flashpoint for secular-religious tensions.

6. Obama’s first visit to Israel as president

Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as U.S. president on March 20 garnered a lot of attention, especially because he hadn’t visited during his first term. But no tension was evident when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted Obama at Ben-Gurion Airport, or in the photograph of the two leaders in their nearly identical suits and sky-blue ties.

Obama’s itinerary included a photo-op with the Iron Dome antimissile system, a stay at King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a tour of Yad Vashem and a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was added to his itinerary at the last minute. The president’s speech to an audience of Israeli students at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center was considered by many Haaretz analysts as a pep talk for a two-state solution. It combined praise for Israel and its people with disapproval of Netanyahu’s settlement policy.

5. Sharp decline in Ethiopian birthrate – a scandal revealed

In January, a government official news broke that Israeli women of Ethiopian origin had been injected with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera. Health Ministry and other state agencies denied knowledge or responsibility for the practice. But in January, all gynecologists at health-maintenance organizations instructed  all women “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera" if there was any doubt that recipients did not understand the implications of the treatment.

4. Segregated bus lines for Palestinians

In March, bus company Afikim began operating Palestinian-only bus lines from West Bank checkpoints to central Israel, following complaints by Israelis living in settlements that the buses were overcrowded by Palestinians and presented a security risk. Critics have called this a path toward Israeli apartheid, but the Transportation Ministry says the move is intended to relieve the distress of Palestinian workers.

3. A boost for the boycott movement

British physicist Stephen Hawking’s canceled his participation at the Israeli Presidential Conference in June, a move considered a major achievement for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. As Chemi Shalev wrote, “With Hawking, the Palestinian-inspired BDS movement now has a powerful symbol and an unlikely poster boy at its disposal in its increasingly successful drive.”

2. Iranian nukes

One of the biggest stories of 2013 is sure to drift into next year: The threat of an Iran with nuclear weapons and Israel’s determination to avert it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged the United States and other world powers to keep up the sanction regime against the Islamic Republic.

In November, landmark talks between the P5+1 powers and Iran produced an interim deal that freezes Tehran’s nuclear program for six months. Netanyahu called this a “historic mistake,” but ex-security chiefs in Israel and analysts have hailed the deal as preferable to the alternatives.

1. Mandela’s funeral and the Israeli debacle

After notifying the South African government that he would be on hand for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Netanyahu backed out, citing the trip’s high cost of around 7 million shekels ($1.9 million). The abrupt cancellation to attend one of the largest gatherings of world dignitaries ever, in memory of one of the most revered leaders in history, sent a clear message, argued Bradley Burston.

“Israel does not consider a man like Nelson Mandela, or a nation like South Africa, or the sentiment of an entire world, worth the price of a plane flight .... My Israel, which spends untold tens of millions on such matters as bolstering and protecting settlement construction during peace negotiations with the Palestinians, or erecting detention facilities for African asylum seekers rather than formulating coherent and just refugee policies, has nothing left over for this man Mandela.”

This article was updated.

Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu. They didn't make this scene in South Africa.Credit: Kobi Gideon / Government Press Office