The Women's Side of the Wall: How Do You Say 'Dehumanized' in Israel?

The extraordinary bravery and commitment shown by the hundreds of women fighting for their rights at the Kotel, deserves to be celebrated.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Try to imagine this in an account of a foreign regime: A Jewish person wearing a prayer shawl is heard publicly chanting the Sh'ma, the core statement of Judaism. The regime's state-funded clerics and its judiciary have ruled that such worship "hurts the feelings" of other people in the area, thus constituting a disturbance of the peace.

Police arrest and manhandle the worshipper, who is jailed and subjected to an all-night string of humiliations, before coming before a judge. Authorities ask the court to banish the Jew from the site for a period of 15 days. The judge goes far beyond: the banishment will last an entire month.

What happens next is perhaps the least likely scenario:

Israel does nothing about it. Israeli media barely report the story. It is considered of no interest to the public, nor the government.

Why not? Because it happened in Israel.

It happened at the holiest site of all of Judaism, the Kotel, the Western Wall, the last remnant of the ancient Temple, which the Talmud teaches was destroyed by sinat hinam, the baseless hatred of Jews for other Jews.

Fundamentally, it happened because the Jewish person arrested for praying there was a woman.

She is former Jerusalem city councilwoman Anat Hoffman, 56, executive director of the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, and chairwoman of Women of the Wall, which for nearly a quarter century has worked to repeal bans on ritual observance within the women's section of the Kotel.

Hoffman was arrested while leading prayers for a group of some 250 women, most of them participants in a Jerusalem centennial celebration for the Hadassah organization.

Much has been said, and justly so, in praise of Hoffman and the other leaders of Women of the Wall, for the remarkable determination they have shown in their long battle to be allowed to be themselves.

But the extraordinary bravery and commitment shown by the hundreds of women who accompanied and supported them, deserves to be celebrated as well.

They came there knowing that by taking part, they risked verbal and physical abuse and even arrest. Welcome to a new Israel, one which views more and more people as The Other, the shunned, the Non-Us, the person who is of no interest. The person whose rights are so secondary to ours as to evaporate altogether. The person whose feelings, hurt or not, are of no consequence.

In joining in prayer, those hundreds of women became fully-fledged, fully vulnerable members of The Other. Dehumanized.

Stop for a moment. How do you say "Dehumanized" in Hebrew? The answer, in both the literal and figurative sense, is: you don't.

You don't because, despite everything, despite the Holocaust and the Nakba and the depth of our tragic history and our real-time treatment of the Palestinians and African asylum seekers, Hebrew has apparently yet to come up with a word for it.

Perhaps because dehumanization has become so integral to our lives as to be as invisible as air.

Apparently, if you dehumanize long enough, it begins to become a reflex. You may begin to act toward Jews who aren't Israeli and Jewish in just the way you prefer, in ways you have become accustomed to thinking about and acting toward Arabs.

You may stop caring that you are effectively walling yourself off and seceding from the Jewish people as a whole. What do they matter, these Americans and British and French and Latin Americans who can't even speak Hebrew right? What do they matter, these women who want to read from the Torah and wear a prayer shawl and open their mouths and have music come out?

Stop a moment. The Kotel, no less than the Sh'ma, belongs to all of us, to the Jewish People. The clerics who hold the monopoly over the Kotel have shattered their trust with Jews the world over, and it will not be repaired.

People can see with their own eyes, through photographs and films taken long before Israel was founded, that Jewish men and women used to pray alongside one another at the Wall, the women in shawls, no mehitza gender barrier at all.

This week, at the same hour across the world, Jewish women said the Sh'ma aloud and publicly, in response to the Kotel arrests.

On Thursday, November 15, Women of the Wall and many who support them will gather by the Kotel to mark the Rosh Hodesh, a traditional holiday for women, the first day of the new Hebrew month. They've been doing this month after month for years, but this time will be different.

I'm not sure where the men who support them will be standing, but I don't want to be anywhere else.

November 15. Seven in the morning. The Western Wall. Where history begins again.

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