Women of the Wall Lose Again to the Haredi Establishment

A court may have ruled in the women's favor, but once again the government capitulated to an anti-democratic, intolerant minority in the name of unity.

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The only surprising element in the new government plan barring the Women of the Wall and other liberal and egalitarian groups from praying at the Western Wall's main plaza is that anyone was actually surprised. Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Sobel may have ruled earlier this year that the women be allowed to pray there according to their beliefs, but one court ruling doesn't bridge a psychological chasm, and there was no place for compromise or mutual respect to begin with.

Over the last couple of months the women were prevented from praying near the wall by thousands of young Haredi girls who were mobilized by the rabbis, then brought there for prayers early in the morning to block their much smaller group. The Haredi girls were backed up by hundreds more Haredi men, who would not have stood by idly if the police had tried to push through and create a space for women who wanted not only to pray individually, but also to hold a joint prayer with Torah reading. Of course, the police had no such intentions; they were immensely relieved at not having to once again protect the women from the slurs, verbal harassment and spitballs which have normally been their lot. And neither has the government shown any inclination to take on the most organized community in the country, which has no qualms about using its children to make a political point. What? Send in police to grapple with Haredi girls just so a group of religious feminists with American accents can pray once a month by the wall?

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (also minister of religious, Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs) is proud of his solution, an upgraded egalitarian prayer area at the southernmost corner of the Western Wall, with improved, 24/7 access, and he has received the blessings of the cabinet secretary (whose boss, the prime minister, has remained notably silent on the issue) and of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been sucked into this controversy against his will. Bennett's office put out a statement claiming his solution "aims to express the unity of the nation," while Sharansky congratulated him on a "gesture of goodwill."

Bennett, who rhapsodizes on his days in uniform killing Israel's enemies, is a bit less gung-ho when it comes to enforcing law and order at what to him is certainly the eternal beating heart of the Jewish people. But then, no one in particular was urging him to do so. Every religious services minister before him relinquished Israeli sovereignty over the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and he can't see why he has to be any different. He is the first minister, though, to build a 400-meter plaza for the convenience of anyone whom the Haredim won't allow to pray by the wall in their own fashion, and he now expects kudos for creating deluxe segregation.

Under the false banner of unity, the Israeli government once again has capitulated to an anti-democratic, intolerant minority that didn't even have to try very hard to achieve this result.

A victory for the ultra-Orthodox means, of course, an abject failure for the Women of the Wall and the liberal streams of Judaism. They will have to make do now with their segregated section of the wall, out of sight of the main prayer area, relegated to their inferior status.

How did this happen? This was supposed to be the government that would change the status-quo, freed from the dictates of the Haredi parties, and the courts were also on its side. So why did it lose out? Bennett likes to portray himself as a fearless fighter, and this government has already taken on the Haredim on the core issues of children's benefits and military service; surely the relatively minor issue of arrangements at the wall would have been child’s play for this leadership.

The answer is that it is simply not an issue that any of the ministers, not even the proudly secular stalwarts of Yesh Atid, feel strongly about. Neither is it a vote-getter. A few feminist MKs may have joined the women's prayer at the wall once, but this is way down on the public agenda. The broad Israeli public, including the great majority of the secular community, just doesn’t care. The movements fighting for egalitarian prayer have failed once again to shed their foreign image of strange American Jews and connect with mainstream Israelis.

This is their fault. They have barely tried to engage; even their Twitter account only tweets in English. Time and again they fall into the same trap, thinking that if the largest Jewish grassroots organizations in the world, the American Reform and Conservative movements, strongly support their cause, the Israeli government cannot fail to come around to their position. But the basic fact remains that Israeli prime ministers love the Jews of the world, are happy to accept their money and turn to them for assistance in the battle against "delegitimization," but when it comes to wielding any actual political influence, the most junior opposition backbencher has more chance of changing government policy.

The Western Wall will remain the fiefdom of the rabbinical establishment because their followers are the only ones prepared to come out in large numbers and fight. Liberal Israelis don't care about the wall and the Diaspora leadership doesn't have the stomach to apply any real pressure on the government. All the Women of the Wall have achieved for their protests is a more convenient and comfortable form of segregation, which is the maximum they were ever going to get.

Women of the Wall, June 9, 2013.Credit: Michal Fattal

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