U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was already on his Middle East tour when American women took to the streets for the Women’s March over the weekend, demanding equality and empowerment on the first anniversary of the Trump administration.
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But the feminist fight followed Pence to Israel’s Western Wall on Tuesday, as female journalists covering his visit to Israel launched an angry backlash after gender segregation prevented them from following the event and doing their jobs. Fuming as their access to the visiting vice president was obstructed, women reporters protested on Twitter, pushing their complaints into the international spotlight under the hashtag #PenceFence.
The incident was a last-minute public relations black eye that was utterly avoidable. It seemed that the American embassy in Israel, which set up the press arrangements in cooperation with the rabbinical authorities at the Wall had paid little attention to the grumbling of female journalists back in May, when U.S. President Donald Trump and his family visited the wall. During that visit, too, women and men, including journalists, were completely separated, the women restricted behind what is known as a “mechitza” - a barrier separating the sexes, intended to allow each gender to focus on praying undistracted.
During the Trump visit, however, the female reporters were caught off-guard by the set-up and their unhappiness was quickly overcome by the rapid-fire pace of breaking news and the larger story of a sitting U.S. president visiting the Wall for the first time. And Ivanka Trump shedding tears helped the female contingent forget that they were unable to get a good look at the president.
By the time the Pence's visit rolled around, local female reporters knew what to expect and prepared to push back when it happened - and they did.
The justification for keeping the genders separate during the Pence visit was a weak one. Unlike the Trumps, whose entourage included Orthodox Jews Jared Kushner and Ivanka, there was no concern of disturbing any Orthodox Jewish worshipers, since the entire site had been cleared for the VIP visitors. And while Karen and Mike Pence may be religious and used the time at the Wall to pray - there are no strictures on Evangelical Christians requiring them to pray only in the company of their own sex.
The only sensitivities under consideration were those of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who control the site, for whom the political message of keeping the sexes separate was surely important. The fact that the Western Wall is maintained in a manner that conforms with Orthodox Jewish law has been a bitter bone of contention for decades.
The Jewish feminist group “Women of the Wall,” together with the Reform and Conservative movements, have been locked in an ongoing political and legal fight over the matter with the Israeli ultra-Orthodox political parties and Orthodox-controlled state rabbinate.
Even so, the blowback on the decision to split up men and women would not have been so intense, if an effort had been made to help female journalists manage to visually follow Pence unhampered.
But, in keeping with the “separate but unequal” conditions in most Orthodox Jewish spaces, no thought-out accommodations had been made and the female reporters found themselves jammed behind a wall, a crowd of male journalists, with the additional obstruction of a canopy overhang.
The unhappy journalists began to complain on Twitter, and early on, adopted the hashtag #PenceFence - suggested by a male rabbi follower.
After becoming aware of the problem and the public relations damage, a last-minute fix was attempted by giving the female reporters chairs to improve their sightlines, and removing the canopy.
But by that time, the hashtag was already out of the bag, and the critical tweets began to flow and were echoed by followers in Israel and overseas.
The grumbling spread to include the male journalists on the scene, as the reporters expressed disappointment at the lack of solidarity they showed with their colleagues.
Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Noa Landau said her male counterparts should consider themselves part of the “shameful” situation in which the women were placed behind the men. “If you had refused to cover the story when your colleagues were being discriminated against,” she said, it might have been possible to arrange a setup where men and women were separate but equally able to see and cover the visit.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation commented on Israeli television's Channel 10 that it had made an effort to grant "maximum accessibility" to journalists of both sexes and said it "rejected any attempt to divert the discussion away from the important and emotional visit of the U.S. vice president and his wife to the Western Wall."
Rachel Azaria, a Knesset member for the Kulanu Party and an Orthodox Jewish feminist, pointed out that in the past she had introduced proposed legislation that attempted to address such situations. Azaria tweeted that just as in the clashes with Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements “somehow, every time anew the rabbi of the Western Wall manages to instigate unnecessary drama” and declared “in order to prevent embarrassment in the future” that “the time has come to set clear rules” in the Western Wall area.
“There are always wonderful solutions (to problems) that are in accordance with Jewish law (halacha) when people want them to be found,” she said, a sentiment to which the female journalists who had to go to war to do their job would surely say “Amen.”
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which maintains the Jewish holy site, issued a response statement defending the arrangements, saying that they were identical to the set-up during Trump's visit and declared that "men and women will never be allowed to mix in the [main] plaza, not today, not in the past and not in the future." Sources in the foundation told Haaretz that the media arrangements were put in place by the U.S. embassy and security officials. In the future, they noted, there would be room to explore creative solutions.
In response, a spokeswoman for Pence said that "Every effort was made to accommodate both female and male journalists while observing the rules in place at the Western Wall״
After Pence departed, a letter of protest was sent by the Israeli Women Journalists Forum to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, decrying “blatant gender discrimination” in the press arrangements at the Western Wall and called the Foundation’s reaction to the incident “infuriating.” The letter demanded a thorough investigation of the events, so that “lessons can be learned and applied to the next such visit.”