Opinion |

Jews Should Have the Right to Worship Freely. But Not in Today's Jerusalem

If you equate Women of the Wall's decades-long fight for the right to pray at the Western Wall, with a Torah scroll and without fear of violence, to Jews praying openly on the Temple Mount, then there's just one issue you may have missed

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Women of the Wall conduct a Rosh Hodesh prayer serve at the western Wall, using a Torah scroll brought in by MK Gilad Kariv using his parliamentary immunity from being searched
Women of the Wall conduct a Rosh Hodesh prayer serve at the western Wall, using a Torah scroll brought in by MK Gilad Kariv using his parliamentary immunity from being searchedCredit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Thursday morning, Knesset member Meir Porush walked in to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee room and began chanting, loudly, verses of the Psalms. When a steward asked him to leave, he refused and then sat down on the floor. The meeting was adjourned.

Porush’s protest had nothing to do with the meeting’s agenda, which was about the proposed Regulation Law. He was protesting the committee chair, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who a short while earlier had been at the Western Wall with a Torah scroll.

Apparently, there’s a rule that only Torah scrolls which are the official property of the government authority that manages the Western Wall site are to be used in prayers there. I’m not sure that rule has any legal standing, but what I do know for certain that over the years I’ve seen various groups of people arriving at the wall, carrying their own scrolls.

The reason such a rule exists is that it can be enforced once a month when the Women of the Wall come to pray together each Rosh Hodesh (the start of a new month in the Hebrew calendar). There are no arks and no Torah scrolls in the women’s section, so to hold a full Rosh Hodesh service, as they have been fighting for decades to do, they need a scroll of their own. But the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who rules the Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, has placed orderlies at the entrance to prevent them from bringing their own scroll in.

MK Gilad Kariv: We will continue to defend the rights of Women of the Wall

In the last six months, since becoming a Knesset member, Kariv has been using his parliamentary immunity, which prevents the Kotel orderlies from blocking him, to bring in a Torah and hand it over the fence to the Women of the Wall.

This is, of course, a ridiculous state of affairs. The Israeli government is allowing the most reactionary of elements in Judaism to rule what should be a place open for prayer of all types of Jews, even those who believe that women can hold prayers of their own without having to peek through a fence and try to hear what the men are saying. But that’s where things are.

MK Meir Porush reads Psalms in a meeting of the Knesset's Constitutional Committee as a protest against the assistance given by its chair, MK Gilad Kariv, to the Women of the Wall that morningCredit: Noam Moskowitz/DV

Back to the Knesset, and Porush, who has long ago distinguished himself as one of the most uncouth Haredi representatives there, announced that every time Kariv "desecrates the Kotel, I won’t allow him to hold committee meetings." So, basically, in order to uphold an undemocratic situation at the Western Wall, Porush is planning to disrupt democracy in the Knesset as well.

All this is just another depressing and rather predictable round in the attempts of Jewish fundamentalists to delegitimize other types of Jews. But what was interesting, to me at least, was to see the response on social media from some right-wing and religious pundits, including a Haaretz columnist, who immediately connected the Women of the Wall's struggle to the ongoing campaign of Jews to pray openly on the Temple Mount.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard such a comparison. Some may say it’s a strawman argument, but I don’t think it is. And I’ve got a feeling that we will be hearing much more of it in the not too distant future.

The fundamental democratic right to freedom of worship isn’t just for the kind of worship we tend to agree with, but also, and especially, the worship we disagree with.

We decry the violent bigotry of fundamentalist Jews against women and non-Orthodox Jews who want to pray at the Western Wall and turn a blind eye towards Muslims opposing Jews praying on Temple MountCredit: Emil Salman

There is a valid freedom of worship argument in favor of allowing Jews to openly pray on Temple Mount, as long as it isn’t infringing on the rights of Muslims at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and simply dismissing it won’t wash much longer. It doesn’t matter that the Jews who want to pray there are mainly fundamentalist and would be happy to see the mosques erased from the Mount. The fact that fundamentalists would like to deny the rest of us our freedom of religion doesn’t automatically mean they lose theirs.

I also think that we, as in 'we in the liberal media,' tend to forget too easily that in the case of the Temple Mount, the side that is denying freedom of worship there, often violently, is the Muslim side (most of the time with the backing of the Israeli police).

We decry the violence and bigotry of fundamentalist Jews against women and non-Orthodox Jews who want to pray at the Western Wall and turn a blind eye towards Muslims who oppose Jews praying on Temple Mount in much the same way and with very similar language, accusing them of "defiling Al Aqsa."

So why not support Jews offering open prayers on the Temple Mount?

I don’t think we should support them, though I think they should be allowed in principle under freedom of worship. But my reason for not supporting it isn’t the standard one used by the Israeli government ever since Israel captured the Temple Mount from the Jordanians in 1967 – that changing the arrangements there are a major security risk. I don’t accept that when the security risk comes from Jewish fundamentalists, and we shouldn’t accept it when it comes from the Muslim side.

Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

The reason we shouldn’t allow open Jewish prayer on Temple Mount, for now, is that Jerusalem is not a free city with equal rights for all its residents. And the deprivation of the freedom of worship for Jews on Temple Mount is the least of it.

Today’s Jerusalem is a city in which entire neighborhoods are no-go areas for women who don’t cover up their bodies according to the edicts of Haredi rabbis. In those neighborhoods, children are not protected by police and the social services. And that’s just on the Jewish side.

In today’s Jerusalem, a third of the residents, Palestinians, do not have full Israeli citizenship, and even those who do, lack access to municipal resources, public housing and land. By law, a Palestinian Jerusalemite cannot lay claim to property once owned by their ancestors in western Jerusalem, while Israelis can and do claim property once owned by Jews in the east. These are just some of the starkest angles.

A Palestinian woman shouts at an Israeli policeman in the Old City of Jerusalem after Israel temporarily closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compoundCredit: AP

We are so far from achieving even a semblance of equality and freedom in most parts of Jerusalem that something so tiny as a Knesset member using his parliamentary privilege to smuggle a Torah scroll to the Western Wall seems such an achievement to one side and a terrible desecration to the other.

In such an environment, there has to be a sense of priority as to which freedoms we choose to fight for and when. And when a third of Jerusalem’s residents lack such basic rights, then choosing to fight for equality and freedom in the one and only space in the city where Palestinians currently enjoy more rights is rank hypocrisy.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis hold sway over wide swathes of the city, from the Western Wall to City Hall, which in principle is supposed to serve all residents, but is instead run by a tame accountant brought in from Givatayim to serve Haredi interests.

Fighting for a tiny foothold for progressive Jews at the Wall must take precedence over freedom of worship for Jews in the only part of the city where Palestinians still feel they have any ownership.

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