Ever since the members of Women of the Wall began holding their monthly prayer service at Jerusalem’s Western Wall more than 30 years ago, they have been subject to harassment by ultra-Orthodox worshippers. As the ultra-Orthodox see it, the practices these progressive women embrace – singing while they pray, reading out loud from the Torah and wearing prayer shawls and tefillin – represent the epitome of religious heresy.
In that sense, what took place at the Jewish holy site two weeks ago was far from unusual. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox seminary girls had arrived at the Western Wall on organized buses just in time for the start of the Women of the Wall prayer service. Equipped with whistles to drown out the voices of the praying women, these religious seminary girls taunted and spat on them.
What made this prayer service different from others, however, were the World Zionist Organization flags they were waving. It showed that these ultra-Orthodox girls were acting with the tacit support of the representative body of the international Zionist movement.
Officially, they were supposed to be taking part in an event to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress. But that was merely a pretext, considering that it was organized by two departments in the WZO that are run by ultra-Orthodox movements – not especially known for their warm embrace of Zionism – and that it was specifically timed to coincide with the monthly Women of the Wall prayer service.
Essentially, this was a way for the ultra-Orthodox movement to retaliate against their liberal counterparts in the WZO who had organized a special egalitarian service at the Western Wall a day before to mark Israel’s Independence Day.
The two departments sponsoring the event that erupted into a violent protest against Women of the Wall were the World Shas Movement (Shas is an Israeli political party that represents ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Jews) and Eretz Hakodesh (“The Holy Land”), a relatively new American Haredi movement with close ties in Israel to United Torah Judaism, the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party. To pull it off, the WZO teamed up with Liba, an extremist right-wing group that is fiercely opposed to egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and often organizes mass events that target Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements.
The photos and video footage of WZO flags being waved at a protest against Women of the Wall – who have become a cause célèbre for many progressive Jews – sent shock waves through large swaths of the Jewish world. Among those issuing strong condemnations and demanding an investigation into the role of the WZO in the violence were the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Board of Deputies of British Jewry and the Zionist Federation of Australia.
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To understand how the WZO got dragged into a fight against pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall, a refresher course in events that took place two years ago at the World Zionist Congress – and specifically, the establishment of Eretz Hakodesh – is in order.
Eretz Hakodesh was founded for the explicit purpose of pushing back against the influence of the progressive Jewish movements and denominations in the so-called national institutions: the WZO, the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod (the fundraising arm of the Israel in Jewish communities around the world outside the United States, also known as United Israel Appeal) and the Jewish National Fund, which owns large chunks of land around Israel. Together, these organizations control huge budgets as well as many cushy jobs in the Jewish organizational world.
Eretz Hakodesh was founded by Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the former vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, which is affiliated with the Modern Orthodox movement in the U.S. The decision to launch a self-described Haredi party was seen as a sign of the changing winds within a community that has traditionally distanced itself from Zionism and the modern Jewish state – often to the point of outright hostility. Indeed, most Haredim were vehemently opposed the establishment of the State of Israel, out of a belief that Jewish sovereignty must wait for the coming of the Messiah.
But Lerner understood that the best way to offset the dominant influence of the progressive movements in the national institutions was to bring in ultra-Orthodox Jews. He set about doing that by getting huge numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews, mainly in the New York metropolitan area, to register and vote for Eretz Hakodesh in the most recent elections for the WZO.
Eretz Hakodesh, which made attacks against Reform Judaism the focus of its campaign, would eventually emerge as the big surprise of the Zionist Congress election: Coming virtually out of nowhere, it won enough votes to become the third-largest party. In doing so, it was able, for the first time in history, to tip the balance in the Zionist Congress in favor of the religious, right-wing bloc, helping it land key positions in the national institutions.
As Lerner has often said, the point was not just to bring out the vote, but also to influence the agenda of the Zionist movement – that is, to push it in a more rightward direction, both religiously and politically – while securing funding from the national institutions for Haredi causes.
His first step was to ensure that a close ally took over the WZO. And indeed, during the Zionist Congress held in October 2020, Yaakov Hagoel, the former head of World Likud, was appointed chairman of the WZO. World Likud, Eretz Hakodesh and World Shas operate as a joint faction in the Zionist Congress, and Eretz Hakodesh made Hagoel’s appointment one of its conditions for signing the coalition agreement that determined which parties and movements got which jobs in the national institutions.
Since Israel’s new government was formed nearly a year ago, Eretz Hakodesh has teamed up with forces on the religious right to fight plans to reinstate the Western Wall deal, which was supposed to have provided the non-Orthodox movements with a proper space for egalitarian prayer at the holy site. It has also engaged in an intensive lobbying campaign against a government plan that would wrest control over conversions from the rigidly Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
By a stroke of luck, as it were, Eretz Hakodesh has, in the process, obtained a key foothold in the Jewish Agency. When Isaac Herzog left the Jewish Agency last summer to assume his new role as Israel’s president, the board of governors decided that Hagoel would fill in as executive chairman until a fulltime replacement was found. By now, he has been filling in for nearly a year because the committee tasked with finding a new leader for the Jewish Agency has failed to reach agreement on any candidate. Coincidentally or not, Hagoel heads that committee.
Jewish world leaders might have been more forgiving about the violence that broke out at the Western Wall two weeks ago were it not for the dual roles that Hagoel fills. While the WZO is a bona fide political organization, staffed by representatives of the parties and movements that are part of the Zionist Congress, that is not the case with the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish Agency is meant to be a nonpartisan organization that serves the entire Jewish people. Indeed, it was no coincidence that the Jewish Agency, under the stewardship of Natan Sharansky, drafted the Western Wall deal. The Jewish Agency gets a large share of its funding from the Jewish Federations of North America, which, in turn, get a large share of their support from members of the non-Orthodox movements.
Hagoel is effectively operating in a conflict of interests because of his dual roles. At the WZO, he is beholden to the ultra-Orthodox factions because they made sure that he got the job of chairman. He could not say no, then, when they proposed holding their special event at the Western Wall, even when it was clear to many that it could end badly. And as a result, he has implicated the Jewish Agency – if only by association, because of his dual roles – in attacks against a group of women whose cause it had championed for many years. As a matter of policy, the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency refuses to answer any questions about his position on the Western Wall deal.
The conflict created by Hagoel’s dual roles was most obvious last week, when the Jewish Agency issued a statement fiercely condemning the violence at the Western Wall and raising questions about the WZO’s role in it. Hagoel, the WZO chairman, had no choice but to sign it.
But what transpired at the Jewish holy site two weeks ago was more than just a battle over how women should pray. It was a battle over who controls of the Zionist movement and its institutions – and who controls religious affairs in the state created by the Zionist movement. In this battle, the ultra-Orthodox are now saying loud and clear: We are the fastest-growing community in the Jewish world, and we intend to use our numbers to our advantage to fight the threat of liberalism and get Israel more aligned with our values.