Arresting Women Praying at the Wall Is Not a Matter of Faith but of Power and Politics

What kind of Jewish state we have built when women worshipers at the Western Wall face spitting, cursing and arrests? The ongoing breach of human rights in Israel, especially for Jewish women, demands a clear response by Israel's political leadership.

Once again, we face horrific images of Israeli police arresting Jewish women at the Western Wall for the unspeakable crime of wearing a tallit as they prayed in the women’s section.  Incarcerated and humiliated, these brave women are cuffed and thrown behind bars, because they dared to pray according to Jewish tradition.  Pressing Israel’s police into the service of gender suppression is of course outrageous.  Yet, perhaps the most appalling part of the travesty is the deafening silence from the Netanyahu government that again shows it would rather tolerate flagrant human rights abuse than rock the boat it shares with the Haredi political establishment.

Yesterday's Haaretz headlines reported that plans are now in place to toughen enforcement against women who would wish to pray on Rosh Hodesh at the Western Wall.  Not only will tallit and tzitzit not be tolerated, but now also siddurim (traditional prayer books) are to be prohibited.  Rather than devote more resources to the growing vandalism and violence of the religious right or Israel’s pernicious organized crime, Israel’s police would rather work harder to ensure that Jewish women not be able to pray in their religion’s most venerated site.

The policies imposed by the police at the Western Wall of course have nothing to do with faith and prayer.  They are about power and subjugation. After all, there is nothing more Jewish than women’s praying with a tallit – a practice approved by every major halachic authority from Rashi and Rambam to modern-day sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.  For those of us who have watched the Western Wall slowly but surely degenerate from a triumphant symbol of national regeneration to an oppressive ultra-orthodox synagogue, the trauma is profound.

My daughter until recently was chairman of NOAM, the Masorti Youth Movement (the Israeli USY) and she regularly attended the gatherings at the Wall to welcome in the new month.  As anyone who has tried to instill a healthy Jewish identity in an Israeli child amidst the superficial and polarized dynamics of secular Israel knows, getting an adolescent excited about Judaism here is no easy task.  Without the Conservative and Reform communities and their youth movements, it would be practically impossible.   But what lesson in Judaism did she receive?  To see her being spat on and cursed in unrepeatable forms by ultra-orthodox onlookers as she walked alongside the Torah, to watch the police harass her for the chutzpah of wearing a tallit and singing Biblical psalms out loud - leads one to wonder what kind of Jewish state we have built.  Even worse, one wonders where we are heading.

There are cynics who claim that the Women of the Wall are intentionally provocative and only seek media attention. Were this an isolated example of ultra-orthodox efforts to remove women from the public realm – one might be willing to tolerate an argument with a view that blames the victim and accepts a Taliban religious status quo. Yet, the ongoing breach of human rights in Israel, especially for Jewish women, has become so severe it requires zero tolerance for rationalizing.  It’s a crisis that demands a clear response by this country’s political leadership.

The increasingly chauvinistic approach of Israeli Orthodox youth movements is part of the problem.  Taking a year off before her military service my daughter worked as a part-time teacher and full-time social worker in an underprivileged Jerusalem neighborhood last year.  The community center asked her to organize the neighborhood ceremony for Yom HaShoah – to commemorate our loss in the Holocaust.  She prepared a creative program of readings, poetry and songs.

Imagine her indignation when she was informed the day before the event that her program would have to be scrapped because it involved junior high school girls singing.  The explanation provided: the city’s community center wanted all the local youth movements to attend and the Orthodox Bnei Akiva group refused to come if even young girls would openly sing on the stage.

As Israeli fundamentalism becomes increasingly accepted and women slowly but surely are pushed out of the public arena, it is well to ask why this distressing trend is not part of the present election campaign. Surely political leaders of the sane majority understand that fundamental rights of women across the country are increasingly coming under attack.  And yet, with the exception of Tzipi Livni, who openly defines herself “Masorti” - Conservative (rather than secular) - it seems that no political leader seems to really care about religious pluralism.  The Labor party’s Shelly Yacimovich’s so-called feminist agenda is reined in when it involves annoying the ultra-orthodox establishment.
 
It is time that all the political parties make some clear demands with regards to the upcoming coalitional negotiations that are only a month away.  Any future Israeli government needs to grant formal recognition to the Reform and Conservative youth movements that - unlike other groups - are still denied public funding.  Support for synagogues among all religious streams should be equal.  The Western Wall should be taken away from ultra-orthodox management and run by the National Parks Authority with a clear policy of tolerance for all Jewish observance.  An egalitarian area by the wall should be established so that all Jews can pray according to their conscience.  The orthodox monopoly on marriage and conversion needs to be cancelled. The list is a long one.

Sadly, the prevailing feeling in Yeish Atid, Labor and even Meretz  - not to mention parties on the right - is that the Israeli public doesn’t really care about these issues.  That reducing housing prices and controlling vegetable markups are more compelling to local voters than guaranteeing freedom of religious expression in the Jewish state.  Let’s hope that they are wrong.

Our national anthem “Hatikva”, The Hope, ends with the sentence: “To be a free nation in our own land.”  Most Israelis at age 18 spend the best years of their life defending that “hope”.  Those of us in Israel who care about the quality of Jewish life and perpetuation of our rich Jewish tradition and heritage in a non-Orthodox framework must do our part at the ballot box.

Alon Tal is Professor of Desert Ecology at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, gabbai of the Shalhevet Maccabim Masorti synagogue and candidate for Knesset for the Hatnuah party.

Emil Salman